Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

B Loop in the South Rim Campground – with electric hookups

Richard gets crazy ideas sometimes. Like you’d say, “No seriously, that’s a crazy idea.” When I take online personality tests, my profile always comes out as some version of: “The Helper.” So this dynamic plays out in sometimes unhealthy ways where I put a lot of mental and emotional effort into helping him do crazy things. A non “helper” person might smack him instead, or challenge his ideas with an “Oh Hell No” from time to time. We’re working on that.

Lunch stop on lovely Highway 114

Meanwhile, I can report that our drive from Great Sand Dunes up to Interstate 50 via Highway 114 through the Rio Grande National Forest was totally delightful. Once again, my Facebook brain trust came through with great information on that route. What was lacking was our understanding of the scope of the road closure on 50.

Regrouping at Pine Creek upon realizing, “Oh, you mean closed, closed.”

After meandering happily up 114, pleased with the gentleness of the grade and overall lack of traffic, as compared to going over Monarch Pass via 50 like we did before, we thought the hardest part of the travel day was over when we reached Gunnison. Our plan was to re-provision there and take care of some things that required cell service. Neither plan worked very well, due to severely limited bandwidth, both in the way of grocery store stocking, and in cell service. Richard got just enough service to get him frustrated with work and I found basically nothing on the shopping list. And in that mood, we headed on to the road closure at 50.

Waiting it out

We knew there was massive construction. Duh. We did see the signs. And we knew there was a detour recommended via 92. But then we left behind existing evidence and convinced ourselves that when the light up signs said “limited number of vehicles allowed through” that was essentially the same as all the other closures we’ve been through where you line up and wait for a pilot car to ferry you. No big deal. Google literally said it was a “5 minute delay” and taking the detour would have added hours, so we kept on going. Once we got stopped by the flag person, we realized that really they only let people through between certain hours of the day. So we pulled over, did a regroup, and calculated out specifically how much longer it would take to go all the way around via Highway 92 vs wait until 5:30. It was already 4:30, so we opted for the latter and went and got in line.

This is what you’d call major construction

There were already a dozen or so cars in front of us and many people had put out camping chairs to pass the wait. We hung out in Dory and had snacks, enjoying the fact we had a bathroom. Thankfully, it was not all that hot. By 5:45, the allotment of Eastbound cars, perhaps a hundred? had passed by us from the other direction and our pilot car lead the Westbound parade. As we descended the hairpin turns and followed the narrow canyon, it became clear why the whole dang thing needed to be shut down for most of the day. Tons of rocks were being blasted off the canyon walls and somehow shoved into huge boulder piles along the sides. I assume the eventual purpose is to widen the entire highway along that stretch and it is quite a thing to see something of that scope in process. Nevertheless, upon exiting the construction, it had been a long day and I was pooped. We got up to the campground not too long before sunset and collapsed.

Yes please, I’d like a permit to tumble to the bottom of this. I have to wait hours to get a permit to do that? No problem. You won’t come rescue me until the next day? Sounds great. Lots of people get lost on this? Super.

The next day was a fact finding mission and do-over shopping excursion down into Montrose. Both were far more successful. And here’s where we get to Richard having crazy ideas. Ever since the positive canyon hiking experience in Bryce, he has become interested in canyon hikes. And when I say “interested,” I mean pseudo obsessed. The North Rim hike only served to reinforce his new passion, so he had already done a lot of research about the canyon hikes here. I was already a solid “no thanks” on this one, even before the trail conditions were described to me. Over a mile of basically straight down, to the point you have to scramble on your butt and hold onto chains, only to then have to hoist yourself back up did not sound like something I should be doing, even with a healed foot. But he was set on it and went and sat in line for a couple hours at the visitor center in order to be among the first 15 people that would be issued a wilderness pass to do the hike the next day. He was thrilled to have been lucky number 13 in line and we prepped for his descent and (hopeful) ascent.

Successful journey all the way to the bottom! Well done!

