North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison Nat’l Park long on hikes and vistas
At the risk of treading on the toes of colleague Bill Haggerty, who ostensibly writes a hiking column for The Daily Sentinel, but has been known to venture far astray from that topic, a couple of hikers spent a day on the high side of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The high side, of course, being the North Rim, which is higher than the South Rim if: You hold the map properly oriented, where north is up, south is down; and you take a few technical liberties.
While each side has its ups and downs, the North Rim’s Green Mountain Trail tops out at 8,563 feet, a few hundred feet higher than the South Rim’s High Point at 8,289 feet.
Not statistically relevant, as math majors might aver, but either way, unless you’re a bird, it’s a long way from one side to the other.
“We sometimes get asked how to get over the other side,” said park ranger John Clark, waiting late Sunday at the North Rim ranger station for some climbers to return from their day’s outing into the inner gorge.
“I tell them it’s a long drive and there’s no shortcut,” he said.
Clark, in his third season at the park, should know. He spends a few days each week on the North Rim and the rest of his time across the river, working the South Rim campgrounds and facilities.
His living quarters are near the campground at the bottom of the steep East Portal Road, which makes for pretty good fishing in the Gunnison River a few feet outside his door.
“Yeah, I don’t have to go very far for great fishing,” he said.
That is if he sticks with the East Portal; otherwise, it’s a long way to the water.
There are only three official trails from the North Rim to the river 1,800 below, which you can see between your toes from various points along the rim.
These trails are official in the sense that the Park Service recognizes the routes and offers tips on how to find the trail heads.
There are Long Draw, Slide Draw and SOB Draw, which stands for exactly what you think it stands for.
SOB might be the best-known, not only for its access close to the ranger station and its colorful and apt name, but because it’s the only one of the three that doesn’t demand too much side-stepping down steep scree or edging along narrow shelves.
Still, there’s plenty to keep your attention.
Precipitously steep, loose rock, knee-bruising boulders, lots of sun exposure, and poison ivy by the trainload.
Did I mention poison ivy?
You can’t go anywhere along the river without encountering la hiedra venonosa, as signs continually warn you.
Oh, that and watch for garrapotas, a Spanish word I couldn’t identify until I saw one of the little buggers crawling on my sleeve.
The cool spring weather so far has kept the tick population at bay but you can count on Memorial Day being the start of the tourist and the tick seasons.
But that’s the bad side, short as it is.
Mid-spring finds the North Rim quiet, with wildflowers aplenty and only two names on the inner-canyon sign-out board at the ranger station.
The campgrounds are ready and the few topside trails, including the North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point and Green Mountain, were about deserted.
Clark said it’s still too early for most rock climbers and the rainy weather of the past week is keeping other visitors at home.
Still, three hikers had signed out for SOB Draw, headed for the river and the six campsites there.
“I try to get down (to the river) a couple times a week if I can,” said Clark.
Park rangers regularly make the trip down and back, watching for illicit campfires and checking on hikers with no other means of communicating with the outside world.
Campfires might not be much of a problem later this month, if current high water warnings come to pass.
“We’re telling everyone going into the canyon to be aware of the high water from the runoff,” said Clark, hoisting a poster boldly emblazoned with the message “High Water Warning.”
The Gunnison River, which Monday was running at 2,560 cubic feet per second through the park, is forecast to reach 6,800 cfs during the peak flow sometime in early June.
One cfs is equal to about 7.5 gallons of water flowing past a given point every second. That means 6,800 cfs is roughly equally to 51,000 gallons a second.
Which also means most of the campsites along the river will be under water, along with any campers down there at the time.
Pre-dam flows have been estimated at up to 12,000 cfs, which answers the question why the canyon (2,772 feet at Warner Point) is so narrow and steep.
The North Rim roads are open, there are plenty of campsites, and if you’re 62 or older, the Park Service offers a lifetime all-parks pass for $10.
A mile or so to the east of the ranger station, with lightning crashing overhead in clouds the color of tarnished pewter, a trio of visitors were hanging over the railing at the Kneeling Camel overlook.
“It’s awesome,” was all they could say.
We couldn’t agree more.