Gunnison, Salida, Buena Vista & Denver, CO
After Moab, we decided to take the scenic route back to Denver. We didn’t just want to blast east on interstate-70. We’ve done that plenty of time during undergrad. However, there was more we wanted to see to the south.
After Grand Junction, we chose to go southeast with highway 50 towards the Black Canyon National Park. But first, Whitney and I wanted to explore the Colorado National Monument outside of Fruita, CO.
From the highway, the CO Monument is absolutely hidden. Yes, you can see pretty mountains from the road, but the vast extent of the Monument’s cliffs, canyons, and ridgelines are completely out of sight. I, for one, knew the Monument was back there but never expected to see what we found.
The road into the Monument from Fruita is wildly windy and small. And since it was a Saturday, it was packed with local crusher cyclists. So we slowly made our way up the steep ascent and left plenty of room for folks peddling their way into the Monument. And to be honest, Sage probably wasn’t going much faster.
Our first stop was the visitor’s center. Whitney is a big fan of visitor centers. She likes to chat with rangers, look at maps and devise a well-hatched plan. I, on the other hand, would probably be okay with avoiding visitor centers. Nonetheless, I’ve come to like that about Whitney because I must admit, I usually benefit from the knowledge she acquires.
So within no time, we had a trail picked out. We finished our picnic lunch and set off on the trail, searching for wildflowers. There was a nice selection of freshly bloomed flowers. But the find of the day was a rattlesnake. We watched it slither around for a while and then carried on. As it turned out, the snake was our only visitor. We had the whole trail to ourselves.
Once we were done, we went and got Dottie and Sage. We took the scenic drive through the Monument and gawked at all the hidden terrain I never knew existed. We stopped at the Devil’s Kitchen trailhead on the way out because I wanted to do some reconnaissance. In just a few weeks, I would be guiding a five-day trip to the Monument and the Devil’s Kitchen was on the itinerary. So we snuck in one more quick late afternoon jaunt and, once again, enjoyed the area by ourselves. It was beautiful.
With our appetites for exploring the Monument properly satiated, we hit the road for the Black Canyon.
The day before we visited the park, we stayed outside a bit of town called Crawford. We reserved a night at the State Park and enjoyed the luxurious amenities. As usual, we cleaned the van, charged our batteries and devices, showered, and enjoyed a campfire. The park was pretty much empty. Very scenic and positioned strategically to access the north rim of the Black Canyon the next day.
I had wanted to see the Black Canyon, aka the Black, for a while. It popped up on my radar as an old-school, adventurous, and committing place to rock climb. It’s notorious for its steep walls, questionable rock quality, and long approaches. To climb anything in the Black you must first slog down thousands of feet in one of the many loose and rocky descent gullies to gain access to your climb.
Unfortunately, after a short drive to the park entrance, we were greeted with a closed and locked gate. The North Rim of the Park was still closed for the Winter. I was pretty disappointed, to say the least. The Black was supposed to be the last hurrah of our trip in bigger and longer multi-pitch climbing.
At the moment, Whitney was probably relieved. But because she’s such an amazing climbing partner, she consoled my disappointment by throwing out the idea that we use the pedestrian entrance to hike the remaining four miles to the rim and climb anyway. The magnitude of an endeavor like that intimidated both of us, so we quickly shot down the idea. But it was nice to have the option. So instead, we pulled the bikes off the van and decided to ride into the park to explore.
So with Dottie sprinting alongside us, we rambled into an utterly empty National Park. Nobody on the road, nobody in the ranger station, and nobody in the campground. Soon we found a nature trail loop that would take us to the Chasm View outlook. As you can assume, no one was on that trail either. Just me, Whit, and Dot exploring a really beautiful and quiet place.
The sheer black walls of metamorphic rock, with their crisscrossing stripes of pink and white pegmatite, created a somewhat psychedelic visual experience. The steep drop-off that seemingly came out of nowhere instilled a slight sense of vertigo. And the Gunnison River 8,000 feet below roared intensely in the belly of the canyon. We stood there and stared for quite a while, dreaming of what it would be like to ascend the big walls with only the help of our fingertips and toes.
After our trance was broken by Dottie’s impatient barking, we mounted our steel steeds once again and returned to where we left Sage. Our new plan was to be in the town of Gunnison by the afternoon, so I could get some writing done and find a campsite before dark.
Gunnison is one of those semi-sleepy Colorado towns that I’ve wanted to visit for a while now. I first became interested in the place when I learned about the college there. It had a reputation for being a cool place to go to school because of all the mountains, rivers, valleys, and rocks that surround the place. So one day in my senior year of high school, during a robotics class, I took the time to fill out an application to go to school there. And by the end of the robotics course, I had been accepted. It also has a reputation for having a very friendly admissions process.
So after some work in the local eccentric coffee shop that sold me a coffee for $1, we took Sage to an area just outside of town called Hartman Rocks to look for a campsite. Hartman Rocks is a multi-spot, miniature mecca on public land. There are granite rock formations to climb on, copious mountain bike trails, and plenty of longer trails and roads for dirtbikes and ATVs’. After arriving, it became clear that this was Gunnison’s local playground.
The site we nabbed was magnificent. We had epic views of Hartman Rocks and of the greater Gunnison Valley. Our excitement for the next day of climbing was growing.
Because the rocks were west-facing, we wanted to wait for the sun to move over so we could climb in the sun. So I continued writing from the van in the morning. There was fantastic cell service there for our wi-fi hot spot. And Whitney did her physical therapy in between annoying and playful visits from Dottie. By mid-day, we were climbing our first few routes.
