Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is an intimidating landscape. A 48 mile gash, carved into western Colorado by weather, time and the Gunnison River, it reaches depths of over 2,700 feet. Bearing the name of an Army Lieutenant that first led an expedition into the canyon in 1853, John W. Gunnison's report contains the first official description of the formidable Black Canyon, calling it "the roughest, most hilly and most cut up," he had ever seen.
The Bearded Man parked his van and set up camp at South Rim Campground in a small stand of oak-brush. At $16 for a place to park, pitch a tent, use the head and fill up with water, you can't beat National Park camping. From the campground it's a short walk to South Rim Visitors Center where The Bearded Man picked up a trail guide for the Warner Point Nature Trail. Named after John Warner, one of the park's earliest advocates, the 1.5 trail leads you through mountain mahogany, serviceberry, pinyon pine, and juniper, while showcasing magnificent views. The San Juan Mountain Range, Uncompahgre Valley, and Bostwick Park to the south and the West Elk Mountains to the north. At the end of the trail, views of the Gunnison River and Black Canyon are stunning. There was actually a brief moment, when The Bearded Man was looking out over the canyon and was speechless. He has asked us not to print that - so obviously we won't.
Here's a link to the John Warner Trail Guide. https://www.nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/upload/warner_trail_guide.pdf
Back at camp, The Bearded Man indulged in a rare nap. In his words, "Life caught up with me, so I closed my eyes for a bit." (Profound.) Feeling refreshed, he visited the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit, at the mouth of Cimarron Creek, just upstream from where it spills into the Gunnison River. Locomotive #278, its coal tender, a boxcar, and caboose stand atop the last remaining railroad trestle along the Black Canyon of the Gunnison 15 mile route from Sapinero to Cimarron. In August of 1882, the editor of the Gunnison Review-Press newspaper was on the first train through the canyon and commented that this was "the largest and most rugged canyon in the world traversed by the iron horse." According to Rudyard Kipling, who rode through the canyon in 1889: " We entered a gorge, remote from the sun, where the rocks were two thousand feet sheer, and where a rock splintered river roared and howled ten feet below a track which seemed to have been built on the simple principle of dropping miscellaneous dirt into the river and pinning a few rails a-top. There was a glory and a wonder and a mystery about the mad ride, which I felt keenly…until I had to offer prayers for the safety of the train." The engineers that took trains through the Black Canyon for the next 67 years may have agreed to the beauty of the canyon, but were extremely fearful of the route - especially during winter. Avalanches and rock falls were common and an engineer and his crew never knew if or when their train would be the next to be swept into the icy waters of the Gunnison River. Despite the dangers and constant repair work, the Denver and Rio Grande made its Black Canyon route the cornerstone of its "Scenic Line of the World" passenger promotions and featured the Curecanti Needle on its emblem.
Planning an early morning departure to Arches National Park, The Bearded Man drove over to the Horsefly Brewing Company in Montrose, so he wouldn't have to cook and clean up after himself. Two orders of fish tacos and one Six Shooter Pale Ale later, The Bearded Man headed back to camp. We would be remiss however, if we didn't relay one incident that took place while waiting for his second round of tacos. His waitress, Suzie, asked if he was from around the area. Big mistake Suzie. "Nope. I'm originally from Michigan, but my parents moved to Mississippi when I was pretty young. I went to school in Kentucky and New York, but in between lived in Florida and California. I didn't care for California. Everything was brown and Santa wore a Hawaiian shirt. People talked funny, not like in Mississippi. When I was in Florida, I thought everyone was over 90, so that didn't seem right. I liked New York, but taking classes and living alone was expensive. I remember the smells that came up through the subway grates. Kind of an oil and steam smell. If I close my eyes I can still smell those grates. Hey where did Suzie go?" This is after a single beer. Do not feed The Bearded Man beer. He will talk your ear off. Feed him bourbon and he will just smile.
The drive from Black Canyon to Arches National Park along Routes 50 and 191, winds north before heading west and then dipping south. It's about 182 miles, give or take a few, skirting two National Conservation Areas - McInnis Canyon and Dominguez-Escalante. The Bearded Man's lone stop was for breakfast at the Strayhorn Grill in Loma, Colorado. Opened by Bill and Sheryl Martin in 2009, the Strayhorn's home-cooked 'Sale Barn' breakfast of 2 eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast was as good as advertised. A Yeti full of coffee to go and The Bearded Man was off like a cheap prom dress.
Arches and Canyonlands National Park - two of Utah's five National Parks - are only a thirty minute drive apart. Since there are no campgrounds in Arches, The Bearded Man will set up camp in Canyonlands. Willow Flat Campground at Island in the Sky, sits atop a windswept mesa, a short walk from Green River overlook. "A perfect base of operations for touring two parks," states The Bearded Man. "If hell doesn't freeze over and the river don't rise, we'll be okay." What the f....?
