Trip Report: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
October 9 – 14, 2017
South Rim Campground, Site #B5
Odie has a breathy, staccato, high-pitched, ear-piercing bark that sounds even more urgent at 3:30 in the morning. “Quiet, Odie!” Wendy reprimanded in a whisper, trying not to wake up the kids. But Odie persisted. “Maybe he just needs a drink,” Wendy said, trying to convince us both.
Barking for a drink may not make sense to most dog owners, but Odie’s no ordinary dog. He sleeps on the bottom bunk in the trailer and is afraid of our shoes. So we try to make sure there’s a clear path from his bed to the water bowl. But unfortunately, he’s also afraid of drinking inside. Yes, he’s literally scared to drink from the bowl when it’s inside the trailer. So sometimes when he barks, we accompany him down the stairs, set his bowl on the ground… and he drinks half of it in one long draw as though we’d withheld it from him for days.
While neither of us wants to get fully dressed and step out into the dark at 3:30 just so our dog can drink—when the bowl is one foot away from him inside—it’s better than the alternative: that he’s barking because he has the shits again.
So Wendy got up and tried to encourage Odie to drink, but he wasn’t having it. Our alarm was set for 6:00am and we knew we wouldn’t go back to sleep again after taking him out, so we decided to consider Odie our alarm and get an early start on our trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Wendy’s usually the one who deals with pre-dawn dog crises, but I’m usually the one who walks the dogs during morning departures. So I donned my hooded sweatshirt, shoved a few poo bags in my pocket, strapped on the headlamp, and stepped outside. I expected to maneuver in pitch black, but the full moon hanging above the Great Sand Dunes shone so brightly I didn’t even need the headlamp. I felt privileged to witness this beauty and smiled as I scraped Odie’s loose stool from the gravel.
We rolled out at 5:30am, before the wind gusts and snowfall were scheduled to arrive. I felt good about leaving Great Sand Dunes National Park due to the impending weather, but wasn’t certain what we’d find at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Light snow was forecasted for our travel day, but we weren’t too concerned since it was supposed to be warm and sunny afterward. Of greater concern was whether there’d be a spot available at the campground and if the water would be shut off yet.
I try to keep the combined weight of our van and trailer as low as possible, especially while traversing mountainous terrain. But I figured being without water was a greater risk to our family, so I put about 10 gallons in our fresh water tank before we left and also filled all three portable water containers for an additional 16 gallons. I made myself feel better about the extra 200 lbs of weight by acknowledging we could dump it out if it gave us any trouble along the way.
But everything felt fine and I was actually thankful for the extra weight whenever the wind picked up. It was a beautiful drive. We traveled through the tiny town of Saquache then took the 14, which presented amazing views while winding through canyon country. It was also cattle country and the kids squealed and commentated as we spent about 10 minutes in the midst of a cattle drive. “Cows! Cows!” they shouted. “Cows on the road!” These exclamations were punctuated by booming laughter and followed by an unexpected line of culinary commentary that started with “Bison burger!” and ended with “pie!”
When the snow flurries came, we took them in stride. They were expected. Our comfort waned as visibility decreased and the real snow came. We still had two hours left in our journey; I was concerned that we may have to find somewhere closer to camp if the snow began sticking to the road. With about 90 minutes left, it began sticking to the road. To the chagrin of the cars behind me, I slowed to 35 as we trekked through the nascent slush, eyes peeled for black ice.
And we periodically pulled over so Odie could take a shit. Fortunately, he whines and then barks so we know he needs to go. Unfortunately, he’s desperate by the time he tells us, so we have to act quickly. The roads we’re traveling—especially the mountain ones—don’t always have a good place to pull over. So usually when Odie whines, Wendy and I both think Aw, crap and picture explosive diarrhea covering the back of the van. I start looking for a place to pull over and Wendy tries to calm Odie and convince his poo to wait.
After Odie’s two poos—one of which was very well-timed to coincide with a huge turnout at a scenic viewpoint—the snow slowed and we were able to relax a bit. It was still cold though, so I continued driving slowly in case we were to encounter icy patches on the wet road. It was stressful as we ascended some fairly-steep hills en route to the park. I kept myself calm and my mind occupied by mentally practicing how to react if we began sliding backward down the winding hill.
But alas, we arrived safely at South Rim Campground, past the unmanned entrance booth to the park, and had our choice of sites. The water is turned off here and only vault toilets are available, but there’s electricity and we arrived with 26 gallons of our own water. This was the first time we’d set up in the snow, our scissor jacks lightly frozen, icicles hanging from the front of the R-Pod.
We only expected to stay two nights before heading to a state park, but we really like it here! Turns out we’ve learned a lot on this trip and are getting along just fine with the water we brought. Electricity helps a lot and even though it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, there are a lot of radio stations and we even get several TV channels… all for $14/night.
This place is a bargain—a beautiful, peaceful bargain with really nice fellow campers. We hiked with the kids along the Rim Rock Nature Trail, which has steep drop-offs and views of the canyon. I’m sure it’s pretty any time of year, but the yellow, orange, and red leaves of fall enhanced the beauty and there was a light blanket of snow on the ground the morning we went. We also drove East Portal Road to the bottom of the canyon, a stunning drive with a 16% grade that’s totally worth the effort. And our campsite is tucked into the woods, with a lot of room for the kids to play.
We feel pretty alone here, but clearly we aren’t. Wendy came back from walking the dogs one evening holding a note in her hand. “This was on the car,” she told me. “I thought maybe someone was going to complain about the dogs.” But no. Instead, the handwritten note said the following:
“People don’t just carry paper like that with them,” Wendy said. “Someone had to go back to their trailer or tent, write that note and get tape, then come back here.” We were in awe that someone was kind and motivated enough to leave such a nice note.
And yesterday, while taking a family walk with both kids and all three dogs, we encountered Sylvia—a woman with zero pretense who was tent-camping by herself and is considering creating a self-sustaining community on her family’s ranch. As we chatted, she casually mentioned that she was keeping her distance because she’d been wearing the same clothes for a while. “I’ve been wearing this shirt for six days,” I told her, “so same deal here.” No water means no laundry. I wouldn’t want to do this all the time; I’m a one-shirt-a-day woman. But beauty takes sacrifice—just not the kind our culture is most accustomed to.
Besides, we have the luxury of knowing our squalor is temporary. We’ll have access to laundry and showers tomorrow, when we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park.
Read the next trip report: Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks