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Hiking the Black Canyon

April 29, 2013

The last item on our Paonia weekend’s agenda was quite possibly the one I was most excited about: hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  I drive through this part of the state fairly frequently for work, so I’d passed signs for the Black Canyon before and heard that it was a gorgeous area I had to check out.  When we arrived in Paonia I totally spaced on the fact that we were a short drive away from the North Rim.

Luckily that fact hadn’t escaped Stanley, and he planned for us to drive over and do a hike during our stay.  The night before our hike we did a little Googling to figure out what trail to take and were excited to find the North Vista Trail listed as one of the Top 10 Canyon Hikes in the U.S. by National Geographic.  Done and done.  We drove about 40 minutes to the North Rim Ranger Station, paid our $15 entry fee, and picked up the trail right there.  The Black Canyon is known for being incredibly deep and narrow, and the North Rim is the area of the park showcasing the steepest and narrowest parts of the canyon.

North Vista Trail

As we pulled into the park, I realized that this helps me toward #30 on my 30 Before 30 list!

The North Vista Trail has two good turnaround points, and our original plan was to hike to Exclamation Point (LOVED the play on words).  We started off hiking through scrub that eventually lead to a pinon and juniper forest with cool trees that had been gnarled by the wind.

Black Canyon Hike

Or struck by lightning.

Black Canyon Hike

In the distance we could just barely see the canyon.

Black Canyon North Vista Trail

The Black Canyon is so named because it is so sheer and deep that hardly any sunlight penetrates to the bottom.  Because the walls are so steep, the trails lead hikers around the rim.  If you want to go down into the canyon it’s a scramble that should be done with a special permit and some serious knowledge and skills.

Black Canyon Hike

We were happy with the rim hike, in case you can’t tell from my ecstatic face at the first overlook.  The sides are so sheer that from most places we could look over the rim of the canyon but still not see the bottom.  Here’s the shot I got by sticking my camera over the edge (with the strap securely around my wrist) and shooting:

Black Canyon

Still no bottom.  We reach Exclamation Point in only about 40 minutes, which was much faster than I expected.  I guess I’m used to hikes that cover a lot more vertical and take longer to reach the 1.5 mile mark.

Exclamation Point

Seriously, how fun is the double meaning here?  After hiking for a while and feeling like we couldn’t really see the canyon right next to us, the views here were truly worth exclaiming about.  We took the trail up above that sign a bit to get to the primo overlook.

Black Canyon Exclamation Point

Exclamation Point

Black Canyon

It blew me away how beautiful the turquoise water of the Gunnison River looked 2,000 feet below us.  I bet in a few months when the waters are higher it will be even prettier.

Exclamation Point Black Canyon

Since we reached Exclamation Point so much sooner than expected, we decided to hike the trail all the way to the end at Green Mountain.  We weaved back through the juniper forests and the trail got a little more intense.  It finally started to feel like a workout!

North Vista Trail

The next 2 miles seemed a lot longer than the first 1.5, mostly because the sun was pretty intense on this exposed trail.  When we reached what we decided must be the end of the trail (we couldn’t find a trail marker like we had at Exclamation Point, but that one had been easy to miss too), we turned around and took in some pretty amazing views.

Black Canyon view from Green Mountain

We could see the Black Canyon stretching away from us in all directions, but what we could see was only a tiny portion of this huge canyon.  We also saw the San Juan and West Elk Mountains off in the distance.

The 7-mile round-trip hike took us about 3 hours to complete.  We could have moved more quickly or we could have stretched it out with a picnic at Green Mountain.  The way we did it, however, was perfect.  If you are short on time or just don’t like the sound of a 7-mile hike, I thought the views from Exclamation Point were the best of the hike.  Just make sure to hike up above the sign you’ll see marking the point along the trail for the truly great views.

One word of caution is that I wouldn’t recommend this hike to people who have a fear of heights.  The trail doesn’t run too close to the edge of the rim, but if you have a problem with heights you simply wouldn’t enjoy any of the overlooks.  I don’t mind them at all and I was a little hesitant close to the edges.  The park’s website cautions families with small children against hiking for the same reason.

Exclamation Point

After the hike we scooted back through Paonia to pick up sandwiches for the road (my sandwich cost $3.99 – seriously!) and made the drive home.  It was a wonderful and unexpected weekend that made me truly excited for summer and all of the fun that can be had just a short drive from home.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Wild Juggler permalink
    April 29, 2013 8:11 am

    Looks like an amazing places and fantastic photos. You rock!

  2. April 29, 2013 7:42 pm

    This looks so cool, I now have to check it out!

  3. May 4, 2013 1:06 pm

    Great photos! We were just there about a year ago. The Black Canyon is a pretty spectacular place!

  4. January 4, 2014 2:02 pm

    Love your pictures!


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