Arches became a National Park in 1971, decades after being designated a National Monument by President Hoover in 1929. The creation of Arches recognizes over 10,000 years of human history that flourished in this now-famous landscape of rock. Among those rocks is Fiery Furnace. Here's how the park describes the Fiery Furnace ranger-led tour. "Everyone attending a Fiery Furnace tour should be aware of the demanding nature of this hike and properly equipped for current conditions, including temperature extremes. During this three-hour, strenuous hike, participants must walk and climb on irregular and broken sandstone, along narrow ledges above drop-offs, and in loose sand. There are gaps which must be jumped and narrow places that you must squeeze into and pull yourself up and through. In some of these places, you must hold yourself off the ground by pushing against the sandstone walls with your hands and feet." Here's what The Bearded Man had to say after completing the tour. "Demanding nature of the tour? Who wrote that review? Sally the malnourished art teacher?" We should probably leave that comment out of our report.
Back at Willow Flat Campground, The Bearded Man relaxed and dined on a carrot cake Cliff Bar, before getting ready for the evening ranger-led discussion, 'Animals in Arches' at Devils Garden Amphitheater. Considered somewhat of a wildlife expert, The Bearded Man was asked to say a few words on his choice of animal indigenous to the area. He chose the desert bighorn sheep. His talk began with the following sentences. "The typical diet of a desert bighorn sheep is mainly grasses. How many of you in the audience live mainly on grass? Anyone? Anyone?" Seventeen year old Timmy Bodine from Beaver, Pennsylvania was the only one to raise his hand and was immediately smacked in the back of his head by his mother Francis.
Being park Cherokee, The Bearded Man is always interested in the story of the American Indian as it relates to many of the parks, and Canyonlands is rich in American Indian history. Early farmers in the area are called the ancestral Puebloan (formerly known as Anasazi) and Fremont people. They grew maize, beans and squash, and kept dogs and turkeys. In order to tend their crops, they lived year-round in villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park. Though the two groups overlapped, the Fremont lived mostly in central Utah, while the ancestral Puebloans occupied the Four Corners region. For many years, changing weather patterns made growing crops more and more difficult. Around A.D. 1300, the ancestral Puebloans left the area and migrated south. Before leaving, other groups appeared in the area, including the Ute and Paiute. The Navajo arrived from the north sometime after A.D. 1300. All three groups still live there today.
After a lunch of campfire bacon and eggs, The Bearded Man set out to explore the Shafer Trail Road, 18 miles of dangerous dirt track that requires extreme caution for vehicles and bikes, even in the best of conditions. As dangerousroads.org explains, "This road has humbled many egos. It’s not for the sissies and shouldn’t be attempted by novice drivers. The road is in dreadful condition and requires strong nerves to negotiate it. It’s certainly breathtaking and it has a fearsome reputation. It still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs." Translated...it's a perfect road for the VW van. "Highlights of this trip include well marked Indian petroglyphs and amazing natural stone arches. You’ll also have an opportunity to tackle the Schafer Switchbacks, a breathtaking climb with expansive views of the surrounding canyon-lands." As we said, perfect for The Bearded Man's van, so off he went, Steely Dan blasting on the 8-track.
Following his adventure on the Shafer Trail, The Bearded Man settled in at Willow Flat for an evening of cooking and star gazing. An early dinner consisted of turkey bacon, lettuce and tomatoes wrapped in a toasted pita, a side of fresh green beans dipped in butter, all washed down with Vernor's ginger ale. Feeling full and pleased with himself - why not? - The Bearded Man cleaned up and walked over to the visitors center for the ranger-led star gazing program. Tonight's program included a rare six minute glimpse of the International Space Station at exactly 9:53 and The Bearded Man was excited, almost giddy. "To think that people are living on an object orbiting the earth at a speed of roughly 17,150 miles per hour, blows my mind. They are orbiting the earth once every 92 minutes. That's faster than most of my morning showers!" (Let's just act like he didn't say that.) As it appeared, a large white light, much larger than a plane or satellite, traveling southwest by northeast across the dark Utah sky, the people surrounding The Bearded Man fell silent. The space station seemed to glide silently across the sky, perfectly visible to the naked eye - much larger than anticipated. At one point, when it was directly overhead, you would swear it was possible to make out features on the space station. It was an awe inspiring encounter with human and technological accomplishment and grace that everyone should experience. Drop what you are doing and visit this site to see when the space station will be passing over your trailer park. https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/
If you could drive in a straight line from Canyonlands to Capital Reef National Park, it would be about a 30 minute drive. But there are very few straight lines in this part of Utah, so the two hour and fifteen minute drive takes us north, before heading west and ultimately turning south on Route 24. One quick stop in Hanksville, just south of the confluence of the Fremont River and Muddy Creek, which together form the Dirty Devil River, and eventually end up in the Colorado River. Since skipping breakfast to get an early start, he thought a stop at Stan's Burger Shack was in order. A couple of bacon burgers and a chocolate shake later, he rolled over to the Hollow Mountain grocery/bait shop/gas station/souvenir stand, a must see for anyone interested in stores build inside a mountain (isn't everyone?). In need of a few supplies, he picked up a box matches, Altoids, a roll of duck tape, 6 Cow Tails, some AAA batteries, twine, a bar of soap, a map of California and a used paperback copy of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. They did not have any Chick-O-Sticks in stock.