He got an early start on the day, had enough food and water for the entire day and then some. He was super nervous about getting lost because he is terrible at directions and relies on me for that. His plan was to stop frequently, turn around, and take pictures, so that he could find his way back. The trail descriptions did state it was a common occurrence to get lost on this largely unmarked wilderness trail, so that added to his anxiety. After he left, I had a half day to kill so I drove all the way, about sixteen miles, back down into Montrose to update the blog and just have a look around town.

Just an easy stroll back to the top.

I got back up a little before 1pm, which was the tentative time we’d assigned when I could start wondering when he might be back. I wasn’t allowed to worry until 2 and wasn’t allowed to send rangers down after him until 3. Happily, just as I was driving out of the campground to go get service to try to text him, there he was, walking up the campground road. He was elated and thrilled to be alive and out of the canyon. He downloaded all the details and, to me, it sounded horrific. In his state of euphoria, he made it sound exciting. It wasn’t until a couple days later, and once the debilitating leg muscle cramps set in, that he started to see this as maybe not something he would want to ever, ever, do again. It was gruelingly steep, mostly following a rocky wash running down the canyon wall. He was on all fours much of the time. He said it was fun to reach the river at the bottom, but it was too cold and swift for swimming or cooling off. He paused there for a little while before beginning the scramble back up. He found another guy to do the ascent with, but that guy kept getting lost and Richard couldn’t look at his phone pictures the way he planned because he needed his hands to climb. Also, the reader glasses he needs in order to see his phone were too covered with sweat to use. The one strategy he used that worked was to name visual markers in the trail. Like he named something “brain rock” which he then recognized on the return and he knew to keep to the left there. When he finally got to the killer switchbacks at the top of the trail, that came as a relief. It’s now been four days after he did this and he is slowly regaining the ability to walk normally. He says it was the down that was the killer part more than the up. He is not so obsessed with being a canyon hiker now, at least not on that kind of trail, and he survived to learn the lesson, so that is something.

An unexpected old train just hanging out by the dam

As for the rest of our time in the park, we enjoyed taking an afternoon drive out to see the Gunnison River in a much, much easier way by going to the Mesa Creek Trailhead at Morrow Dam. There is a very small store at the turnoff where a guy looking like “Conspiracy Santa” sells strange things, but also Klondike Bars next to other frozen things Richard did not want to guess about. We followed the little trail along the river, slowly, and I noted how I too was able to get to the Gunnison River, but without going on the ridiculous Testosterone Torture Trail. The snark goes against the results of my personality test, but those things are probably BS anyway.

Dragons View – see the dragons?

The last day in the park we spent going up and down the national park road, stopping to go out to all the lookouts. This is about when Richard started not being able to walk normally. He can still ride his bike luckily, because different muscles I guess. He just can’t step off curbs anymore. To polish it off, we decided we’d earned a run back down to Montrose where there is a Baskin Robbins. Because my brain is always preparing me for possible future trauma, I ventured, “I hope it’s not closed.” Richard thought that was a laughably improbable thing to even have cross my mind. Guess what though. It was at least only mostly closed, but you could still get ice cream if you went through the Dunkin Donuts Drive Though. They were out of hot fudge. And chocolate sauce. Or strawberry sauce. But they had caramel. And it was delicious.

Unexpected cow.

It was a nice long stay, with some lessons learned in multiple categories. Just about every afternoon it rained. Sometimes it rained hard. Sometimes there were lightning fireworks shows. We never did get to see a ranger talk or a sunset. But we did see a ranger herd a wayward cow, so that seems a fair trade.

Total Miles: 226.3, 18.8 mpg. Site Loop B 15. Electric hookups. Water spigots in loop to fill water bottles or jerry cans, but no hose hookups. No service in campground. ATT can get 1-2 bars of LTE from Tomichi Lookout. Verizon can get 1-2 bars LTE from Rim Road on ridges that look down on Montrose. Occasional service at some of the other lookout points. No dump.

2 thoughts on “Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

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