Although we spent the majority of our weekend trip to Ouray at the Ice Park, we did take a few hours on the way back to Fort Collins for a side trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We’d heard great things and had also traveled through on the California Zephyr several years ago. We’re planning a more extended trip to this region this summer, so we took advantage of the chance to do a bit of scouting.
In the winter, scenic options via automobile are limited as the road along the rim closes at the Visitor Center, but there are still 2 overlooks open and from the overlook at the Visitor Center you can see The Painted Wall which is the highest cliff in Colorado, rising 2250 feet, from the river to the canyon rim (that’s 1000 feet taller than the Empire State Building). Travelling east on US 50 from Montrose, it was only a 6 mile detour – and in the winter entrance is free (the normal fee is $15). Besides, if you have some time to spend, there are other ways to explore the canyon in the winter if you are willing to do it on foot. Since South Rim Road is closed to car traffic and remains unplowed in the winter, it becomes a perfect cross-country trail with amazing views. With snowshoes you can follow the road as well, or there are several additional trail options. There are even some guided trips, the ranger we talked to told us about a recent full moon snowshoe that sounded like a visit to a picturesque wonderland.
What we were most interested in on this trip, besides a view of the impressive canyon, was camping options for this summer. When we inquired about the necessity of reservations we were surprised to learn that the campgrounds rarely fill except on holidays. The South Rim Campground, near the Visitor Center is the largest with 103 small tightly-spaced sites. While the North Rim Campground is more remote and quieter with only 13 sites and some beautiful canyon views just a short walk away. However, if you are driving there from the Visitor Center on the South Rim, it will take you 2-3 hours to drive from one side to the other.
The ranger we spoke with emphasized that the way to really experience the canyon is from the bottom. There is apparently one campground (which he didn’t mention, but we learned about later), called the East Portal Campground with 15 sites, (mostly tent walk-in sites) reached by winding 5.5 miles on a steep, but paved road to the canyon bottom. (Although reached through Black Canyon NP, it is technically in the Curecanti National Recreation Area.) Just a note that in their book Colorado Campgrounds: The 100 Best And All the Rest, Gil Folsom and Bill Bonebrake list East Portal as one of the hundred best, and lump the North & South Rim Campgrounds into the “all the rest” category.
In addition to the “official campground” options, we learned about a few backcountry options for those interested in a little more adventure. There are several routes from both the North & South Rims with primitive campsites at the bottom. The route that was recommended for a first-timer was the Gunnison Route, departing from the Visitor Center. I anticipate it is no walk in the park – it’s a 1 mile descent of 1800 vertical feet that includes an 80 foot chain about 1/3 of the way down to help navigate the steep terrain. At the bottom we were told there is a pit toilet and 3 campsites. We’ll probably be able to give you more first-hand info about this route come September.
In the meantime, if you are in the neighborhood, you should not miss the opportunity to enjoy the canyon views.