Monday, May 26, 2008

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: South Rim

Drive Length: 7 miles
Number of Overlooks: 12

Close up of the Indian-like petroglyph on the Painted Wall

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of those must sees in Colorado. The visit will not burn many calories but the views will remind you of just how insignificant the human life span is. The fast flowing Gunnison River has, over the span of 2 million years, gouged out a watercourse that is, at its’ deepest, 2,772 feet deep. Standing at the edge of the chasm is a life affirming experience. Life affirming that is if you grip the handrail until your knuckles turn white. Just looking down made me weak in the knees. Glancing across to the other side resulted in a tingling behind the sternum that surely heralded a heart attack.

The South Rim is different from the North, which I shall describe in a separate post. If you only have one day to spend, go for the North Rim. The views are far more spectacular and the drive is amazing in itself. The river views from the south rim are limited and the number of stops far more numerous. There are several lookouts that require a 700-yard walk, which is a blessing after sitting in the car for so long.

For those of you who have not visited the area since it became a National Nark, you will notice a lot of changes. There is a new visitor’s center, plentiful bathrooms, and heavy wood barriers on all but one of the lookouts. While you may wish to argue that the area should have remained a National Monument, you cannot argue with the jaw dropping wonderment you receive when coming face to face with the unyielding power of water and time. If only we could take such simple wisdom into our personal lives. It really only takes persistence to erode the most formidable obstacle. Of course, having a few million years doesn’t hurt either.

On this trip, the Gunnison River was flowing at over 7,000 cubic feet per minute. Looking down into the gorge with a telephoto lens I could see the chaotic confluence of rock, wood, and foam. The flow rate is magnified by the angle of decent, which is 96 feet per mile. As dramatic as this rate sounds, the flow through the canyon is significantly reduced from its heyday before the upstream damns regulated its flow.

Close up of the river bottom

Allow yourself 3-4 hours to get into the park from Hwy 347 and to see the South Rim, longer if, like I, you forget your camera battery and have to drive all the way back to Montrose to get it!
There is no easy way to get from the south rim to the north rim, so plan on another day to see and explore that side. There are short 1-2 mile hiking trails in the park, but since we had dragged our dogs along, we limited our activities to the overlooks themselves. I talked to a fellow tourist from Longmont Colorado who said that the view from the end of the Warner Point trail was worth the effort.

It is hard to say what is the best time of year to visit the park. Summer can be ghastly hot, winter can be windy and cold, and spring can be unpredictable. This trip was made over Memorial Day weekend, and we were cold the first day and warm the next. That’s Colorado weather for you. On a side note, we stayed in Montrose, which has some decent hotels, but very little in the way of decent food. Bring a cooler full of deli selections, and you will be happier by far.

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