I know the Denali and Alaska blog posts piqued a lot of interest here in May and June, but while Justin was off climbing mountains, I was not just sitting on my butt in Colorado. And while this is a belated post, I still wanted to share. Today we celebrate ‘Murica and I sure do enjoy exploring our beautiful country.
My temporary stint as a writer-in-residence in Paonia introduced me to a new area to explore during a new season. Colorado’s winter and spring danced together for the first few weeks of May, keeping access to certain forest roads and trailheads closed. But a ridiculously rainy spring soon turned into an explosion of wildflowers at the lower elevations under bluebird days–perfect for hiking. Even though my regular adventure partner was unavailable, I found a new one! Liz, one of the other writer residents at Elsewhere, was happy to go exploring.
Like the Colorado I’ve come to love, this particular neck of the state is full of sharp, stunning contrasts, from the eternally snow-capped mountains to the flattop mesas to the deep canyons. The following three hikes did not disappoint on any of the above.
Dark Canyon Trail – Gunnison National Forest
Mileage: 4 miles out and back (The Dark Canyon Trail actually goes 13.8 miles, but we only did a short day hike)
Elevation Gain/Loss: The trailhead starts at roughly 6,800 feet and stays fairly flat for the first few miles. It isn’t until mile 5 or so where you start to gain 2,000 feet of elevation.
Description: The trail follows the narrow canyon along Anthracite Creek, which was roaring like an unleashed animal. The spring snowmelt also created an abundance of waterfalls thundering down from the cliffs above. I would say spring is the perfect time to explore this canyon, although I found 2 ticks that hitched a ride from the oak bushes, so be mindful!
Duncan Trail – Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area
Mileage: 3 miles out and back
Elevation Change/Gain: 840 feet – The trailhead starts at 6,500 feet.
The first thing I should mention is that Peach Valley Road to access the trailhead is primitive and would be best with a high-clearance vehicle. My AWD Baja did a-okay for first part, but we parked and walked the last mile to be safe.
The trail snakes down amongst juniper trees through the pink and mauve canyon layers to the Gunnison River. The last .5 miles is a bit of hand-over-foot scramble with multiple options for the “trail.” We went down one way, and up another.
One of Colorado’s nicknames is “the mother of rivers” because of the state’s 8,000 miles of rivers and streams. The Gunnison is the fifth largest tributary of the Colorado River.
Once again, a great choice for cooler spring temperatures as opposed to the summer heat. Plus, the rattlesnakes. We nearly stepped on a well-blended bugger if not for his warning rattle … I can only imagine how many are out during summer.
North Vista Trail – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Mileage: 7 miles out and back
Elevation Change/Gain: 850 feet – The trailhead starts at the North Rim Visitor Center at roughly 7,700 feet.
With the National Park Service celebrating its centennial, there’s bound to be bumper-to-bumper traffic in the most popular parks. But here’s one of those places where the crowds do not flock. With only an average of 180,000 visitors during the past 10 years, we didn’t even have to battle the masses for Memorial Day weekend.
We entered from the north rim of the park because it was closer to Paonia. The trail follows the rim of the canyon up to a high point on Green Mountain, with views playing peek-a-boo in between the bristlecone pine trees and wildflowers.
The Gunnison River appeared frothy in the Black Canyon, while in neighboring Gunnison Gorge it was more like a green ribbon. This is a very narrow section of the river, as this 2,500-foot canyon may be 1300 feet wide at the tip, it tapers to 40 feet at the bottom! Daylight only reaches the canyon floor 2,700 feet below for 33 minutes a day.
Another interesting observation we had in comparison to the Gunnison Gorge was that the rock faces did not have the same horizontal striation patterns. Instead, these walls were streaking downward, presumable from the snow and ice freezing and thawing.
All in all, I would say southwest Colorado, just like the rest of the state, has plenty to offer!