The rest of the day was like a smash and grab operation. We would climb a few routes, move the van, and climb more. We had climbed practically every significant formation in Hartman Rocks by the end of the day. Including a small granite spire aptly named Little Finger. And by the end of the day, I had collected four pieces of booty.
In rock climbing, like with pirates, booty is a hidden treasure. Booty is climbing gear left behind from another party for whatever reason. And like with pirates, stealing booty is perfectly acceptable in climbing culture so long as a few rules or codes of ethics are followed.
In our case, all the booty we found were bail carabiners on bolted sport routes. Essentially, whoever had tried the route before us could not reach the anchors at the top. If they had reached the top, they could have properly lowered the climb and cleaned their gear off the route. But since they could not get to the top, to get down, they left a single bail carabiner attached to a bolt to prematurely lower or to bail.
In climbing, bail carabiners are a free game. And since none of these bail carabiners were on routes too physically difficult for me to climb, I scrambled up them happily like a small pirate child collecting treasure.
So the next day, with our pockets full of loot (metaphorically speaking), we headed out of town for our next little town on our scenic tour.
In our research about what to do in Salida, we discovered the Valley View Hot Springs. So we called ahead, made ourselves some reservations, and took a quick detour. What we arrived at was epic. The hot springs are located on the Orient Land Trust. Back in the day, this area was home to the Ute People. Afterward, the land was used for mining and cattle ranching. But now, the non-profit organization that owns the land trust preserves the place for its natural beauty and important role in the local ecosystem.
After seven miles of washboard dirt road, we arrived at a quaint mountainside oasis. We checked in, got our map of the place, and were sent out on our own. We could enjoy the place as late as 8pm if we chose. And enjoy we did. We sampled many of the hot springs and soaked for hours until our skin was pruney. In our first spring, a large thunderstorm rolled across the valley, bringing valuable moisture to the arid landscape and providing quite the light show. We met and chatted with interesting people and absorbed as much of the calming serenity of the place as we could. We both left feeling very happy and very relaxed.
Because we were nearing the end of our trip, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in Salida. We enjoyed delicious salads, a massive plate of lasagna, and pizza from the busiest local restaurant we could find. Plus, great beer. We did some walking around the cute town with Dottie and then decided to hit the road for Buena Vista.
Buena Vista, CO
We made it to Buena Vista (pronounced Bew-na Vista by the locals for some odd reason) by sundown. We headed straight for the sleepy downtown section. We did some walking with Dot and then decided to go for a nightcap because our trip was ending and we were splurging, after all.
So we ended up at the Slammer. The Slammer is a tiny hole-in-the-wall, whiskey and beer-only bar in a historic building that was once used as the jail. It’s the local haunt, especially on a random Wednesday night before the peak summer tourism season. It was clear that everyone there was neighbors. But luckily, it wasn’t cliquey. We were welcomed by the bartender and had some really fun conversations until about 9pm. Then it was time to take our partying-asses to bed.
Even though we slept in a Love’s gas station, what we woke up to was beautiful. To the west, snow-capped 14,000-foot mountains towered above us. To the east, was the Arkansas River and more beautiful mountains decorated with a cornucopia of interesting-looking granite rock formations.
We moved the van to a picnic area by the riverbank for breakfast. Dottie explored and played with other dogs walking by with their owners. As Whitney and I prepared breakfast, we both got a little emotional and sad that our trip was ending. We knew we had so much more to look forward to regarding our summer in Estes Park, but at the same time, we loved our van-life road trip.
Eventually, it came time to leave. We took Dot on another walk along the river and then loaded up for our drive down to Denver. We had plans to attend a very special party. And Whitney was the surprise guest.
A week or so prior, we caught wind that Whitney’s dad, Steve, was having a retirement party with his company in Denver at the Denver Distillery. So we made sure to accommodate our plans so that Whitney could be there. And, of course, it was a surprise because we told Steve that we were somewhere else in the State.
We arrived early and met some of Steve’s associates before the party got underway. Once we got word that he was arriving, Whitney made sure to greet him at the door. The surprise was well received, and Steve looked thrilled to hug his daughter.
So then we just enjoyed it. The bar was open, and catered Mexican food was on the menu. We did a lot of chatting and shared many of our stories throughout our trip. It was nice to hear the kind words that Steve’s coworkers had to say. We could tell that he had a positive impact on them as individuals and on the company as a whole.
Surprisingly, Whitney and I were the last ones there. So after the rambunctiousness of the party was over, we sat down at the bar to enjoy one more drink with the bartender and some locals who came in after the private party was over. Because why not, the tab was still open.
Our plan was to sleep at Whitney’s best friend’s house. So we made our way, said hello once we got there, and caught up until about midnight. The following day we hung around the house and did some chores. I packed from my flight to Texas, and Whitney prepared for her week in the city.
I was on my way to TX to pick up my other car and bring it to CO. We would need two vehicles this summer since Whitney and I would be working. Plus, I needed to get up to the mountains to meet our new landlords and move into our apartment. And in the meantime, Whitney was going to take a wilderness first responder course (aka very advanced first aid), so she needed the van.
It was wild to think about transitioning from our nomadic lifestyle to a more settled existence. With that being said, however, our prospects for the summer were extremely exciting. We had a wonderful, safe and comfortable home for all three. I was chomping at the bit to get back to work that I love. And Whitney was going to be there (and guiding for the same company)! So we were feeling very fortunate and grateful, to say the least. In a way, our adventures were just beginning. Once again.