Western Colorado

I woke up in a motel in Salida on a grey and gloomy morning. But the weather didn’t stop me from a stroll through the historic downtown. Salida was established in the 1800s as a stagecoach stop and later became a stopover on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. There are quite a few buildings listed on National Register of Historic Places which makes the ambience of the whole place quite pleasant. Eventually I met a family which was about to walk up the mountain dominating the town and I decided to join them. They were rally nice, especially once we discovered that we lived in some of the same places in the past. It was decent little hike offering splendid views of the town and surrounding mountains which dominate it. After reaching one of the viewing spots along the way I decided tu turn back as I had long day ahead of me. So I wished them farewell and walked back down to my car.

It was time to hit the road again. I took the US Hwy 50 heading out of town and drove west. Pretty much as soon as I left the town the weather got seriously bad. It was a mix of rain and sleet and eventually even snow, especially when I was crossing the Monarch Pass (elevation 3448 metres). But there were also some spells of better weather and luckily one of them happened when I was passing the town of Gunnison where I decided to stop for a brunch. The town had a similar “wild west” feel like Salida but had fewer historic building and looked like a more “down to earth” place. Still it is a base for some active tourism in the area so there were decent places to eat. I had a tasty and filling meal in a bar-cum-restaurant offering interesting fusion cooking. Pity I couldn’t drink as they had some interesting beers on tap as well.

From Gunnison I kept following the US Hwy 50. West of Gunnison the scenery opens up as one moves from the mountainous landscapes of the Rockies to the more open plateaus of western Colorado. But it doesn’t make views any less spectacular. In fact the stretch of tghe highway along the Blue Mesa Reservoir (on the Gunnison River) is very scenic indeed. Here I stopped for a break and decided to hike towards the Dillon Pinnacles. The return trail is around 6km long, quite flat, and allows one to see from up close some interesting rock formations. It is an ideal stopping point during a long drive. Unfortunately on my way back to car I really had to watch the weather as dark clouds were closing in.

Once I hit the road again the sleet and snow returned. At times the weather was seriously bad, with low visibility and the beginnings of snow accumulation. I started contemplating what to do next. Go straight to a motel and leave touring surrounding attractions for the following day? It was still too early for that. Seeing some breaks in the clouds I decided to take a risk and headed towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I took Colorado Hwy 347 and started climbing towards the south rim of the canyon. There was a dusting of snow at higher elevations but it looked as my gamble might have paid off as the weather was clearing.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison was on my list of places to visit for a long time, just somehow it was never exactly on my route before. This time I finally made it and I wasn’t disappointed. Objectively I have to admit that the weather wasn’t “picture-perfect”. The sky was grey and overcast, fog was obstructing the views from time to time and it was impossible to take some of those stunning shots which you can share with friends. But nonetheless I loved the atmosphere. For a start there was hardly anyone in the visitor centre or on the short trails towards the overlooks. And the fog was creating a strangely magical atmosphere but at the same time the views were not completely obstructed (as I was fearing on my way there).

I followed the South Rim Road stopping frequently and admiring the views down to the canyon. Black Canyon of the Gunnison might not be as deep or as wide as the Grand Canyon but it is still more than 1km deep and incredibly narrow, in some places only 12 m wide. It makes for a very steep canyon indeed, with sheer vertical walls of rock in many sections. The South Rim Road eventually ends at the “High Point”. From there I followed one of the hiking trails which opened even more spectacular vistas, including towards the west, out of the canyon, where the landscape opens out considerably. I have to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison is very spectacular and worth a visit, even just a short one.

But is was time to get back. I wanted to reach the town of Montrose and find a place to stay before it got dark. Just as well I did. The weather overnight wasn’t great, with heavy rain and cold wind. Luckily I got some decent local brews from a nearby liqueur store, ordered takeaway pizza and watched a NBA game in my motel room. I really like such low key “down time” during my travels around America. Not all holidays must be about chasing attractions or staying in “cool” places. In fact I enjoy staying in random motels in not so touristy towns. Prices are low, there is no pretence, no fake smiles, it is easy to blend in as yet another travelling worker etc. I really had a good evening, especially as Toronto Raptors beat Milwaukee Bucks.

The next day weather seriously improved and the sun was out. I headed north-west from Montrose towards Grand Junctions, but my destination was not the town itself but yet another natural attraction, the Colorado National Monument.

It is effectively a national park in all but name, and deservedly so. This National Park Service unit preserves some interesting geology as well as local mountain and desert wildlife. But it is definitely the geology which is the main attraction, in fact, as some say, it is a true “rock formation galore”. The easiest way to see the area is to follow the Rim Road Drive which winds its way through the whole unit.

I joined it at the eastern entrance and immediately started climbing via multiple hairpin turns. Once the road reaches the plateau elevation it is relatively flat but not boring at all. In fact it is one of the most spectacular drives I have ever done. Along the route there are a plethora of stopping points, each offering a better view than the previous one. It is virtually impossible to stop taking photos as the rock formations are truly spectacular. Despite the small size of the park the rock formations are very varied. There are pinnacles, canyons and sand dunes, to name just a few, in red, orange, yellow and grey colours. There are also short trails leading to even more spectacular vistas than are visible from the road, probably the best of them being Coke Oven Overlook (named after rock formations which resemble, no surprise here, coke ovens).

Because all of the viewing points and trails one can spend a long time in the park. In fact it took me the better part of the day to drive just 23 miles of the Rim Rock Drive. I just kept stopping for yet more photos, at every turn, twist and overlook. Eventually I reached the visitor centre located close to the west entrance to the national monument. Here I had a longer break before heading further north (confusingly the western entrance is more in the northern part of the unit then in the western). This short stretch of the scenic road is probably the most spectacular and if you have limited time this is the bit I would recommend.

Eventually it was time to leave the Colorado National Monument. I briefly joined the interstate 70 heading west before taking Colorado Hwy 139 heading north. I was going towards probably the least visited and most remote corner of Colorado. But why? Well more about it in the next instalment.

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