The word "epic" has lost some of its meaning. It has been diluted into a term used to describe viral videos and internet-born cultural moments. Still, some things truly measure up to the scale of the word- and our hike at the Gunnison Gorge undoubtedly earned the distinction of "epic."
The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area encompasses 62,844 acres of juniper-spotted slopes, scrubby desert shrubs, sandstone formations and- of course- the sweeping double canyon carved over the millennia by the mighty Gunnison River. Bighorn sheep make the gorge their home, as do collared lizards, mountain lion, elk, small mammals like rabbits and prairie dogs, and even river otter. White-water rafting, mountain biking, and hiking are the big three recreational draws.
To access the NCA and the inclusive wilderness area, we drove south on Colorado highway 133 (which has become our go-to adventure road) for eight miles until we came to the junction of highway 92 in Hotchkiss, Paonia's neighboring town.
Going east on 92 brings you to Crawford and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (more on that later!) Going west will ultimately bring you to Delta, the county seat. We went west for 13 miles or so to the tiny town of Austin. Hanging a left at Road 2200, we quickly reached the turnoff for the NCA at Peach Valley Road.
Blue skies and red-tinted hills greeted us. The difference in topography is striking. Whereas Paonia is nestled in a lush valley at the foot of the still-snowy Mount Lamborn, the drive to the gorge revealed distant, flat-topped desert mesas and dry high-desert terrain. The land opens up out here, drawing your eye to the horizon, rather than a summit.
Driving through, we noticed a lot of private land development adjacent to to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. It seemed at times like private property (signaled by the abundance of NO TRESPASSING signs) was even directly on BLM land. The gorge does have a lot of overlapping ownership, from private, to BLM, to park service. The latter is because the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is close by, just southeast of the Gunnison Gorge and still part of the larger Gunnison riparian system.
Our destination was the Duncan Trail, a 1.5 mile hike (rated "difficult"- and oh how true that would be!) that curves through the gorge down to the canyon floor, with river access. Our directions that were...let's say less than accurate. We drove further into the conservation land, scouring the emptiness for the correct road.
Along the way, we were amused by the many prairie dogs who scurried alongside the road, their curious heads swiveling left and right as they peeked out of ground-holes.
After almost a half hour drive, we found the proper turnoff and discovered the directions were indeed accurate about one thing: the need for a high clearance vehicle.
My hiking buddy, Patrice, has a Subaru Baja that could handle the initial mile of the access road, but certainly didn't have the clearance required for the steep, rocky off-roading that we began to encounter. So, we went as far as we could, pulled off to the side, and continued on foot. We walked about a mile and reached the trailhead, where the work truly began.
We hit the trail at 11:45 am, and the day was already heating up. The going was easy at first as we enjoyed a wide, red dirt trail with expansive views. There were sneak peaks of the canyon we would be heading into, but we did not yet know how serpentine our journey would be. We edged down switchbacks, around twisting juniper trees, scrubby brush, and prickly cactus. Careful to look for the many rabbits who jumped across our path, we also saw small lizards (sadly, not the colorful, collared ones) darting from rock to rock, seeking shade and shelter.
About halfway into the hike, we came upon a postcard-framed scene: the double canyon plunged to the green ribbon of river below. A thumb-shaped rock protruded out into the void, appearing like a pirate's plank. The rock was sturdy enough to allow us to venture out halfway, but we dared not stand on the very edge.
We snapped some photos of the undisturbed setting, then each took turn posing and feeling every bit the intrepid explorers of a magnificent place.
The thing about places out west is, you can walk only a few miles into wilderness and find a scene that makes you feel like the first, or last, person on earth. You know you are not the only one who has laid eyes, feet, and sweat on this place, this temple of wildness- but oddly, you feel like it’s all yours.
Of course, it’s not yours, and that knowledge seems to imbue the place with even more wonder. Ultimate enchantment comes from not knowing, from not being able to fully grasp a place, a moment. Part of this enchantment is confronting your own unimportance, the feeling of being pressed down but the scale of something larger than yourself.
To be humbled and in awe, in the old sense of the word. This is what we seek. To remind ourselves of where we came from, where all things come from. To stand in the earth’s judgement and feel small.
We took in the river, exhilarated by the knowledge that we would be able to reach its banks. But we still had a long walk ahead.
After the pause at the pirate's plank, we began a steep descent. The terrain became rocky and the trail narrow. We resorted to all fours to traverse some tricky scree slopes. At one point we went down backwards, essentially bouldering against the rock faces. We had good hand and footholds, however, and didn’t feel unsafe. At this point the trail had nearly evaporated; there was no hint of how or where it led down to the river.
So we did some scouting and picked the best path we could. We ultimately made it down to the river at 1:00 pm, about 90 minutes after starting our hike. The Gunnison rushed by with a swift current. We didn't see any rafters, as it was likely too early (and too cold) for the white-water season.
We came to the Duncan backcountry campsite and the remnants of Duncan Cabin. We were shocked that someone would choose to make their home here. According to the US Geological Survey's assessment of the area:
"The earliest known inhabitants or visitors to the canyon were prehistoric Native Americans who camped and hunted in the area. Petroglyphs and rock structures that were constructed without mortar are scattered throughout the canyon. Clovis and Folsom spear points have been found in the Uncompahgre River valley, indicating that the region has been inhabited for at least 10,000–11,000 years. More recently, until historic times, mountain-dwelling Utes traversed the canyon’s depths....Few people have lived permanently in the canyon. During the Depression years, John Howell from Olathe built several cabins and eked out a living prospecting for gold and mining mica from pegmatite deposits in the Ute Park area. The Duncan brothers also prospected in the canyon at about the same time; the ruins of their stone cabin and a prospect tunnel are at the base of the Duncan Trail."
The river was much greener than the North Fork tributary of the Gunnison, which cuts through Paonia. We enjoyed a snack and water break at the campsite, and admired the view. But, knowing we had a hell of a hike ahead, we soon broke our moment of peace and began the ascent back up the canyon wall.
We were able to find a better path up than we had on the way down, but the return was still much harder. It is the reverse of hiking a mountain. In this case, we were doing most of the work during the second half of the hike. The midday sun and increasing altitude did not help matters. We took lots of breaks!
Still, it was great to look back at the trail once we caught our breath. We noticed little formations we had missed earlier, and marveled at how far down we had traveled. We also took note of just how winding our route had been. We had thought it fairly straight, but looking back we were able to clearly see the switchbacks and the staircase descent we had completed.
On a flat stretch of trail toward the end, we encountered a rattlesnake. He made the signature rattle sound to alert us, and we gave him a wide berth to let him pass. He snuck into the shrubs on the right side of the trail and we hustled to get out of there! Patrice snapped a picture, but it was a little blurry from her shaking hands! We were definitely spooked because the snake blended in so well that we easily could have stepped on him if he hadn't rattled. Crisis averted.
After that shake up, the going was easy and the trailhead was close. We were offered a ride back to the Subaru by some folks near the parking lot, but we declined. Low, scraggly plants and single-track bike trails framed our path on the downhill road walk, which eased our muscles and offered pleasing panoramas.
We reached the car around 2:30 and quickly sped off for some post-trail ice cream, looking back one last time at the blue-tinged mesas evaporating in the distance