Look deep into Black Canyon’s magnificence (and check the weather)
I had no idea what to expect at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but it’s fair to say I didn’t envision having to run three-quarters of a mile in a hailstorm to avoid being struck by lightning.
I want to blame fellow features writer Rachel Sauer, but I can’t. We’re both at fault for assuming the clouds that followed us from Grand Junction to Warner Point were just fluff.
But, for the record, Rachel was> driving.
It gets better. We weren’t even supposed to be there.
For May, the fifth month of the features department’s Adventuring Out series, Rachel and I planned two different trips. Those plans, however, had to be postponed, leaving us scrambling for something to do.
Fortunately, western Colorado and eastern Utah are treasure troves of iconic experiences, so changing plans simply gave us an opportunity to go to a place I’ve wanted to see since moving to Grand Junction in 2007: Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
I can’t remember when I first saw photographs of the park, but I do remember thinking it impossible such an imposing canyon existed here. I loved it even in photographs.
I was told the best ways to experience the park were to either drive East Portal Road or to hike to the bottom of the canyon — albeit it on very strenuous trails.
For some, those are definitely good options. But Rachel and I don’t drive vehicles capable of being on East Portal Road, at least not safely, and I WAS NOT hiking to the bottom. (See: Garfield, Mount.)
Instead, we decided to experience Black Canyon of the Gunnison from the South Rim for its bathroom services, outlooks, short trails and proximity to Long John Silver’s in Montrose. (There were coupons in the May 1 newspaper.)
The park’s South Rim is an easy 90-minute drive from Grand Junction. We left about 9:30 a.m. on May 6, and arrived about 11 a.m.
I couldn’t believe it. I sat on some rocks near the edge of Tomichi Point in amazement. I heard the muffled sounds of the Gunnison River below and a bird’s screeches echoing off the canyon walls.
“The view here at Tomichi Point is just a sample of the spectacular scenery that lies ahead. ... Some of the most amazing views await you,” the outlook sign read.
Arguably the most amazing view from the South Rim was at Pulpit Rock. We stepped up on a rock ledge to gaze into the canyon’s depths. My eyes struggled to focus because it’s so deep with so many jagged rock edges. It’s like an optical illusion.
At our next stop, Chasm View, I leaned against the guardrail and listened to the sound of running river water. It’s one of my favorite sounds.
At this point, we decided to drive to High Point at the end of South Rim Road to avoid the other tourists seemingly stopping at every overlook with us. We figured we’d just stop at the remaining overlooks on the way out.
Off the High Point parking lot was a trail head for the 1.5-mile round-trip hike to Warner Point. It was a moderate hike, so we assumed it’d be a short, scenic way to see Black Canyon of the Gunnison from a different vantage point.
We never even looked at the sky.
Everything went fine for the first part of the hike. Other than the several dozen rock steps along the trail, the hike was pretty easy. It was scenic and well-marked.
Then, about 400 yards from Warner Point, it started to sleet.
At the entrance gate about an hour earlier, we had been given a magazine called “The Portal,” which had tips, maps and descriptions of the area. On page 7, it read: “Check weather conditions before starting any activity ... be aware that they can change quickly.”
Literally the moment we got to Warner Point, the sleet turned to hail. It started to thunder and a bolt of lighting cut through the sky. Oh. My. Gosh.
I said a prayer, and we made a run/speed walk for it.
These are the thoughts, in no particular order, that crossed my mind as Rachel and I retreated three-quarters of a mile to our car as hail pelted our heads and lightning periodically flashed across the sky.
■ Should I keep my distance from Rachel? She’s 6-1 and just compared herself to a lightning rod.
■ Am I confident in my CPR abilities if Rachel gets struck?
■ Am I confident in her CPR abilities if I get struck?
■ My shoes have rubber soles. Does that mean I’m grounded?
■ Wait. I’m soaked. Won’t I just get electrocuted?
■ I have dried bananas in my pocket. What if a bear smells those, sees us running and attacks me?
■ I know I’m not supposed to feed bears, but if I’m attacked I’m going to give it the bananas.
■ What dried fruit does Rachel have in her pockets?
■ This place really is gorgeous.
■ We can’t die. We are going to Long John Silver’s for lunch. WE HAVE COUPONS!
■ I have to pee.
■ I saw on “Planet Earth” where the snow leopard stalks prey in the snow to mute the sound. Will a mountain lion do the same? Is one stalking me right now?
■ How did this happen?
Eventually, we made it out, where the first thing we saw was a man sitting in his SUV staring at us. He was eating a sandwich.
At this point, we would like to remind everyone that those weather warnings are no joke. DO NOT IGNORE WEATHER WHEN RECREATING OUTSIDE.
We also would like to take this time to let everyone know the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is magnificent. But because we were soaking wet, hungry and a bit unsettled, we didn’t stop at any outlooks on the way out. I will go back.
Get going: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s South Rim is 15 miles east of Montrose on Colorado Highway 347 off U.S. Highway 50.
The North Rim is 11 miles south of Crawford via Colorado Highway 92 and the unpaved North Rim Road.
Those wishing to see both rims in one day should allow for at least two or more hours travel time between the rims. There is no bridge connecting the rims.
The park entrance fee is $15 per vehicle and is good for seven consecutive days.
For information, go to http://www.nps.gov/blca.