Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Ouray, and Mesa Verde – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 3)
Welcome back to Part 3 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, we explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, venture out on two short hikes to waterfalls in Ouray, and view the ancient Native American cliffside dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.
A brief recap: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles.
Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van.
To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts plus a bonus article covering the trip logistics for a six week road trip for a family of five.
Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):
- North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
- Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
- Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
- Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
- Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
- Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
- California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
- Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
- Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
- Yellowstone National Park
- Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force
- Road Trip Logistics
Join me for part 3 of our trip across the country as we explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Ouray, Colorado, and Mesa Verde National Park!
This map shows where we started in Frisco, Colorado (point “A”) and where we ended up in Cortez, Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park (point “G” and “H”).
We ended Part 2 of our summer trip report in Frisco, Colorado. From there, we headed to Montrose, Colorado which is four hours away. There are two routes to get from Frisco to Montrose, and we chose the northern route along Interstate 70.
The northern route travels through the mountains then along the Eagle River and Colorado River, eventually passing through the Glenwood Canyon. There are several great rest areas on this stretch of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon where you can walk down to the river and enjoy some nice scenery and cold mountain water.
About half way to Montrose, we stopped for lunch in Grand Junction.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
We stayed for two nights in Montrose, Colorado so that we could visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This is apparently the least visited National Park in Colorado. But I’m not sure why because it’s a vertiginously deep canyon that impressed me quite a bit.
I personally thought it was was more impressive than the Grand Canyon (which we visited later in our trip). I think it’s a matter of perspective. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a relatively narrow quarter mile wide but very deep (0.25-0.4 miles) canyon so my eyes and brain process what I see as “a really really deep canyon”.
In contrast, the Grand Canyon is very wide (around 7 miles at the section we visited) and “only” a mile deep. You aren’t looking a half mile or mile straight down at most overlooks at the Grand Canyon, but rather at a sloped and terraced valley wall. So even though the Grand Canyon is more than twice as deep as Black Canyon, it didn’t feel like it since the canyon walls sloped downward at a more gentle angle.
We found the relative lack of crowds at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison very refreshing. Parking lots were fairly full at some overlooks however the crowds were manageable. It wasn’t the jumble of people packing the trails and overlooks like at some of the National Parks we visited.
After leaving Montrose, Colorado, we set out for Cortez, Colorado. At 3.5 hours, our drive for the day was relatively short and left plenty of time for sightseeing along the way.
We took advantage of the leisurely pace by cruising down US 550 which is also known as the Million Dollar Highway. Along the way we stopped in Ouray, Colorado where we hiked to two different waterfalls.
The first hike was less than half a mile round trip to the Cascade Falls. I climbed up to the waterfalls and walked behind the falls with my daughter while the rest of the family watched us from the base of the falls.
After Cascade Falls, we visited Box Canyon which is just a few minutes away on the opposite side of Ouray. This was one of the few places we had to pay an admission fee during our summer trip. It was a very reasonable $5 for adults and $3 for children age 4-17.
The hike inside the canyon to the base of the falls was very easy. We also completed the hike to the top of the falls which was rather short but also rather steep at a 200+ foot elevation gain.
After leaving Ouray, we continued down the Million Dollar Highway. Every curve along the scenic Million Dollar Highway brings into view another breathtaking panoramic vista. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole but it was pretty spectacular the whole way.
At one point we stopped along the route to relax by the rushing waters of the Red Mountain Creek (which becomes the Uncompahgre River just downstream). The creek takes its name from the red-tinted water and red river rocks.
Toward the end of our day’s drive, we turned west at Durango, Colorado and drove along US 160 toward our destination for the evening: Cortez, Colorado. As we were leaving Durango, the landscape grew drier and more brown.
We spent the next two weeks driving through the desert climates of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada before the green landscape returned once again in California.
We spent two nights in Cortez, Colorado which is located in the far southwestern corner of Colorado. After a peaceful night of sleep, we spent the next day of our stay in Cortez visiting the Mesa Verde National Park.
Cortez proved a good base camp for exploring Mesa Verde since it was only a 12 minute drive from our hotel on the eastern edge of the city to the Mesa Verde main park entrance. We packed our picnic lunch for the day then headed out to explore the Native American cliff dwellings found throughout the park. Some of the little cliffside villages date back 1,000 years or more.
