“I’m sure that after all the national parks you’ve been to, this is underwhelming.”
“You’ve been to all these incredible places – what are you doing here?”
People I run into seem to believe that my senses have become dulled towards appreciating beautiful things in a “lesser” setting. Sure, I’ve gazed upon the Appalachians, snorkeled in picturesque waters, and watched the sun set over Colorado mesas. Yet despite all of the big nature moments I’ve experienced, I still thoroughly enjoy the simple things about being outside. Whether it’s feeling a cool breeze as a respite from the hot sun, or exploring a strange rock outcropping, I am not in the habit of comparing my natural encounters or rating my perspectives. If anything, visiting so many national parks has piqued my curiosity and honed my ability to pick out the most alluring views. I have learned to treasure beauty, regardless of the place or form.
Denver is a great example. This city is surrounded by a great outdoor playground. During my stay, I hiked in some local parks, marveling at the uniqueness of the area and its relative solitude despite its proximity to hundreds of thousands of people. My 2-day break from camping was ideal: I had all the amenities of a city, yet the ability to escape into nature for hours. My gracious Denver hosts, J.C. and Renae, are fellow nature-lovers and explorers. In fact, J.C. is a traveler/blogger who focuses on helping sojourners travel safely. I was able to gather some pro tips about staying safe while on the road.
In a couple days I’ll say goodbye to Colorado. The views have been spectacular, the people have been gregarious, and the beauty (big and small) has been absolutely extraordinary.
For every 1,000 feet my car climbed up the winding road, the temperature dropped more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Pretty soon the pine trees began to wane and were replaced by heaps of snow that had still not melted from the previous winter. I was officially in the tundra.
When most people think of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, they imagine sharp peaks jutting into the sky and elaborate forests dotting the landscape. Those views are plentiful and greatly appreciated, but there is something magical about entering a brand new ecosystem in the “land above the trees”.
Yellow-bellied marmots hang out by the side of the road, greeting park-goers at pullovers. Dwarfed plants cover the ground, strong when it comes to the elements, but fragile when it relates to human interference. This truly is a land of extremes. I shivered, despite my layers, grateful for the strong sun, but cursing the wind that whipped around.
The beauty was unlike anything I had ever encountered. There was something so raw and achingly real about it. The tundra has permanently embedded powerful images into my memory and officially captured my imagination.
The scenery on the road leading up to Black Canyon of the Gunnison was nothing special. There were some small shrubs, a couple of hills, and a pretty sky. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t seem like I’m anywhere near a park, nevertheless one that I heard had views that could take your breath away”.
And then I turned a corner.
Oh my goodness-gracious!
Steep, narrow, extensive slices of rock plummet over 2,000 feet to a roaring river. It was entirely overwhelming and my eyes just didn’t know what to focus on.
The geology of the canyon is truly unique. The hardness of the rock coupled with gravity forced the flowing water downwards carving deep fissures over the course of many, many years. And looking over the edge doesn’t begin to give you a true sense of how far downwards that rock goes.
That’s why I decided to hike to the bottom.
The Gunnison route is the “easiest” scramble down. A 1.5 mile hike that has an elevation change of 1,800 feet. To call it a hike, though, is an understatement. There were times I was scooting on my butt, grabbing onto tree roots for dear life. At the bottom, watching the river and peering up at the sheer rock faces surrounding me was an experience that I’ll never forget. I sat. I looked. I listened. Coming back up the canyon didn’t feel nearly as perilous, but I was huffing and puffing like a wildebeeste pretty much the whole time.
If you’re ever in Colorado, make the drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Mesa Verde has been quite a memorable park so far. I was able to take a guided tour of 3 different cliff dwellings and view a couple other sites on my own. It’s surreal to walk through ancient ruins and spot pieces of broken pottery over 800 years old.
I have a lot of respect for these Ancestral Peubloan, who fashioned entire villages wedged into cliff alcoves. They chipped hand and foot holds into the rock that they used to climb up, over, and into their fields on the top of the mesa. Scrambling down the rock face, slipping through tiny tunnels, and climbing up into their rooms made history truly come alive.