Four Corners Outdoor Adventures The Rockies The Southwest Travel: America's national parks Black Canyon of the Gunnison camping Ken Burns Mesa Verde national parks anniversary southwest Colorado
You’ve probably heard that 2016 marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the National Park Service. Often referred to as America’s Best Idea, there are more than four hundred parks within our beautiful country and I think fall is one of the best times to visit them. In celebration of this milestone, there’s one more entrance-free day left and I find it appropriate that this one takes place on Veteran’s Day, November 11.
To me, it feels like I’m living within a national park in my home of Telluride, Colorado. I believe that Ken Burns, renowned filmmaker of America’s National Park series and many other inspiring documentaries, feels similarly. Perhaps this is why he spends so much time in our little box canyon mountain town. I did an interview with him a while back on our national parks that is still very pertinent today. Do check it out here.
Even so, I love venturing out and exploring the real deal. Fortunately, we have a couple national parks in Colorado within about an hour-and-a-half drive of Telluride: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Mesa Verde National Park. (The latter is also a World Heritage Site.) I visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with my parents six years ago toward the end of a big southwest tour that also showcased Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. Click here to read Touring the Southwest with My Parents, which features those two world-renowned destinations. At the end of that trip, I also visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with them and I highlight this amazing national park in Part Four of a series of stories I did about rafting in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. After you read about this little-known national park, check out Rafting and Roughing it on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Part One, Part Two and Part Three–it was a big outdoor adventure that I hope to do again some day. You just might want to plan a similar trip there yourself.
Speaking of world famous sites, it always strikes me that at America’s National Parks I see an overwhelming number of foreigners. Sometimes I think they value what we have more than most of us. Possibly. In any event, I hope this story and the photos herein will prompt you to break out and savor what we are so blessed to behold within our nation’s borders. I also think it might be a great way to blow out some election overload!
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Only a handful of experiences in life—at least ones that occur over a forty-eight hour period—may be considered transformative. The below is part four of one of mine. My journey on the Gunnison River gripped me with so much passion and awe that I’ve chosen to share it with you in its unabbreviated version. I’ve posted this story in four parts. I hope you’ll be with me and enjoy it throughout. You can read all parts in (reverse) sequence in the category Outdoor Adventures.
From Smith Fork on, the waters flattened out some three miles to the take-out. The canyon opens wide to pink sandstone walls here, a gentle float that doesn’t require the wearing of life preservers or much attention paid toward the river’s movements. Now it was time for us all to just loll about on the raft. We looked back at Ryan in the gear boat, no longer worried that he’d make it through the turbulent waters without a hitch; he rowed along calmly just like us. By now we had all downshifted into supreme relax mode, the kind of lulling feeling you have after having gone through something fairly intense and completely stimulating.
Talk of showers was beginning by now although I believe it was Jen who initiated it first. I quietly scoffed at the idea of using a blow dryer. I had been transformed in less than forty-eight hours. My skin glowed with a golden, bronze-y tone and although I hadn’t bathed much, the river kept me feeling cool and fresh. I even forgot about my grey hairs and was actually beginning to enjoy “peeing in the woods.” But it was the canyon walls, the bobbing in the raft and the riverside meals I had enjoyed the most. I also had become very endeared to my fellow campers and guides and felt delighted that we had all shared such conviviality and affection toward each other in such an inspiring setting. Camping and rafting do bring you better in touch with nature and your fellow man. And certainly one of the best places to do it is in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.
I experienced the above adventure just over a year ago and wrote most of the story shortly thereafter. Steve, Glenn, Jen and I returned a month ago for a second time around. This time Jen’s slightly younger brother Andrew (who happens to work for Martha Stewart!), flew in from New York to join us. Ryan headed up the journey as lead guide. Rick had left Black Canyon Anglers during the year to start a new life in environmental work in the Pacific Northwest. Josh, another expert river runner and most affable guy, teamed up with Ryan as the second guide. Josh has been “riding rivers” for years in addition to working his day job as a realtor. We came to know Ryan better on this trip and enjoyed goofing around with him and Josh, both on the water and off: Although forever professional, both approached most of our doings with a more laid back attitude, setting the tone for a more relaxed trip overall. With the two of them, we even got into some kid-like shenanigans such as jumping off cliffs into the river, something that Rick surely would have discouraged.
Andrew complemented our cozy, already formed group very well. And in the end, it was he who furnished us with the best camping poop story of all. Indeed our fascination with the groover continued and this time around, we went so far as to ask the guys who’s job it was to take care of it upon return to the lodge. (Like all duties, they share that one with the same whoever-gets-to-it-first attitude that’s applied to the rest of the numerous river trip chores.)
So how was it for me second time around? Totally awesome, once again. I rarely do the same trip twice unless it’s to Paris or to ski in T-ride, but this one is truly super special. I didn’t feel the same sense of wonder I felt first time around since I was no longer a virgin rafter/camper on the Gunnison River. But it still felt extraordinary to me and this time I had the added sensation of “coming home.” It has definitely helped me to be less of a Parisian princess as well. This time I experienced less separation anxiety over my dry bag being tossed in the gear boat, but then again I got smart and brought a mini dry bag as a “purse.” (No one snickered about this either since most everyone asked me to hold something of theirs in my little ditty bag as we traveled along the river.) This time I had my hair colored shortly before the trip (hence, no need for mascara touch ups) but I did experience a big breakthrough in not looking at myself in a mirror at any time during the trip. I actually had forgotten my compact—but I’ll take kudos whenever possible.
