My last post introduced readers to my grand tour of Colorado’s national parks, highlighting some of the spectacular scenery found in Rocky Mountain National Park and Dinosaur National Monument (partly in Utah). Part 2 highlights those parks that C. and I explored on our own after taking leave of my parents. (My dad, at Rivertop Rambles, is documenting the elders’ spectacular journey in his own series of posts.)
Broadly, C. and I turned toward the more southerly reaches of Colorado, where a casual observer might be forgiven for confusing their environs with those of northern New Mexico. Indeed, it’s a region often distinctly flavored by generations of its Hispanic or Native American occupants. In terms of its natural features, though, it’s second to none.
Colorado National Monument
Upon leaving Utah, C. and I drove east into Colorado and then headed south. After traversing 73 miles of virtually uninhabited BLM land between Rangely and the Colorado River Valley, we were antsy for something to do. It was nearing noon and we had a long day ahead of us still, but we made the spontaneous (and serendipitous) decision to detour into Colorado National Monument (CNM), just southwest of Grand Junction. With 391,075 visitors in 2016, it’s better attended than Dinosaur and even some of the state’s national parks, but we felt relatively unpressured by crowds as we drove the scenic road past jaw-dropping overlooks into red sandstone canyons.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
For whatever reasons, Black Canyon of the Gunnison (BCG) is the least-visited of Colorado’s six major National Park Service sites, with 238,018 visitors in 2016. Frankly, it’s a small park and not a heavily developed one—its only visitor center (on the south rim) is quite small and few formal trails exist. Only the south rim is accessible via paved road, although it costs nothing to enter the park from the north. The thing about parks like BCG, though, is that they’re still stunning even if no one’s around to view them.
“Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combines the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon” (Duane Vandenbusche). The canyon approaches nearly 2,000 feet in depth in some places and, at its narrowest, is just 40 feet wide at the water level. The sides are often so deep that portions receive sunlight for only minutes each day, giving BCG its name.
It was the afternoon of a long day—we’d already visited CNM and a few hours remained in a 7-hour drive—so we had time for only a brief hike. The Oak Flats Trail gave us a nice workout and a great sampler of the park’s scenery.
Mesa Verde National Park
Although Ancestral Puebloans (commonly and erroneously known as “Anasazi”) made their signature cliff dwellings at a number of locations across the American Southwest, nowhere is more synonymous with their culture and unique architectural style than Mesa Verde. Despite being a fairly well-known park, it’s in a pretty remote area relative to major highways and airports, and attendance was only 583,527 visitors in 2016.
The mesa itself, a huge, mostly flat-topped landform near the southwestern corner of Colorado, provides fantastic views of the surrounding environs. Depending on the direction one looks, portions of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico can be seen, and visible ecosystems range from full desert to snow-capped alpine mountains.
While the park is scenically beautiful, the main attractions are the reminders of the Ancestral Puebloan culture—which are sufficiently spectacular to make the national park a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ancient inhabitants built complex societies in which citizens dwelt primarily in multi-family communities built on the sides of cliffs and actively farmed the mesa top. By the late 13th century, they abandoned the area for largely unknown reasons and assimilated into the Puebloan communities of New Mexico’s northern Rio Grande Valley.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Many places in Colorado and across the American West overwhelm the imagination. The Great Sand Dunes—which rise up to 750 feet from the San Luis Valley, nestled into the Sangre de Christo (“blood of Christ”) Mountains—are one such place. (Southern New Mexico’s White Sands are another.) The San Luis Valley is America’s highest desert, averaging over 7,500 feet in elevation and receiving less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. Fierce winds carry eroded sand east from the San Juan Mountains before dropping it at the foot of the Sangre de Christos. Simultaneously, mountain streams flow from the latter range before drying on the arid desert floor, and the wind takes it from there.
As a result, visitors to this relatively obscure national park (388,308 visitors in 2016) enjoy the surreal sight of massive sand dunes rising in front of forest-clad, snow-capped peaks. Hikers are free to explore the strange world of the dunes, but are urged to use caution. The dark sand can reach 140 degrees on a hot day (thankfully, the weather remained cool during our visit) and the elevation and lack of humidity can facilitate dehydration. While the dune field extends nearly 20 miles to the north, only a handful of visitors explore beyond the high dunes within a mile of the parking area.