Gunnison South Rim and the Million Dollar Highway

[Black Canyon of the Gunnison/Ouray/Silverton, Jul 24, 2022]

Black Canyon of the Gunnison protects the gorge the Gunnison river carved into the Precambrian rock surrounding it. It’s named after John Gunnison, who explored the canyon in 1853 while searching for a railroad route through the Rockies. He wrote the first description of the canyon, although it was obviously very well known to the Ute tribe, which was native to the area.

We devoted the day to the park’s south rim. There was a nice big park sign at the turn off from Montrose, and another, smaller one at the park boundary. Both made for great photo ops.

We also stopped at the first overlook we saw, inpatient to see the canyon. Little did we know we were going to pass that same spot on the hike we did afterwards. It was still a good call though, as the overlook was much busier when we passed it again on foot a couple of hours later.

We parked at the visitor center. From there, we combined the Oak Flat Loop, Upland Trail and Rim Rock trails for a 3.1 mile loop. We enjoyed beautiful views of the canyon and virtually no people – most folks choose to stay on the scenic drive and walk to the overlooks.

More adventurous types can go into the inner canyon. However, there are no maintained routes to the bottom and you are expected to find your own way. For this reason, the inner canyon requires a wilderness permit, available in-person only. It’s a 2,000 ft drop of the Gunnison river – less than half of the drop we had when went down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but the lack of maintained trails kept us on the rim.

After our hike, we decided to enjoy the scenic drive and stop at the most popular overlooks. The most impressive one lead us to the Painted Wall. At 2,250 feet, this is the tallest rock in Colorado. The white veins are molten pegmatite, which squeezed its way into the fissures of the darker rock.

After our scrumptious lunch at Rib City back in Montrose, we decided to head to the Ute Indian museum. The Ute tribe inhabited most of Colorado and parts of Utah and New Mexico. The museum thoughtfully described their customs and way of life as well as the profound loss they suffered at the hands of the settlers. I couldn’t stop thinking about how they lived here in harmony with nature for thousands of years and it took the white man a couple of centuries to destroy that balance. I learned a lot about how they moved up and down the mountains with the seasons and what plants they used. I also learned about Ute Chief Ouray. He tried his best to negotiate on behalf of his people in the 1800s when the US forcefully removed natives from their lands and created the reservation system. Despite his efforts, the Ute people lost their ancestral lands in less than 40 years.

Ouray also helped build the Million Dollar Highway. It connects Ouray (named after him) to Silverton on the other side of Red Mountain. It’s part of US Highway 550, also known as the San Juan skyway, which runs from Colorado to New Mexico. The Million Dollar Highway, named so after the purported cost per mile, is one of the most scenic drives in the country. The road climbs to just over 11,000 at Red Mountain Pass before dropping into the ghost mining town of Silverton. Although driving it was not in our original plan and the weather looked precarious, we decided to do it anyway.

First, we stopped in Ouray first for a bit of an afternoon pick-me-up (coffee for Olivia, ice cream for me). The town is quite picturesque and would make for an excellent base from which to explore the nearby San Juan Mountains.

It rained on and off the whole way to Silverton and back, but we still managed to enjoy the magnificent views and the hairpin turns (or switchbacks for cars, as Olivia calls them). I got pretty good at dodging the windshield wipers so I can take pictures from the car.

We closed out the day with a beer at Ouray Brewery. The first full day of the trip a resounding success.

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