Unfortunately for us, a big section of the eastern half of the park was closed to traffic due to road construction. We were not able to tour the Cliff Palace, one of the most notable (and sort of easy to hike to) cliff dwellings. We still got to see it from an overlook on the opposite side of the canyon.
Western Section of Mesa Verde – Wetherill Mesa
Since we had all day to devote to Mesa Verde, we visited both halves of the park. The western section, the Wetherill Mesa, is generally less popular according to a park ranger I spoke to. But he informed us that it was much busier than usual at the time of our visit. However, everything is so spread out that it really didn’t feel crowded at all.
We hiked about a half mile round trip to the Step House cliff dwellings on a loop trail. If you like the high desert, this place is beautiful! Scrubby vegetation, colorful rock faces in the canyons, and enough desert reptiles to keep us focused on the trail ahead.
It was around 100F when we were out there walking around. We brought umbrellas to protect us from the heat of the sun. It’s so nice to generate your own shade everywhere you go! It’s also nice to avoid sunburn for the fair skinned in our family (Me; I’m talking about me).
There were some longer 2+ mile trails on the Wetherill Mesa side of the park but we didn’t feel like tackling those in the intense summer heat.
The heat is a funny thing. If you’re used to the humidity in the southeastern United States, you “feel” the heat when it’s 90F+ and humid outside. It’s sticky, nasty and oppressive. In contrast, a 100F dry heat doesn’t feel bad at all when you’re in the shade with a mild breeze. You sweat quite a bit but it dries quickly so you don’t know you’re sweating. That’s why it’s so easy to get dehydrated in hot, dry climates like we encountered at Mesa Verde.
After our half mile hike, we sat in the shade of the picnic shelter and had a snack. By the time we stood up after finishing lunch, I realized my shorts were soaked where I was making contact with the bench. So much sweat! But everywhere else I was totally dry.
Eastern section of Mesa Verde – Spruce Tree House
As morning morphed to afternoon, we drove 30 minutes to the eastern leg of Mesa Verde to see even more cliff dwellings. The eastern side of the park is much larger and has more to see.
We made our way to the overlook for the Spruce Tree House cliff dwellings. Amazingly enough, we found a pair of unoccupied benches on the shady back porch of a building that was presumably closed due to the pandemic. From there we enjoyed a rest and a good view of the cliff dwellings on the opposite side of the canyon.
The park website said the trail down to the Spruce Tree House was closed but I’m pretty sure we watched tons of hikers make the trek across the canyon and up to the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling.
Well rested after our extensive bench-sitting and water-drinking, we headed on to the next series of cliff dwellings and structures including the Cliff Palace overlook.
Although we didn’t do any long hikes during the day, we were pretty worn out from the one short hike and many other smaller walks to overlooks combined with the excessive mid-day heat. We saw what we could and eventually called it a day, leaving some sites within the park unexplored.
We made it back to the hotel and enjoyed another quiet, restful night before we headed out the next morning toward Utah and even more national parks.
After leaving Frisco, Colorado in Part 2 of our Great USA Road Trip, we drove several hours to Montrose, Colorado where we spent two nights. While there, we visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I thought this canyon was more impressive than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, however this park is the least popular National Park in all of Colorado!
On our travel day between Montrose, Colorado and Cortez, Colorado, we went on two hikes in Ouray, Colorado. The first was to Cascade Falls where I got to climb behind the waterfall! After that, we crossed to the other side of Ouray and visited the Box Canyon Park where we hiked first to the base of the waterfall inside the canyon and then to the top of the falls about 200 feet up!
Continuing our drive south, we traveled along the Million Dollar Highway, an incredibly scenic and beautiful mountain road that ends in Durango, Colorado. From Durango, we traveled west to Cortez where we spent the night.
The next morning, we backtracked a few minutes and spent the day touring the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. After a tiring day in Mesa Verde, we spent our second night in Cortez before heading north and west toward Utah the next day.
What kind of landscape do you like better? Lush green mountains and river valleys? Or arid but colorful desert landscapes?
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