Fifteen miles northeast of Montrose and the Uncompahgre Valley, the Gunnison River roars through a canyon so deep that a day's measure of sun scarcely warms the valley's lowest reaches. Painted Wall, a 2,400-foot vertical cliff, looms cragged along a narrow, zigzagged chasm rim, standing as the highest rock face in the state.
Red-tailed hawks, golden eagles and the great peregrine falcon frequent updrafts that blow through dark, pegmatite-veined gneiss walls. Nearly 40 different mammals, from black bears and mountain lions to gray foxes, marmots and white-tailed jackrabbits, roam the gorge floor and mesa top. In the cool canyon waters below, native cutthroat trout battle the currents with brown, rainbow and brook trout, as well as a handful of other gold-medal denizens.
Along with Mesa Verde and Rocky Mountain National Park (and a backpack full of national monuments and wilderness reserves), Black Canyon stands as yet another testament to Colorado's status as the nature lover's Candyland.
Hence, the season's first day trip.
With a late afternoon departure from the Springs and no particular haste, my girlfriend Sam and I reach the south rim of Black Canyon a couple hours before midnight. The edge of a storm that would soon dump a foot of snow on parts of the Springs teases us with a dusting while we sleep, curled and cold.
Sunrise ushers in low, creeping fog and snow flurries that make our first glimpse of the canyon akin to staring off the edge of the known world. A vaporous void stretches endlessly from nearby red spires and sheer rock formations. For only a breath's length of time, we spot the edge of the north rim, a mere 1,100 feet away, before a cloud cloaks it once again and mist drowns our perspective.
We decided to retreat south to the Orvis hot springs for the day and return on our way home, hoping Colorado's schizophrenic weather will stay true to its repute. The lithium-rich, 107-degree mineral water ensures our satisfaction with the back-up plan, as we soak and hunker down under another few inches of snowfall.
In the small town of Ridgway, one mile from Orvis, the Adobe Inn treats us to a crab-stuffed chimichanga with roasted corn casserole, to which we have henceforth sworn eternal allegiance and undying love. Every day trip yields some unforeseen treasure; this culinary find rivals anthropology's Lucy or the mythic Holy Grail.
When we approach Black Canyon the following morning, we find clear blue skies and an uninhibited panoramic view over the deep riverbed and dramatic valley. A nod of heads confirms an unspoken agreement: The view alone is worth the drive. An attempted inner-canyon hike sans snowshoes proves difficult as we sink knee-deep in snowdrifts along steep hillside trails. We cast our fate back to the mesa above in hopes of returning when more favorable weather conditions welcome our canyon exploration.
To exemplify "Do as I say, not as I've done," I recommend future Black Canyon daytrippers hit the less-frequented north rim and hike its lengthier, more challenging trails. Just don't forget to check the weather.
-- Matthew Schniper
Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park
Escape distance: 228 miles west of Colorado Springs
Vague route: Take Highway 50 west roughly five hours.
Extra credit: Splash in Curecanti Recreation Area, 25 miles east on Highway 50 or at Orvis 25 miles south on Highway 550.