Monday, October 5, 2015

Black Canyon and Curecanti

Colorado Adventure, Day 6
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
(This was written by both myself and Curtis...try and figure out who wrote what!)

This morning started off early with a thunderstorm coming through at around 5am. I gave up on sleeping at that point! After the storm had passed, we had to wait a while longer for the rain to stop before we could get out and pack up the tent. The rain finally stopped after 6, so we repacked the car and set off for the day. Besides the rain, we really did enjoy camping here!

We started the morning off with doing the rim drive on the North rim. It was a quiet and chilly morning, and we were on our own at every scenic view. (What else would you expect before 7 at a more remote national park?!) The rain had passed, but the cool clouds remained!

For those wondering, yes you can hike down.

You drop ½ a mile in one mile though.

The Grand Canyon is one mile over eight miles to put it in perspective.

We'll stay up here for now.

After our drive, we made a quick stop to get our park stamps, and Curtis had a little chat with the ranger there. He asked about trails going to the bottom and backpacking opportunities, and the ranger advised that if we were ever thinking about backpacking in the area that we stick with the West Elk Mountains and stay away from the steep, challenging trails that descend into the canyon. Apparently there are some, but he used some colorful language to describe how difficult they are. Curtis also inquired about rafting, but got a similar answer. I think we'll stick with the Grand Canyon. :)

Next up, we hit the road again to finish our drive on the West Elk Loop, and we were continually blown away by the beauty on this scenic drive. It was so worth the extra day and detour!

The drive eventually entered Curecanti National Recreation Area, which I had done a little research on - enough to know it had trails that were dog friendly! 

We first stopped at Hermit's Rest and enjoyed the views of the Morrow Point reservoir and the San Juan Mountains in the distance.

When highway 92 met up with highway 50, we went East a little ways to do a little hiking and visit the visitor's center for the area.

We decided to hike the Dillon Pinnacles trail, which was 4 miles round trip and offered great, up-close views of the pinnacles as well as the reservoir. The shrubs all around us were actually sage, and it made the area smell as good as it looked!

For the beginning of the trail, we were following the reservoir, then after about a half-mile the path headed North away from the water and began to ascend up to the pinnacles. It was starting to warm up, so we took full advantage of finding a bench in the shade. :)

We made it! Here we are with the pinnacles...

...and the reservoir in the other direction. Love those big clouds! :)

We made it back to our car, then went to the visitor's center before heading West again.

But our time in Curecanti was not up yet - we stopped one more time to see the Morrow Point Dam, and were glad we did. We had never seen one this close before, it was so exciting!

So obviously the Black Canyon is remote, difficult, and foreboding.  The Ute indians living on the canyon rim never went down, Capt. Gunnison on his survey expedition avoided the canyon in 1853.  It wasn't until 1881 when people actually started looking at the canyon seriously.  At that time the Denver and Rio Grande railroad decided they wanted to build a train route from Gunnison to Cimarron...through the canyon.  Literally a million dollar project for 15 miles of track that would be obsolete within 10 years.  And this wasn't even in the part of the canyon that is a National Park.  This was all in the part that is now underwater in Curecanti NRA.

The rail line actually came out really close to the Morrow Point Dam and you can see the last remaining trestle and narrow gauge engine right near here.  
Morrow Point Dam is the second of three dams along the Gunnison near Black Canyon all of which help create the Curecanti NRA.  The first, Blue Mesa Dam creates the Blue Mesa Reservoir. The second is Morrow Point Dam, a hydro electric dam, which creates the Morrow Point Reservoir.  And the third is Crystal Dam, which is also hydroelectric but is used more for flow control.  What's crazy is how deep the water is behind these dams.  Literally filling up the canyon.  You don't necessarily think of that when you see Lake Meade or Lake Powell, because they have such a large surface areas. 

Post 9-11 we probably shouldn't be able to get this close.

After the dam, we drove to the South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This side had many more visitors than the North rim, as well as more trails and more to see. We drove part of the rim drive and enjoyed a few of the pullouts.

So after the guys at the Denver & Rio Grande built their $1.5 million railway, they decided to send the first group down the rest of the Black Canyon, the part in the National Park.  They wanted to see if they could build a railroad the whole way.  20 days was what they thought it would take to traverse the canyon.


68 days later, they came out.  Nothing could possibly be built down there was the report.

But by golly, humans are stubborn, and in 1901 the USGS sent two men down the canyon once again.  And this time they said they could build something there.  They would build a diversion tunnel for irrigation from the Gunnison river all the way to the Uncompaghre valley.  A 5.8 mile, 3 million dollar tunnel was bored through the canyon wall.  It took 4 years of hard labor and living in a tiny town at the bottom of the canyon, 60 years before the other dams were even started.

You can't see it but the water in the foreground is still being diverted through a subterranean tunnel.
Today you can drive down the Canyon and see this incredible feat of engineering and human daring.  Actually, you can't see anything.  The town is gone and the tunnel is underwater.  The only thing visible is Crystal dam, and we weren't as lucky with that one as we were with Morrow Point.  Best to save your brakes and stay on the rim.

We finished off our day with driving to Montrose (in the Uncompaghre Valley) where we stayed for the night, and indulging in a 6 pack and a pound from Taco Johns. The perfect ending to a great day. :)

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