Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 25, 2012

Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park


CNHI

- — Contemplating the eons of time, and my place in them. That’s how I started a visit in southwest Colorado’s Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park.

Surprised me since I was simply taking a 90-minute pontoon boat ride with a National Park Ranger.

“1.8 billion years old these cliffs,” Ranger Whitney Masten said.

Meandering on that river between the cliffs, I tried to think thoughts big enough to match the magnificence.

Deep canyon and high skies. Rolling farm land with alfalfa, cherries, corn, garlic and cattle grazing on ranch land. That’s the view en route to the Morrow Point boat tour, a value at $16.

Skim on a reservoir 240 feet deep in places, blue sky high above and towering old stone cliffs on both sides.

I recommend skipping the deck chairs to stand at the railing.

Another word to the wise: boat time is comfortable but getting to and fro requires a ¾ mile walk on a path that used to be a narrow gauge railroad track, plus 232 steps, wide with handrails.

Montrose is the gateway city to this experience and to the south rim of the Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park.

Also a sensible base camp to Telluride, Crested Butte, Durango and other Colorado communities. They’re higher elevation, harder to acclimate.

I liked seeing mountains every which way: San Juans, 14,000 feet; Uncompahgre Plateau,10,000 with two peaks reaching beyond 14,000 feet.

At 5,794 elevation, Montrose is a pretty bowl with inspiring sides.

Grand Mesa looms large 45 miles north, reported to be the world’s largest flattop mountain with fishing lakes, hunting lands, hiking and camping.

Black Canyon National Park gets its name because sunlight can’t very well reach the bottom.

As I stood on the rim -- carefully -— a peregrine falcon flew in front of me. Birders say the dusky grouse is a treasure to see here too.

Only the most experienced kayakers tackle the Gunnison here, and rock climbers need to be skilled enough to hook a hammock to the wall and spend a few nights.

Strong-legged bicyclists excel along these mountain roads but I saw pedalers who clearly didn’t train enough.

Fishers of trout access the river because these are Gold Medal waters; that means big rainbows and browns.

South Rim National Park Service Visitor Center is a good place to get oriented.

Lots of walking is possible, and rangers lead snowshoe walks in the winter when the moon is full. Also easy to drive a loop and stop to gaze often.

On one of those stops, I found a little pool of water in a rock smoothed by the centuries and brimming with the tiniest shrimp I’ve ever seen.

Fairy shrimp I learned. Such wonder: miniature new life in the midst of the ages.

Downtown Montrose is 11 miles away so coming and going is reasonable.

Allow a chunk of time to appreciate the Museum of the Mountain West. This collection of finely restored western frontier buildings houses treasures with stories, personal from founder Richard Fike’s generations, most of them significant and unusual.

He’s an archeologist, still digging at age 71 and teaching university courses so he adds authenticity to passion.

Western tales morph into modern agriculture with Montrose chefs embracing family farms.

Dinner at Simmer on Main Street connected me to local farmers.

Husband, wife and best friend are the trio who own, cook and manage this intimate restaurant, and they created a menu of complex sophisticated flavors down-to-earth at the same time.

Sophisticated little city this is, with restaurants I didn’t try, art galleries I did admire, big sculpture in public places and a whopping 73 percent of the ground in and around Montrose designated as public land.

When you go:

www.VisitMontrose.com

800-873-0244

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

www.nps.gov/blca/index.htm

www.MountainWestMuseum.com

970-249-4162

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Christine Tibbetts is a travel columnist for The Tifton (Ga.) Gazette.