It was shortly after we bought our camper at the beginning of last year that I started telling people one of my goals was to visit all the national parks. Now mind you, it’s not something that just popped into my head. I’ve dreamed of seeing the national parks for as long as I can remember. Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite seem to be amazing places to go. One of my fondest memories as a young boy was going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my family. We had so much fun camping in the wilderness.
But what does that actually mean, “visit all the national parks”? How many parks are there? Where are they? Our daughter bought us a guide book to the national parks and as I started thumbing through it, I saw there were some parks I’ve never heard of. Less visited parks like Voyageurs National Park with 235,000 visitors, Congaree National Park with about 160,000, and North Cascade National Park with only 38,000 visitors in 2019. It may be a lofty goal to visit all the parks, but we intend to give it our best effort.
If you’ve been following our blog you know we gotten off to a good start. But there are still many parks left to explore. One of the national parks that was off my radar…until now…is Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado. Receiving 432,000 visitors in 2019, it’s a far cry from the the nearly 6 million visitors to the Grand Canyon. As we discovered on a recent visit, many people are missing out on an incredible park.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a smaller but equally impressive version of the Grand Canyon. It’s a deep narrow gorge carved by the Gunnison River revealing some of earth’s oldest metamorphic rocks. The sheer walls drastically drop over 2000 feet to the river below. At the narrowest section it is only 1100 feet wide at the rim and 40 feet wide at the base. The bottom of the canyon receives just minutes of sunlight each day. The shadows cast in the canyon cause the walls to appear black giving rise to the parks name.
The national park encompasses 14 miles of the 48 mile long canyon. An unpaved gravel road on the north rim provides access to five viewpoints and some trails. Services are limited and camping is primitive. Even though it is less than a quarter mile across from the south rim it takes 2 – 3 hours to drive from one side to the other.
The roads on the south rim are paved. It’s the busier more developed side of the park and is where the visitor center is located. It’s the side of the canyon we visited. We arrived at the visitor center around 10:00 a.m. Unfortunately though, due to COVID, their hours of operation are limited and they were closed at the time. We couldn’t get a souvenir magnet. There was a park ranger set up at a table outside the front entrance to answer questions and give out maps.
Behind the visitor center is a trail to Gunnison Point. There’s a short walk to an overlook. It’s where we got our first glimpse of this magnificent natural wonder. It certainly has the Wow Factor. You can read about it, you can see pictures of it, but there is no comparison to seeing for yourself how steep, deep, and narrow the canyon actually is. I’ve never see anything quite like it. It’s definitely unique.
We drove along the South Rim Road stopping at the pullouts. At each stop was a trail leading to viewpoints that show a little different prospective than the stop before. Some views showed a bend in the canyon where another view was down a long straight portion through the canyon. The river could be seen swiftly cascading across the rocks.
At Sunset View overlook we found a table near the canyon’s edge where we spread a tablecloth and set up a sun umbrella for a picnic. We enjoyed a sandwich and some cold watermelon as a number of people walked by and commented on the great location we had for our lunch and seemed surprised we had an umbrella. They must of been jealous.
Our longest hike for the day was an 1½ miles round trip to Warner Point. It’s located at the end of South Rim Road. There is not much parking and we had to circle around a few times before getting a spot. The trail had a lot of ups and downs and at one point became very rocky, but overall it wasn’t too difficult. The view at the end made it all worthwhile. I found myself drawn to a rock on the very edge of the cliff where I sat and gazed down into the canyon. It’s difficult to explain the feeling. I was hypnotized. It’s times like this I can feel how lucky I am to be here.
We passed by the popular Painted Wall Viewpoint on the way in because the parking area was full. It was still full on the way back out. With that and the desire to drive down to the river on East Portal Road we decided another day would be best.
Before leaving the park we drove through the campground to see what we were missing. The campground was fully booked so we couldn’t get in. Most of the sites were small and were designed for tent campers. There just wasn’t many sites big enough for our 25 feet camper anyway.
We did come back to see Painted Walls a few days later and I’m glad we did. With the most dramatic views in the park, it’s probably the most photographed area. The pinkish colored random streaks in the dark cliffs walls create an image adored by both amateur and serious photographers.
We stopped at the visitor center again to see if it was open. It was open this time, but only until 2:00 p.m. They had a policy of only allowing one person or family group in the store at a time. A long slow moving line of restless people stretched across the porch waiting their turn. Those that took too long inside had to walk past the jeers and sneers of those in line. We waited for nearly an hour to purchase a souvenir magnet. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t know.
The drive down East Portal Road was a thrilling experience with its hairpin turns and steep 16% grade. It’s a paved road, so as long as you take it slow and use low gear you’ll make it down just fine. Vehicles over 22 feet long are prohibited. Once at the bottom we found a level road parallel to the Gunnison River with places to pull off near the river. This section between Crystal Dam and the Gunnison Diversion Dam is a popular trout fishing location. A tent only campground is also located at the bottom of the canyon. We found a picnic table along the river bank and took the opportunity to enjoy another quiet picnic lunch in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Later that afternoon, we continued to explore the area outside the national park, driving to the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit located in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Located near the Morrow Pit Dam where the Cimarron Creek flows into the Gunnison River is an engine, coal tender, boxcar, and caboose on display atop an old remaining section of railroad trestle. It stands today as an example of a bygone era where trains served to open the west.
We checked another national park off our list. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park may be less visited compared to other national parks but it is definitely worth the visit. It’s proximity to Curecanti National Recreation Area makes this an ideal place to spend some time. Hopefully, we can come back sometime to explore more of the area and visit the north rim.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.