The river roars between the mighty rock walls and spires that form Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one of the West’s wildest natural marvels. Skilled climbers try to conquer the landscape from the primitive North Rim. Vehicles often can’t access that gravel road in winter, though. The paved South Rim Road is plowed up to the visitor center, where on our December visit, we found two other cars parked. The options are limited in the cold months, but we felt as if we had been let in on a glorious secret.
A gate barred the snowy road ahead — a road that in warm weather takes drivers to the overlook for Painted Wall, Colorado’s highest cliff. By Christmas, typically, the road is groomed, making beginner terrain for cross-country skiers. The visitor center checks out free snowshoes on a first-come, first-served basis.
While we eyed the road in our snowshoes, a ranger recommended the Oak Flat Trail instead. It was, he said, “a bigger bang for your buck” — better views in a much shorter distance. Bring your own water, as the park’s supply is limited in the winter. Trekking poles also are recommended, as the trail dropping 400 feet can be slick.
At a ‘Y’ behind the visitor center, the Oak Flat Trail runs left, a stem through the woods to the start of the loop. We went right, dropping to more unobstructed vistas.
The descent is indeed steep at times, and one should not be too distracted by the grandeur, for a wrong step could be harmful. Stop to observe the canyon, to feel winter’s silence, the only sound the rush of that blue water as the Gunnison River reaches dark corners.
While the powder remained untouched in areas marked for wilderness permits, we found our foot-trampled trail easy to follow. It continued down into a pine- and aspen-mixed forest before ascending as harshly as it had dropped. Catch a breather at a massive rock wall, a surprising delight.
To extend the trip by a couple of miles, go right at the sign pointing to the Uplands. Or continue straight to the visitor center, finding peace in the suddenly open snow fields. You’ll return to the start of the loop, turning right to go back to the visitor center.
Trip report: 2 miles round trip (loop), 389 feet elevation gain, 8,152 feet max
Getting there: Head south on Nevada Avenue, which is Colorado 115, and head west on U.S. 50 to Cañon City, continuing through Gunnison. Before Montrose, turn right at the Black Canyon corner store, driving 7 miles to the visitor center.
FYI: Free entrance in winter, $20 per vehicle otherwise. No dogs on trail.
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