Back in May, I did a road trip over Memorial Day Weekend and even took an extra day off on top of my already long holiday weekend to explore some areas I have never been to. During this trip, I got to visit three (new to me) National Parks and it was a great way to transition from spring to summer, despite an early brush with snow.
My first visit was to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park which left me speechless. Not even being dramatic here. The views, the history, and the experience I had hiking all the way down to the Gunnison River and back up has left me speechless.
The hike itself is intense and one of only five official routes to the river. Most of it isn’t even a trail, so you just have to guess your way down a canyon wall and guess your way back up it. Due to the dangerous nature of these routes, you’re required to get a permit. Basically, this just helps the Park Rangers know if they need to look for you if they show up the next day and you still haven’t returned your permit. Needless to say, it was intense and one of the riskiest hikes I’ve done. What made it even more “adventurous” was the downpour of rain then a surprise snowstorm that made the ascent an adrenaline rush.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is absolutely worth a stop, even if you’re not the hiking type! Just the views alone along the entire drive through the Park make the visit worth it in every way. I can’t wait to go back. And getting emotional at the beauty of the place was absolutely worth it, too, even if I still get embarrassed when other people are around to see my eyes get watery.
Hiking stats from this stop: I did the Gunnison Route down to the river, including a short trail that connects the start of this route to the Visitor’s Center: 5.21 miles, 1,967 feet of elevation gain, and 2h 47m of elapsed time.
The second day was, you guessed it, stop number two on this road trip. I wanted to take it easy after yesterday’s buttkicking of a hike so I went to Mesa Verde National Park to do some easy hiking and embrace the rich history of the area.
Unfortunately, due to an impulse decision to detour to Telluride (which is a gorgeous town that I can’t wait to go back and visit because there are a few bucket list hikes nearby) for breakfast, I was too late to the Park to get a guided tour to one of the ruins. I was warned about this by a dear friend, but I just felt compelled to visit Telluride!
Still, I got to do a couple hikes and see some of the ruins and learn a lot about the history of Mesa Verde. First off, it’s a beautiful drive from the town of Cortez to the main sites of the Park and there is a LOT to see and experience in this place. Secondly, very family-friendly sites, including every hike in the area being very-easy-to-slightly-moderate in difficulty. Thirdly, I’ve spent a lot of time this past year learning a lot about Native American history in Colorado and surrounding areas. It’s all so fascinating yet utterly heartbreaking. I plan to incorporate more Native American history and information into future posts, including my thoughts on the devastation that was caused by the white colonizing forces and the effects of it that is still seen today.
I’ll be honest, this place doesn’t have the visual WOW!!! factor that other National Parks in Colorado have, but the unique geology and rich history more than makes up for it. Like many other places, I can’t wait to come back, especially to get there early enough to do one of the guided tours!
Then, the final stop of the trip. Which, once again, left me speechless.
I’ve figured it out. The Needles District of Canyonlands suffers the same problem as Capitol Reef National Park (also in Utah) where both are very hard to capture the immense beauty in photos or videos. They are places you must experience yourself. Even professional photos just doesn’t do this place justice. I felt like I was in a land before time and finally got to experience traveling through some slot canyons for the first time ever! Like I say time and time again with every place I visit, I can’t wait to go back because there are dozens of trails and areas I couldn’t experience during the time I was there.
Then, the Memorial Day crowds came. Moab was a constant traffic jam and the northern part of Canyonlands, Island in the Sky, was being crawled over by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I decided it was a good time to cut this trip short and make sure I come back when it wouldn’t be such a busy time. I started this whole road trip early so I got to avoid crowds the entire time until my last day I had planned before returning. The benefit to returning a day early is that I got to hang out and relax at home for a day before restarting my normal life and routines.
Oh, yeah, hiking details: I did the Chesler Park Loop (thanks to my friend, Tess, for the suggestion!) which was 14.03 miles, 1,992 feet of elevation gain, and an elapsed time of 4h 45m. I was so tired and slept incredibly hard that night.
Some more details about this trip. I did this entire trip in my little Kia Soul, which happens to be the perfect size to camp in the back of if I need to. Here’s the big thing when it comes to camping, whether in your car or in a tent. There are free campsites available all over the place, if you know where to look. I used a website called freecampsites.net to find spots near the National Parks I would be visiting. It’s not the most well-designed website, but it works and I’ve used it a bunch with no issues. Using that website along with satellite view on Google Maps is also a huge benefit to planning where to set up camp. All in all, including gas and food I prepared and kept in an ice cooler along with having the occasional meal in a town I was traveling through, I spent around $200 for this entire trip.
Because of this, and the fact I was in generally warmer climate than most areas of Colorado at that time, I was able to camp in a completely different area every night. Which means I saved a ton of money by not having to deal with lodging costs and, if you’re asking, “But, hey, Kevin! What about showers and bathrooms? Did you just hold all that inside of you for four days and never shower, thus repulsing everyone around you with your smell?”
Most towns, even small ones, will have a recreation center for the public to use. So, with a little bit of research, I found good ones in the towns of Montrose and Moab, evenly split between my stops. It’s $5 to use the facilities, including swimming and other things available, but I just used them to take a shower and freshen up. Oh, and bathrooms? I’ve found most towns have a Walmart, which despite my hatred for that parasitic corporation, they have good-sized bathrooms with multiple stalls so you never feel rushed to drop the Browns off at the Super Bowl and the bathrooms are generally in much better conditions than the ones you find in gas stations.
I plan on doing road trips like these as often as I can. They’re affordable considering my income and I am just lucky enough to live in an area of the country where it’s a short day’s drive to get to these area. From Colorado Springs, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is less than five hours away, for example. Hell, Moab, the furthest point from the Springs that this trip was, is only six hours away.
I’ve learned to be very good at being alone. Sometimes that is a detriment as I often wish I could share many of the moments I experience during these adventures with someone, which leads to moments of intense loneliness. Thankfully, those moments are short-lived. Anyway, I am good at being alone so these long trips by myself are so much fun and I really enjoy them. One of the good things that came out of my last serious relationship ending in 2016, was the accidental discovery that going solo on road trips is actually incredible. But, if you are able to visit these places and others like them with a partner or a close friend or family, I would highly recommend you do so.
The West is a truly magical land. I love this entire region from the bottom of my heart and every time I enrich myself of it, it grows my soul so much.
P.S. Now scroll back up to the top and watch my little video of the trip!