A most extraordinary place, the Black Canyon National Park is a 48-mile narrow gash in the mountains that gives you butterflies in your stomach, no matter where your viewing point is. The rock that lines the narrow (less than 40 feet across in some places) canyon is at least 2 billion years old, composed of metamorphic schist, gneiss and pegmatite rocks. When the ancestral Ute tribes migrated through this territory, they found it too overwhelming to make it to the bottom or across — one feels the presence of spirits, both current and past, in the quiet canyon walls, the raging Gunnison River at the bottom, and the constant flow of wind currents and birds throughout the air.
The name Black Canyon comes from the dark shadows that haunt the canyon walls most hours of the day, and the deeply dark rock. You can imagine that peering into its 2,000’ depth (twice the height of the Empire State building) sometimes with only 40 feet from side to side, you don’t get much sun exposure, and the walls look like charcoal.
We hiked 5-6 short paths to the canyon rim on both the north and south sides, each time breathless at the vertiginous drop along the edge. Next door is the National Conservation Area, called Gunnison Gorge, where we took an enchanting hike along the Chukar Trail to the bottom of the canyon – after a grueling 7-mile downhill drive over extremely rugged terrain (top speed: 2 mph).
The afore-mentioned trail rapidly drops about 400 feet into the canyon bed, where we walked next to mind-bending geological formations along the canyon walls and marveled over the rocks that had dropped from on high. This is what we imagine slot canyon hiking to be, and wish we hadn’t been forced by the clock to turn back before we’d gotten our fill.
Loving (Y)Ouray and its mountains
The lovely town of Ouray, named after Chief Ouray of the Ute Tribe, is pronounced YOU-ray. It ranks right up there with Creede and Durango in terms of charm, personality, worthwhile hiking and beautiful nature. We came here to find challenging paths and a bit more warmth than what could be found in Silverton or Telluride, and it did not disappoint, even though the nights still get down to 30 degrees at the end of May.
Today we tackled Bear Creek Trail just southeast of town, hiked to the Grizzly Bear mine site and then halfway to the Yellow Jacket mine before snow turned us back (six miles total, over an 1800-foot elevation gain). Back in the 1900’s Grizzly Bear produced mostly gold and silver, but was also known to yield copper, zinc, bismuth, lead, barite and tungsten. It is awe-inspiring that the miners could transport their heavy ore production out of this sheer canyon without benefit of modern technology.
Bear Creek was the most technically challenging hike to date, as its first leg quickly climbs 700 feet over slate talus (large, slippery shards that have fallen onto the slopes from higher elevation), and the narrow trail crosses at least six places where water from snowmelt is cascading down the mountain. Hikers don’t get much reprieve from hard exertion until later down the path. Because we hike four-legged (trekking poles always along for weight distribution, upper body exercise and balance), we didn’t feel at risk. Our goats surely would feel at home here.
Only met nine people over the five hours we were on Bear Creek Trail. One is training to hike Mont Blanc later this summer, and four others are used to hiking 14ers in Colorado, so it made us feel in very fit company indeed to be accomplishing this route. Colorado native hikers are everywhere in the mountains, but there are thousands of paths for them to scatter over, and we have crossed paths with relatively few on this trip. It’s a privilege to enjoy the solitude. George and I are convinced that heaven smells like fir trees and snowmelt water!
Back to Archaeology in Farmington, NM
I failed to make reservations for Sunday and Monday night of Memorial Day weekend, naively thinking that we could do drop-ins at a couple of campgrounds close to Mesa Verde, our next National Park destination. Well, it didn’t happen because half of all Colorado natives are out here at the start of summer. Also, because SW Colorado is in for a bit of cold weather over these two nights, we decided to run across the border to New Mexico, where daytime temps will be in the 80s (versus low 60s in CO), and there were still campsites to be had.
This morning in NM was supposed to start at 5am, getting up to see the sun rise in the Bisti Badlands. That didn’t happen because we were too tired from the drive down here and from hiking nearly every day since before Alamosa (Great Sand Dunes). Good thing, too….Bisti is another indigenous cultural heritage site, this one on the Navajo reservation, where (just like every reservation we’ve been on) you have to really want to see the site badly and endure hard roads and a high degree of uncertainty about whether you’re going the right way or not. It would have been hell to find it in the darkness!
As it was, we arrived at 9-ish in the am and the parched desert landscape was already torrid. Probably a lot like the South Dakota badlands, which are notoriously like Hell’s back porch in the summer.
Hiked 1.5 miles into the badlands to see a variety of hoodoos and eerie, wind-carved shapes in the sandstone. There are no paths, you must guide yourself by compass and the sun. The landscape is so bereft of vegetation, you feel like you are in Death Valley. There is obviously a lot of desert life below the surface of the tiny arid plants in and around the washes, but it is one of the harshest landscapes we’ve ever seen. Could not stay nearly as long as we wanted (there is quite a bit of petrified wood here, but further along), because of the heat and concerns about sunstroke.
Instead, we headed to the so-called Aztec National Monument, in Aztec, NM. Early Spanish colonists/conquistadors thought the Puebloan ruins they found there were Aztec in origin, and they named everything thusly. Who listens to them today?? Why the National Park Service hasn’t renamed the monument by now escapes us. It is a lovely ancestral Puebloan site from 500 to 1200 AD, and a very large ruin, with over 500 rooms and numerous kivas. It’s in great shape, unlike some national parks and monuments that have been so starved for funds that they are falling down. We especially liked crawling through the doorways of 10 contiguous dwellings (presumably for a single clan), noting the skilled masonry and seeing how their living spaces were aligned with the path of the sunlight as it travels throughout the year.