Jen asked me halfway through this last trip if I was coming back next year, an almost inconceivable thought since I rarely do any travels twice, let alone three times. I’m thinking about it though since experiencing this stunningly beautiful remote wilderness location with the expertise of two top-notch guides and a fun group of fellow campers makes for a most memorable getaway. Next time though I’ll be sure to outfit myself with a good pair of river shoes (first time around it was sneakers, then this time Teva flip flops—what am I thinking?) Progress has been made though since this last time I hardly thought twice about an eventual scorpion in my tent and actually didn’t ponder the pygmy rattlesnake once. And peeing outside beneath the stars appeared almost romantic. Wow, maybe I should go again. Am I becoming more Rocky Mountain girl than Parisian sophisticate? Whoah, whoah, not so fast, my dear.
Black Canyon Anglers, 970-835-5050, BlackCanyonAnglers.com
River trips are typically conducted May through early October; float trips tend to be best from July on. Day trips are also possible.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 970-641-2337
This part of the Black Canyon, just outside of Montrose is the widest, tallest and perhaps the most awe-inspiring. (Experienced riders and rafters run the lower canyon in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area as we did.) Open year-round, the Visitor Center here is an excellent place to begin your visit to this relatively little-known National Park. Then drive the South Rim Road to various lookout points where you’ll find great places to hike and picnic. I’ll be writing more about the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in the not-too-distant future.
“Our surroundings were of the wildest possible description. The roar of the water…was constantly in our ears, and the walls of the canyon, towering half mile in height above us, were seemingly vertical. Occasionally a rock would fall from one side or the other, with a roar and crash, exploding like a ton of dynamite when it struck bottom, making us think our last day had come.”
Abraham Lincoln Fellow, 1901
In 1901 Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence floated the Gunnison River (named in honor of Captain John W. Gunnison who lead an expedition here in 1873-74, but bypassed the gorge in search of a river crossing). They traveled thirty-three miles on a rubber mattress in nine days and determined that construction of an irrigation tunnel was feasible. Despite a handful of installations, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has remained amazingly unspoiled today. A true gem of southwestern Colorado, a wonder of the United States.
Latest dispatch from Josh ten days after our last trip:
There was a tremendous storm that hit the Gunnison Gorge last Thursday. Several of the washes turned into torrents of water and boulders. Caddis Camp, where we stayed the night, is no longer a camping spot. Alll the sand was washed away and it is now a pile of debris and rocks. You have to respect mother nature!
Thank you to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park for the above image.
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Can’t decide whether you want to vacation in the Southwest or the mountains? How about choosing a place of lodging where you enjoy the spirit and landscapes of both? Check out Chipeta Sun Lodge & Spa, a lovely southwestern-inspired adobe retreat set within the majestic San Juan Mountains, just an hour from Telluride, Colorado. Situated in the charming little town of Ridgway (featured in John Wayne films such as “True Grit”), I often recommend Chipeta as an excellent base for visiting the many interesting sites and towns that pepper southwestern Colorado and southern Utah.
If you travel further into the mountains from Ridgway, you can easily explore the historic old mining towns of Telluride, Ouray and Silverton. If you head toward Montrose, you can hit the Ute Indian Museum, a well-worth-the-stop attraction that showcases one of Colorado’s most complete collections of Ute ceremonial and traditional artifacts. Just on the other side of Montrose, plan to spend at least a half day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a stunning and somewhat spooky site that provokes nearly as many oohs and aahs as the Grand Canyon. And within a two-hour drive you can find yourself amidst the striking red rock of Moab and other parts of southern Utah in addition to Arches National Park and Canyonlands.
Since there’s so much to visit in the area and most of the lodging at Chipeta includes condo-type units, you’ll likely want to check in here for a week. Plan at least a couple of relaxing rest days where you can stay put at this warm and welcoming lodge just to loll by the pool or enjoy a treatment in their spa.
Whether you’re staying at the lodge or just passing through, a stop at Chipeta’s Four Corners Cafe for dinner or drinks is a must. Here you’ll be enchanted by the striking vistas provided from the top-floor location of this casual restaurant and bar. Inside, the scene serves up heaps of southwestern charm within its desert rose-colored interior. As the sun sinks beneath the mountains, you’re bathed in pink light most evenings whether you’re seated inside or out.
Indeed this heartwarming lodge is aptly named. It’s called Chipeta, in honor of the lovely wife of Chief Ouray, head of the Ute Indians that once inhabited this land, a gentle woman that eventually became “queen” of both the whites and the Utes of the region. Embracing the rich diversity of this part of the country is what Chipeta, the lodge and the beloved Native American figure, are all about.
Chipeta Sun Lodge & Spa, Ridgway, Colorado, 800-633-5868, www.chipeta.com
July is a wonderful time to visit Chipeta Sun Lodge and its Four Corners Cafe, especially this year with such a rockin’ Ridgway Concert Series lineup. Free concerts take place every Thursday throughout the month from 6p.m. ‘til dark in Ridgway’s Town Park. What a great way to kick off the weekend!