Traversing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

After Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed to the Curecanti National Recreation Area and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  Taking highway 50 from the Boulder Area to Curecanti and Gunnison is a beautiful drive.  In 1965 the Park Service established Curecanti National Recreation Area, that would encompass all three reservoirs (Blue Mesa ReservoirMorrow Point Reservoir and Crystal Reservoir), as well as short sections of the upper Gunnison River.  It built campgrounds, marinas, lake access points while trying to protect, research and interpret the natural environment and local history.  The area really is a mecca for those who love to boat and fish.  If you are not a big boater or fisherman then there is not much to do here, as there are only a couple of hiking trails and none at Elk Creek Campground, which is the largest campground with over 160 sites, but for our purposes it served as a nice entry point to the nearby National Park. As of September, when we visited here are the campgrounds that are open and closed:

Elk Creek: OPEN, reservations highly recommended; limited self-registration sites available
Lake Fork: OPEN reservations required; same day reservations may be available
Stevens Creek: OPEN, reservations required
Ponderosa: OPEN – self registration – credit cards preferred

We started at the Elk Creek Campground, which has a few first come first serve spots on the reservoir.  You have to drive around and find them; the campground station is closed and you need to go to the visitor center.  They are not much help; they tell you either go on to reserve or drive around and if you find and open spot then come back to them and pay. There is no cell coverage at the campground and the first come and first serve sites change daily.  I asked, ‘can you help and tell us for tomorrow which sites are available?’  The park ranger said no and advised us to drive back to Gunnison and get internet access to find available spot on and then come back to them at the visitor center to purchase since you can’t make a same day purchase on website.  The last thing you really want to do is drive again after driving 100 miles.  WOW, is all I could think!  This day and age with technology this is how you manage a large campground?  But if you need RV electric hookups it is the only campground with hook-ups.  So we decided we would just stay one night and head off to the Black Canyons of the Gunnison National Park.   Our luck we also had a huge bachelorette party right next to us that blasted loud techno pop music part of the night out of their SUVs.  The campsite wasn’t bad but we prefer boondocking with a lot less people. 

The next day we headed out early, it was very tempting to blast a little AC/DC at 5:30am for the hungover revellers, but we didn’t.  We got into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison at 830am and went straight to the South Rim Campground.  We have found if you get to campgrounds between 830am-10am before the 11am checkout there is a good chance to get a spot in September.  We were pleasantly surprised to find there is a full loop that is first come first serve (why doesn’t every park do this?).  With the huge rain storm the night before there were several available camp spots, so we scored a great spot.  There is a wonderful hike from the campground to the visitor center that allows dogs and has an amazing view of the canyon.  Here is a link to the park map.  At the visitor center we signed up for the evening ranger talk- Symphony of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  It was an entertaining talk but geared much more towards kids, but it was nice to have ranger talk organized.  Most of the national parks we visited all talks were cancelled.  They did a good job sitting people 6 feet apart and everyone had masks on in the amphitheater. 

Day two we woke up early and took turns (someone had to watch our dog, AKA King Bode) from riding from South Rim Campground to High Point, which is a 20-mile round trip bike ride.  We checked out Pulpit Rock (at 2pm there is a ranger talk there), Cross Fissures View, Rock Point, Devil’s Lookout, Chasm View (1/3 mile hike), Painted Wall View, Cedar Point (2/3 mile hike), Dragon Point, Sunset View and then High Point which is 8289 feet.  At High Point you can do a hike to Warner Point (1.5 mile hike) where you can see to the South the San Juan Mountain Range, Uncompahgre Valley, and Bostwick Park and to the north look for the West Elk Mountains, and at the end of the trail enjoy the views of the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon.  I attended the astronomy evening ranger talk since Black Canyon has an International Dark Sky designation, so I was excited to see and hear about the area.  Once again interesting information but really geared toward children, very basic astronomy and takes a while before the ranger gets to it.  I did not realize that all ages are welcome to become junior rangers and their workbooks are interesting even if they are geared toward children.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has a really cool wooden junior ranger badge that they were giving out to those interested.  I was disappointed though that many people took 3-6 badges instead of just one, as the ranger stressed they only have so many to go around. 

We woke up early and headed down the Rim Trail again to see the sunrise over the Canyon, it was amazing! The last day we ventured and did three round trip hikes from the campground the Rim Nature Trail to the Uplands Trail to the Oak Flats Trail.  I really enjoyed the Oak Flats Trail it has amazing views and had you going half way down the canyon with a different perspective that wasn’t too difficult or too steep.  I would highly recommend bringing a walking stick.  We were surprised that the state of Colorado had a fire ban but the national park allowed everyone to have fires at their campsite?  We really enjoyed this national park, the campground, the ability to go for hikes and bike rides from the campground and the lack of people!  It was really enjoyable, people who were there were super considerate and all wore masks! 

The next morning, we got up early, filled our water before heading out and drove to Grand Junction, CO.  First, we stopped by the Montrose Fairgrounds to the free RV dump, got gas and refilled our groceries from Walmart.  At Grand Junction we visited Colorado National Monument, we had never heard of it but the Canyons and rock formations were awesome and there were so few people, but it was hot (90s).  There is also a large mountain biking area before the park entrance on monument road.  Note, RVs that are higher than 12 feet you must go through the Fruita entrance instead of Grand Junction was there is a tunnel you must go through this way and only has a 12-foot clearance at the highest point and on the side only 10’7”.  We did the Serpents Trail that goes from the tunnel to the Devil’s Kitchen picnic area (3.5 mile round trip hike).  We stopped at Cold Shivers Point, Red Canyon Overlook, Ute Canyon View, Fallen rock Overlook, Upper Ute Canyon Overlook, and Highland View.  By midafternoon, we were so hot and ready to head to our Harvest Host for the rest of the day.  We headed to Palisade, the wine country of Colorado.  It’s not like Oregon, Washington or California wine country but its cute and there is also a lot of fruit farms. This time of year, there was a lot of peaches and sweet corn.  We stayed at Grande River Vineyard.  They are super friendly, and it being Labor Day weekend they allowed us to stay 2 nights so we did not have to figure out where to stay as all campgrounds were full in the area.  Their landscaping was well done, they had a large level gravel parking lot and during the heat their covered picnic area was perfect to relax, look at the rocks and have a cool place to stay.  It was nice we were the only RV the first night and the second night there was just one other.  I highly recommend their location and their Reserve Cab Franc. The second day, Greg did a bike ride along the Colorado River from Palisade to Grand Junction, I took Bode for a walk to the City Park on the Colorado River (he had a nice cool down swim) and visited a fruit stand to get a fresh peach & peach butter to make peach crisp.  Before heading out of town we thought we would do a hike on the Corkscrew Connector Trail if you are a campervan or RV bigger than 15 feet, I recommend do not go down Wildwood drive to the trails.  It is in a residential neighborhood who really don’t want you there and the trailhead parking lot is small, if you aren’t a Revel, truck topper, or small camper van you will probably not fit. 

Our next stop would be Great Sand Dunes National Park but a huge snow storm was heading our way, so we decided to take Highway 550 via Durango to get lower elevation than take the faster route Highway 50 back through the Gunnison Area.  I highly recommend taking Highway 550 its beautiful through Ouray.  More about that in our next post!  Thanks for reading!

Learn more about:

  1. Curecanti National Recreation Area
  2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  3. Colorado National Monument
  4. Get a 15% discount for Harvest Host Membership
  5. Grande River Vineyard and Palisade Wine Country