Friday, November 4, 2011

Kids will love array of wildlife on trail at Black Gunnison of the Canyon National Park

Inner canyon of the Black Gunnison. Photo courtesy of
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NPS.

Sheer cliff drops nearly
half a mile in length

An array of wildlife and a canyon bottoms that almost never sees sunlight are in store for day hikers walking Warner Point Nature Trail in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The park follows 12 miles of the Black Canyon, a scenic gorge that drops as much as 2,250 feet from rim top to river below. Of the gorge’s two sides, the north rim entrance usually closes during winter, but the south rim is more developed.

The Warner Point Nature Trail sits on the south rim. To reach it, take Colo. Hwy. 347 into the park then turn left onto South Rim Road, following it all the way to its end, which is High Point. Several scenic vistas along the way are worth stopping at; the most dramatic by far overlooks the Painted Wall, Colorado’s tallest sheer cliff at nearly half a mile high.

Parking is available at High Point, and the trailhead begins due west of the lot. The easy to moderate trail is well maintained, as it is one of the park’s premier spots to day hike. While the trail looks like a series of roller coaster bumps, the elevation never changes by more than 13 feet. There are shady benches for resting along the way.

Riding thermals
The trail follows the canyon’s ridgeline, offering fantastic views of the Black Canyon. To the south is the San Juan Mountain Range, Uncompahgre Valley, and Bostwick Park. To the north are the West Elk Mountains. All the while, you’ll walk through a forest of mountain mahogany, serviceberry, pinyon pine, and juniper with oak flats dominating on the rim.

In addition to the scenery, expect to spot plenty of wildlife, which kids will love. Eagles, peregrine falcons and great horned owls often swoop over the canyon. On the ground, golden-mantled ground squirrels, least and Colo,can be seen circling overhead as they hunt. In the morning, the canyon wren sings a graceful cascade of notes near Rock Point. Peregrine falcons, the world's fastest flyer, also can be spotted near the Painted Wall.

For kids who love reptiles, a variety of lizards inhabit the area. A smooth green or a Great Basin gopher snake sometimes will cross the trail. Garter snakes and striped whipsnakes are common in rock gardens and trailside thickets. None of the snakes are dangerous, however, as the trail is at too high of an altitude for venomous species.

Ghost of the Rockies
Less common but quite possible to see in fall and winter are elk and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Look for elk in grassy clearings and the bighorn sheep on the rocky cliff sides.

If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll spot a mountain lion if hiking at dawn or dusk. The “ghost of the Rockies” sometimes is seen slipping into the woodline.

Trail’s end offers an impressive view of the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon at its deepest point, which is 2,722 feet below the rim. Thanks to the eye cliff walls and narrow canyon, sunlight typically reaches the river bottom for only a few hours a day.

Because of the high elevations, always keep a close eye on children. They should not run off the trail or up to the canyon rim.

As the national park marks the line where the desert Colorado Plateau and the forested Rocky Mountains meet, expect changeable weather. It’s best to layer clothing and to pack rain gear. May and October offer the best times to visit.

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.