Michael and Kathy's southwest Colorado tour, page 4

Page 1: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs
Page 2: Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde National Park
Page 3: Mesa Verde to Ouray
Page 4: Ouray to Gunnison

Monday, June 28

Distance: 56.0 miles
Riding time: 4 hours, 17 minutes
Average speed: 13.0 mph
Maximum speed: 37.9 mph

In order to experience the town of Ouray better, Kathy and I chose to eat breakfast at a restaurant in town rather than cook for ourselves. Our restaurant, like many buildings in town, had Victorian architecture. A lot of buildings constructed in the late 1800's have been beautifully restored, particularly the hotels and public buildings. The entire town is designated a national historic district. Ouray first started in 1875 when gold and silver were discovered in the surrounding mountains. The two most valuable mining claims were the Camp Bird Mine and Red Mountain Mining District, which together produced $125 million of mineral ore. The wealth helped create some of the grand buildings in town.

This Beaumont Hotel was Ouray's grandest hotel throughout the late 1800's and early 1900's. In the last 10 years it has been beautifully restored.

Other nice buildings in Ouray. Unlike many old mountain towns, Ouray has never had a devastating fire, so a large percentage of its current buildings are original.

After breakfast we rode north to Montrose. There was a headwind but we still rode fast because we were riding downhill, following the Uncomphagre River. We could see storms in the south and didn't want the weather to catch up with us, so in Montrose we stopped only long enough for a McDonald's sundae and soft drink before heading east on highway 50 toward Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

We are camped in Black Canyon now, but the ride wasn't easy. The 6 mile stretch between the highway 50 exit and the park entrance is a very steep climb. We shifted to our lowest gear and pedaled like crazy to try to beat the rain. We set up our tent right as the rain started, but then the rain lasted only a couple minutes before the sky cleared up. This campground has bear-proof boxes that make it easy for us to safely store our food. That's important since a bear was seen in the campground last night.

We had enough time this evening to visit the visitor's center and attend an evening ranger talk. During the talk we learned that the canyon is narrow because it is made of strong metamorphic rock that is not easily eroded. Metamorphic rock is formed deep underground when sandstone is put into extreme heat and pressure.

Looking south from the farm town of Ridgeway.

A rainstorm south of us on our way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Tuesday, June 29

Distance: 79.0 miles
Riding time: 6 hours, 20 minutes
Average speed: 12.4 mph
Maximum speed: 47.3 mph

This was a very long and productive day. We toured Black Canyon, rode east all the way to our car in Gunnison, then loaded up our car and drove home.

This morning the sky was cloudy but not threatening. We rode our bicycle along the south rim road of the canyon, which has many overlooks. We stopped at most overlooks, and we hiked a trail at the end of the road to reach the highest overlook in the park. The canyon is about 2000 feet deep throughout the park and has very steep walls. At its narrowest point the canyon walls are only 1/4 mile apart. The north wall is the steepest because it faces south and gets more sun. The sun dries out the north wall and reduces erosion from ice and rain. At some overlooks the canyon was so steep and deep that it made me feel dizzy. The dark canyon walls are covered with light gray stripes that create interesting patterns. The stripes are made of schist that was injected into cracks in the dark rock by volcanic activity back before the canyon was formed.

A deer grazing near our tent this morning.

Looking down into Black Canyon.

Looking east through Black Canyon. The wall on the right is the south wall, which is less steep than the north wall because it gets less sunlight and so endures more erosion from moisture.

More views of Black Canyon. The last picture shows the light gray stripes of schist in the dark gray metamorphic rock.

The Gunnison river at the bottom of the canyon makes a roar that can be heard at the top, but it is not nearly as big a river as it used to be. An underground diversion tunnel finished in 1909 takes 3/4 of the river's annual flow to irrigate farms around Montrose. We saw many of these farms yesterday and today. Several dams upstream of the park give the river a constant flow rather than the seasonally varying flow that it used to have. The dams and tunnel have created many benefits: productive farmland, hydroelectricity, better fishing on the lower Gunnison, and water recreation on Blue Mesa Reservoir. On the other hand, they have greatly changed a natural ecosystem. The Colorado river system, of which the Gunnison is a part, is so heavily diverted that in most years it dries up before it reaches the ocean.

It is possible to climb from the canyon rim down to the river, but the hike is somewhat dangerous and Kathy and I didn't want to try it when there was a likelihood of rain in the afternoon. Instead we decided to pack up and head east towards Gunnison. The Curicanti Recreation Area around Blue Mesa Reservoir stretches from Black Canyon nearly to Gunnison, so we figured that we could camp somewhere in there. We left the park around 3:30.

Behind Kathy is some of the farmland irrigated by water diverted from the Gunnison River. Without water from the Gunnison very little farming would be possible here.

Kathy at Warner Point, the highest official overlook in the park.

Looking nearly straight down into Black Canyon.

We thought that we had crossed our last pass on Sunday, when we crossed Red Mountain Pass, but it turned out that we had 2 more passes today: Cerro and Blue Mesa. Each had a 4-mile climb, so they were smaller than average but tiring all the same. As the afternoon wore on we realized that if we pushed hard we could ride all the way back to our car and then drive home. It looked like it was going to rain, and we thought it would be more fun to drive home and sleep in a real bed than to camp in the rain and pack up a wet tent in the morning.

The rain held off until the last 14 miles of our ride. These last miles felt like they took forever, but at 8:30 we finally reached our car. After packing up the car, mounting the bike and changing into dry clothes we left town at about 10 p.m. for our 5+ hour drive back home. At home we were exhausted, but happy to have finished a challenging, interesting and scenic tour of southwest Colorado.

Hills near the town of Gunnison, shortly before we entered a rainstorm.

A bighorn sheep near Gunnison.


This bike tour was shorter than our previous 2 tours, but the scenery was great the whole time and our tour was nearly trouble free. We rode 560 miles, crossed 8 named mountain passes and climbed several major unnamed hills. Our bodies handled the ride well, with far fewer aches and pains than our other tours. We had zero flat tires and never needed to be rescued by a truck. Coincidentally, it was also 560 miles for us to drive from Fort Collins to Gunnison and back, so half our total travel was by car and half by bicycle.

We took time to climb a mountain and visit 2 national parks, and learned a lot about geology and ancient American history. It rained on us only for fractions of 3 days, and the rain never shortened a day's ride. We finished ahead of schedule in just 11 days. That was good for Kathy because it gave her time to spend with her parents, who were visiting Fort Collins for a week.

Like our other tours, this tour gave us a greater appreciation and understanding of the incredible land that we live in, and that was the most significant accomplishment of this tour.


Page 1: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs
Page 2: Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde National Park
Page 3: Mesa Verde to Ouray
Page 4: Ouray to Gunnison