In Silhouette–Colorado National Monument, NPS

Colorado National Monument-Big Horn Sheep Ewe

She was standing high on the cliffs, silhouetted against the morning light. Just as I was gaping up at her, we rounded a curve on the very curvy Rim Drive to find two more sheep on the road, neither of which seemed in a hurry to let us pass.  We took advantage of a pull-out so I could get out my camera and my really-long lens.  I doubted that the ewe up on the cliff or the two on the side of the road would still be around by the time I got lenses changed and out the door; it’s my experience that by the time I finish camera-fumbling, the intended subject has gone.  Not this time, fortunately.  The ewe had moved around slightly to keep an eye on the two below. and gave me plenty of time to fire off a number of shots.  I tried to get a couple of shots of the two sheep as they moved off into the brush, but just as I framed them up, two women on bikes rode around the curve, into my frame, and with the innocence of not-photographers, asked if I was getting anything good.  All I managed after the women rode on was to get two sheep rear-ends.

Colorado National Monument-Independence MonumentColorado National Monument-Wedding Canyon_

Colorado National Monument is an amazing treasure right on the edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The Monument, created in 1911 and now part of the National Park Service, is 1500 to 2000 feet above Grand Junction, CO.  It’s not large as Monuments go: 20,500 acres which include a visitor center, a campground, the Rim Drive and lots and lots of sheer-cliffed canyons and formations.  And amazingly unknown:  in 2016 there were barely 400,000 visitors, many of whom just make the drive through, stopping at overlooks and enjoying the view.  Since 1919 when NPS started keeping visitation records, Colorado NM has seen only 23 million people pass through.  Compare that with Grand Canyon National Park, which sees about 6 million people per year, and 205 million since 1919.

We had a lovely campsite right near the rim on a loop that had fewer than 1/2 dozen other campers among lots of empty campsites.  That was the last-minute loop.  The reserve-ahead loop was slightly more populated, but not by much.  Sadly for us, it was unusually warm, with daytime temps over 90.  Since the hiking trails are exposed, it made exploring beyond the campground and visitors center a bit…uncomfortable.  We came down off the plateau a day early and headed for our next stop, a little higher in elevation and, thus, a little cooler.  I’ve put Colorado NM on my list of places to come back to.

Traveling Silver on the edge

Traveling Silver at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

From Gunnison, you have two choices.  You can follow the South Rim of the Black Canyon and visit the official visitors center, the drives and the overlooks and end up in Montrose CO.  There are campgrounds and ranger-led walks.  And LOTS of people.   Or you can wend and wind your way up the North Rim. Breath-taking, literally.  Edgy, again literally. Almost no people.  Those that are making this trek, are driving slowly, as much to avoid becoming part of the view as to enjoy the view.  It would be so easy, with a little too much speed in a large vehicle, to get first-hand experience at just how sheer and deep those canyon walls are.  This passenger was, fortunately, on the mountain side rather than the canyon side.  Still, full disclosure here, I was jelly and squish from vertigo.  Made it a little hard at times to enjoy the ride.

Still and all, I wouldn’t have missed it.  Those that knew the choices, encouraged us to take the North Rim and I’m glad we did.  Coming breathless down the other side, we landed in Crawford State Park, which not coincidentally is just a mile from Black Canyon Rd, the only road that goes up to the North Rim ranger station, campground and drive.  This road to the rim is deceptive; it’s one that sets you wondering what the first Europeans thought when driving a team and wagon across the mesa to suddenly and abruptly come to the edge of the world.

Once on the rim, there are a couple of terrific hikes.  We took the one that leads to Exclamation Point, and further to the top of Green Mountain.  Just beyond the trailhead, we passed the sign for the boundary of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness, a 15,000+ acre wilderness that protects the canyon rim-to-rim for 14 miles and is contiguous with the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness to the north.

Exclamation Point is a comfortable 3 mile round trip along edges (I’m much better on foot than in a vehicle when the land drops away) and through the trees.  At the point, beggars await a handout with alert ears and twitching noses. There is a rim drive as well that offers several overlooks with railing and information boards.  The walls of the canyon are so close in some spots that you can see and be seen from the overlooks on the South Rim.  If someone was looking north with binoculars, they would probably see you wave.

Black Canyon defies description, for all that I’ve tried to describe the experience of driving and hiking a bit of it.  It’s deep, yes.  Jagged and raw, indeed.  Definitely black — dark for lack of light and due to the geological makeup.  It roars with the voice of the Gunnison River in its depths.  These are inadequate things to say about a ditch that would have inspired Dante.  You kind of have to get on the edge yourself.

#publiclandsworthprotecting #publiclandsinpublichands

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