The Waterpocket Fold Country in what is now Capital Reef National Park, was the last territory to be charted in the contiguous 48 states. In 1776, two Franciscan priests, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, left Santa Fe with the intention of finding a route to missions in Monterey, California. They made detailed recordings of their findings through Arizona, Colorado, and Utah during their trip.
In the winter of 1853, John Charles Fremont passed through Utah and Colorado, attempting to find a northern railroad route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was difficult and the explorers were forced to eat their horses before stumbling upon a Mormon settlement. Fremont took care to document their journey, hiring a daguerrotypist, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, to accompany them. Carvalho took nearly 300 daguerreotypes, most of which were unfortunately lost in a fire after the expedition. However, one of the remaining images was identified from the northern district of the park as the formation "Mom, Pop, and Henry". Fremont and his men also recorded their encounters with Ute and Southern Paiute Indians.
The Fruita Campground is often described as an oasis within the desert. Adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards, it is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef National Park. The Bearded Man set up camp and immediately set out for the Upper Pleasant Creek trailhead. The hike takes you along the creek for about a mile before giving way to deep, narrow canyons that require several stream crossings. After a while the canyon gives way to a broader expanse of small sandstone chutes and ponderosa pines which signals the western boundary of the park and serves as a turnaround point. On his hike back to camp, The Bearded Man met a few hikers from northern Michigan and struck up a conversation. "Where is Neebish Island?" "It's in the upper peninsula of Michigan, across the straights of Mackinac. It's pretty quiet up there. Just us, a few bears and passing freighters on the Saint Mary River." "Any theaters on the island?" "Nope. No theaters, no malls, no car dealers - hell, we don't even have a Starbucks. Just a campground store. Everything else you have to bring over on the ferry. Neebish is not for everyone. You have to like peace and quiet. Solitude." "How about a book store?" "Nope." "REI?" "Nope." "Does the camp store sell moon pies?" "Nope." "If they had moon pies I might have been able to swing it."
Tired after his hike, and knowing that he had a few hours before his guided full moon walk, The Bearded Man returned to camp and immediately fell asleep. Up around 8:00 to make a fire for dinner of pepper stew and mixed green salad. Once fed, he walked over to the ranger station to meet ranger Bo, who was leading the full moon tour. Always eager to discuss the difference between a waning and waxing gibbous, The Bearded Man found ranger Bo to be well versed on the night sky and a delight to be around. A crowd of 15-20 visitors arrived and was treated to a tour of the heavens. Both ranger Bo and The Bearded Man spoke about the eight phases of the moon, how each of phase is instantaneous, lasting theoretically zero time, although they occur at slightly different times when viewed from different points on the Earth. Ranger Bo discussed the intervals between principal phases, when the Moon appears crescent-shaped or gibbous. How the shapes, and the periods of time when the Moon shows them, are called the intermediate phases. The Bearded Man droned on about time frames and how, on average, a phase is one-quarter of a synodic month, roughly 7.38 days, but their durations vary slightly because the Moon's orbit is slightly elliptical, and thus its speed in orbit is not constant. He closed with 10 minutes on why the descriptor waxing is used for an intermediate phase when the Moon's apparent size is increasing, from new moon toward full moon, and waning when the size is decreasing. As one attendee from Turtle Shell, Alabama so eloquently put it, "Damn, those boys know what's what and what isn't. I thought a gibbous was a kind of monkey. Sheeeeit." Well said Mr. Alabamian, well said.
About a two hour drive mostly due south is Bryce Canyon National Park. Up early with the sun, The Bearded Man is planning breakfast at the Koosharem Cafe and video store in (where else?) Koosharem, Utah before heading into the park. With over one review on Trip Advisor, it seemed like a can't miss. As The Bearded Man likes to say, "It's hard to mess up an egg, unless it's bad." (He truly is a man of great wisdom.) Breakfast turned out to be delicious - Four strips of bacon, three eggs over easy, well done hash brown, buttered wheat toast and a Coca-Cola. Our waitress even gave us a to-go cup of Coke. Now that's service with a smile and his tip of 25% reflected his approval. (Editors Note: As a rule, The Bearded Man is a generous tipper. The exception is when his server sneezes on the food just prior to placing on the table. Even then he leaves 10% and a monogrammed handkerchief - TBM.)