Stealing Gunnison: 48 hours of adventure under $100
Day 1: Black Canyon of the Gunnison Nat'l Park
Crawling and sliding down to the Gunnison River in Black Canyon has got to be one of the hardest and yet most rewarding day trips in Colorado.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is almost like the Grand Canyon's baby sister. It's not nearly as big, but it's equally grand and you can see directly down to the river from the steep, vertical walls. It's a far more "intimate" canyon, just like the National Park Service claims. If you go at the right time, you can basically have the whole inner canyon, as far as you can see, to yourself. No maintained trails reach the river, and the shortest route has hardly any switchbacks.
The Gunnison Route sounds easy at just over a mile from the national park’s visitor center, but the trail isn’t maintained nor does it see heavy traffic. Just 15 wilderness permits are granted each day, and even when fewer than 15 people take the park up on the offer to see the gorgeous canyon from below, not everyone makes it all the way to the bottom.
Long, steep fields of scree make the hike down a slow and tricky one. I crab-walked for what seemed like long distances in some spots, and still each step sent cascades of pebbles rolling down in front of me and piles of dirt made it into my boots. A single careless step could easily mean tumbling to a painful stop, and in some places the “worn” route is hard to distinguish.
But we didn’t see a single soul in the three hours we relaxed and fished along the river, and even the morning-after aches of muscles I didn’t even know I had were totally, undeniably worth it.
As the river grew closer, and louder, it was hard to resist the urge to surf a large, flat rock all the way to the bottom. The Gunnison churned teal over rocks in its path, and twisted around gentle corners as a deep, bright blue.
Even on a 65-degree April Sunday with 75 minutes of tough hiking behind us, it wasn’t warm enough to swim. My feet ached in the cold water after just a few seconds, but I’ll return in the summer for sure. No major cities, and barely even any tiny towns, are anywhere near the park, and stargazing in the pitch-black night sky is reportedly top-notch. A couple of small groves of trees make a perfect shelter right where the end of the route meets the river, and trout are easy to catch just a short walk away.
I’ll definitely be back, soon. Next time, I’m bringing a tent and a sleeping bag.
Time to hike to river: 1:15 (no stopping or breaks)
Time to hike back up: 1:40 (many, many breaks)
Be sure to check out the Painted Wall of the canyon, too. It’s hard to see it at sunset without burning your eyes, but the lighting is perfect when the sun drops just below the rim.
Those who want to access the river without the strenuous hike can drive to it via the East Portal Road. It’s not open year-round, so be sure to check the park’s website before heading out. We didn’t do any kind of checking at all, and really lucked out that we were able to do as much as we did. The Gunnison Route was muddy and even icy in spots near the top, and it would have been too dangerous to keep going had it been much worse. Not a bad idea to pack crampons just in case during spring months, or to call ahead to the park before you head out. Check the park’s website for current conditions as well.
Entrance fees to Black Canyon of the Gunnison are good for seven days in the park, and you can easily spend two days there. For a change of scenery, head to the Curecanti National Recreation Area. It’s between the park and the town of Gunnison. Bring a book - and copious amounts of sunscreen, please - and relax by the shore if it’s too chilly to swim. You can also fish, watch people fish, squeal with pretend mock disgust when people try to make you touch the fish (because you really are legitimately grossed out, even if you don’t want people to know that), hide while that fish is being gutted and then happily eat that delicious meal not really knowing for sure whether you just ate salmon or rainbow trout. I mean, you’re pretty sure it’s salmon, but would you bet your life on it? No. (Google Image searches were hopelessly inconclusive.)
Or, do one of these many other things instead.
Also, bring a kite! Because I forgot to, even though I usually bring that damn thing everywhere just hoping the right opportunity will present itself in due time. I will always regret not bringing my kite. I guess I will just have to go back.
Cost to enjoy this large and beautiful area: $0, thanks to your tax dollars, hard at work. #supportnationalparks
Do this whole trip under $100 so, so easily:
Camp in a campground above the rim: $12-$18, plus applicable reservation fees
Camp in wilderness areas, by the river: Free, but permits are required and first-come, first-served
Do what I did and stay at the Wanderlust Hostel in downtown Gunnison, about an hour away from the park’s South Rim. Prices start at $23 for a twin bunk, and $45 for a private room. The Wanderlust is beautiful, quirkily decorated and cozy, and the staff is wonderful, friendly and helpful. Beds are warm and extra blankets are readily available when needed. Common areas are large, welcoming and well-equipped with books, movies, Netflix, games and pets. Yes, pets - two cats and a dog who are all adorable. Well worth the price and I’ll stay there again in a heartbeat.
Good luck if you arrive in town after dark. In mid-April, most places were closed by 9 p.m. even on a Saturday night.
For late-night (until 10 p.m.-ish) food that’s not a chain with a drive-thru, go to The Powerstop for hearty, creative burgers made to order. It looks like a gas station because it is one, but you’ll also find $6 pitchers of PBR (if they’re not out), a bloody Mary bar and the kind of curly fries you keep eating long after you’re full. I can personally attest to the guacamole bacon burger and the “spicy Hawaiian,” which has cream cheese, pineapple, jalapenos and a sweet chili sauce. $9+ for a burger with fries. Mine was roughly $11, including tax.
For good pizza that’s also open past 9 p.m., go to Mario’s Pizza and Pasta, right downtown and walking distance from the Wanderlust. Two people can easily share a large pizza and have leftovers, even after a long, active day. Go for a thin-crust with “Avalanche Sauce,” a cheesy white sauce mix, with shrimp and roasted garlic. $11 each for two people splitting, and that includes tax and tip.
On the trail:
We brought homemade rice and beans in small plastic jars with screw-top lids, flour tortillas, a small avocado, baby sweet peppers, cheese and crackers and a little bit of hot sauce. Two hearty tortillas (with sweet granola bars for dessert) at the river after hiking all the way down kept us full for hours. On day two, we ate leftovers.
Bagels, cream cheese and fruit. Can’t go wrong, especially with cinnamon crunch Panera bagels and hazelnut cream cheese. (Unless Panera runs out of cinnamon crunch bagels, and only has one left, and then you burn it in a foreign toaster as karmic retribution for having happily accepted your roommate’s valiant “you can have it” offer without even any semblance of the normal “nah, it’s OK, you can have it” attitude. Then, you are screwed. And doomed to eat burned and/or plain bagels forever.)
Cost for two nights (per person):
Hostel: $53.50 (lower this by paying with cash)
Restaurant food: $22
Groceries: $20/person, with leftovers (obviously, this varies a lot depending on what you already have at home)
Park entrance fee: $0 (yay parks pass! It's normally $15 for a 7-day pass.)
And if you must know, it cost roughly $20 for gas. Total, not per person. That’s round trip from Manitou Springs, Colorado, in a 48+ mpg Prius. #letsgoplaces
You could do this even cheaper if you camp and/or bring more/cheaper groceries. The bottom line is this: it’s super easy to get away for an amazing weekend in the great outdoors of Colorado. So... go.
But not when I’m going, because I want it all to myself. Thanks.