Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Oct 31, 2021
For a couple of years I had had Black Canyon of the Gunnison on my radar as a place I wanted to visit. I had read about it, seen pictures of it, researched it, but it was a place I hadn't yet made it to myself. The fact that it is also an International Dark Sky Park meant I was also drawn to it to photograph the Milky Way there. But to get the alignment I wanted I had to visit around Memorial Day weekend, and the circumstances just didn't work out... until this year. I made plans with family & friends, and together we made the journey west to Delta, Colorado over the long weekend to do our best to take it all in.
Of course traveling up I-70 out of Denver into the mountains, on a Friday of a holiday weekend no less, is often a slow and frustrating endeavor. Usually once you get through the Eisenhower Tunnel and up over Vail Pass the traffic starts to thin out, and it did that to some degree on this trip as well. But a wreck in the eastbound lanes in Glenwood Canyon slowed things down quite a bit there as well, making for an extra long day. It was over 7 hours in the Xterra before we finally arrived at our home base for the next few days just outside Delta. Instead of staying in a hotel, we found a great location on VRBO with accommodations for both of our families at a ranch just outside of Delta, all for about the same price as the hotels in town. The hosts at the ranch were very nice and easygoing people, and the opportunity to let our kids play outside and see all the animals was very nice. I did a quick tour of the tiny house we stayed in in my video, so check that out if you want to see more.
The next day we headed out to the south rim of the canyon to get our first taste of what the Black Canyon is all about. It turns out that even the least visited National Park in Colorado still had a 45 minute wait to get through the single gate on the holiday weekend, but the views inside were beautiful. Even though the Black Canyon is usually only around 2,000 feet deep (or less) from the rim down to the Gunnison River, the steepness of the canyon walls gives a unique experience of nearly being able to look straight down to the river roaring down below you. It can be a bit dizzying when you peer down into the abyss. I decided to return early the next morning to try and catch the sunrise light on the famous Painted Wall, and it did not disappoint. The photo at the top of this post shows that first warm glow of light you get as the sun nears the horizon but hasn't quite risen above it yet, and it turned out to be my favorite from that morning. It really shows the painted wall at its best, with the warm glow and streaking lines from the different kinds of rock that make up this tallest cliff face in the state of Colorado.
Following a return to the ranch for breakfast, a visit to the north rim was in order. There are no direct routes to cross the canyon, to reach one side from the other entails a 2 hour drive outside the park through the surrounding communities. Staying in Delta gave us a central hub that was about an hour from each side. The north side of the canyon is less visited, and while there were a number of cars at the ranger station where you first enter the less crowded nature of it was enjoyable. This was also the side of the canyon I wanted to photograph the Milky Way from to be able to look straight down the canyon towards the core of the galaxy. Visiting my projected shooting location during the daylight confirmed this was doable, but the cloud filled sky was not encouraging. After visiting most of the viewpoints on the north side, the wind started picking up and we returned to the ranch for supper.
Would that wind push those clouds away? The forecast said it probably would, but there was quite a bit of pushing to do and our time was growing short.... Since the clouds did look like they were starting to break up, and we had come all this way to see the night sky here, we decided to go for it. It still took some time of standing and waiting, and it never did completely clear out. So was it worth it? You be the judge....
Standing on the edge of the canyon at night, with a stomach high railing being the only thing separating you and your camera from that dark abyss you can feel in front of you is an unforgettable experience. The dull roar of the Gunnison River far below, the stars twinkling above in one of the darkest places you'll ever be, and the stillness of a remote place on a still night. My camera captured more detail in the dark canyon than your computer screen or mobile device probably has the range to show, but prints of this photo bring it all to life.
The following morning it was time to pack everything up and make the long drive home. There were more traffic challenges heading back east as well, holiday weekend and all that. But I think the long journey was worth the trouble and I'm looking forward to continuing to explore more of southwestern Colorado in the future. This turned out to be just one more of many ideas I've had for awhile that I was able to check off in 2021, and I feel so blessed for the successes this year has brought.
My latest YouTube video shares in the "in the field" experience of this adventure, I'll embed it at the bottom of this post so you can share the experience that way as well. If you enjoy watching it I hope you'll subscribe to my channel so you don't miss all the great experiences I have coming up to share soon. If you enjoy sharing in the experiences of adventures like these, I hope you'll sign up for my email newsletter if you haven't already. You can subscribe right here on this blog post, or click my newsletter signup link at the top. New subscribers get a new customer discount coupon as a thank you for signing up. Don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram too. Thanks for checking out what I do, and I hope you'll keep following along!