Out of Nowhere – Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Summer Vacation 2020 – The “Are We There Yet Chronicles?”

Until I started planning for a Colorado vacation, I had never heard of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Once our vacation route was calculated and our reservations made, I saw pictures and posts about the lesser known national park everywhere I looked. It seemed like every week, I got one more glimpse of the sights the park had in store for us and I couldn’t wait to finally see the third deepest canyon in the US.

I made reservations for three nights at Crawford State Park, which is less than 20 minutes from the North Rim Visitor Center (reachable by only a dirt road), but nearly 70 miles from the South Rim Visitor Center. Thanks to COVID-19, the South Rim Visitor Center was the only one open, and according to multiple sources, that was the visitor center that people should visit if they only have a single day planned in the park, so I guess we were lucky it was open.

The drive into the park includes a significant increase in elevation (you are climbing to the rim of a canyon), and before you get to the ranger-monitored entrance gate, it appears that you are just in the desert. Then you reach the first overlook at Tomichi Point.

It is stunning.

Pictures didn’t do the canyon justice, and we were just at the beginning.

Because the visitor center parking lot was full, we parked in the Tomichi Point parking lot and walked the short distance between the two points along the Rim Rock Trail, which truly took us along part of the rim.

When we got to the visitor center, the park rangers were set up outside with information, the passport book stamp, and they had just opened the gift shop with limited offerings in the back of the visitor center. The kids picked up their Junior Ranger books, we stamped our books (this time they had the actual dated stamps available), and we stood in line so that our family could visit the gift shop together (they were just allowing one group at a time to peruse the small selection available for the time being).

Then we got a good look at Gunnison Point, the overlook directly behind the visitor center.

On the South Rim there are only a small number of trails and several mini trails (all less than 0.5 miles one way for each of the overlooks) that give visitors a good look at the canyon. The Oak Flat Trail is a two-mile trail that starts at the South Rim Visitor Center and takes hikers as far into the canyon as visitors are allowed to go without a permit (which is required for anyone hiking down to the canyon floor). At first it didn’t look too terrible, but then the trail kept descending into the canyon. We quickly realized that the deeper we went into the canyon the more climbing we would have to do to get out.

I was willing to turn around to appease my crew. Our daughter, who has recently decided that she loves hiking in addition to climbing, insisted that she be allowed to continue.

Eventually we all kept following her.

The hike was beautiful but parts of it lived up to the “difficult” rating in the trail guide, leaving all of us a little breathless.

It was the last “real” trail the rest of the group was willing to do for the remainder of the day.

We drove the rest of the seven-mile stretch through the South Rim, stopping at the majority of the overlooks; eventually Jeff and I were the only ones willing to complete the short hikes to the overlooks. We forced the kids to come with us on the last stop at the Painted Wall and then headed out towards the exit, making a stop through the campground so that we could check out what we were missing by not camping in the national park.

While we didn’t take advantage of the close proximity of our campsite to the North Rim, we feel like we got a solid day in the national park. If you are not choosing to hike down into the canyon, it is a park that can easily be seen in one day, two if you choose to do both rims. The campground is really nice and set up for everything from tents to larger travel trailers like ours, which is not something that you can say for many national parks’ campgrounds. There is electric and even water for some of the sites, so if you want to stay close to the canyon, it’s worth checking out.

The canyon is stunning and well worth the visit if you are in western Colorado. Just be sure to pack plenty of water before you take a hike. You’re going to need it.

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