GUNNSION, Colo. - One of the best ways to hike from the rim to the river at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the Curecanti Creek Trail at Pioneer Point.
While there are easier and shorter ways to the water, if you want to hike rim to river, the Curecanti Creek Trail drops 900 feet in two miles AND it ends with a view of one of the canyon's features, the Curecanti Needle, a rock formation featured on the logo for the scenic railroad that went through part of the canyon.
The Black Canyon stretches 48 miles between Gunnison and Montrose. Part of the canyon is protected as a National Park, part of it as a National Recreation Area. The Curecanti Creek Trail is in the aptly named Curecanti National Recreation Area (directions below).
At Pioneer Point, visitors will see a sign directly them left or right for the overlooks and right for the Curecanti Creek Trail. The overlook to the left features a view of the Curecanti Needle and the river channel. The overlook to the right shows you the canyon hikers take to a cove next to the river. You'll also see the Curecanti Needle from here. (It's the tall rock formation on the other side of the main river.)
After a photo stop at the overlooks, it's time for the hike. A sign warns hikers that while it may only take an hour to hike down to the river, it may take two hours to hike back up. The sign calls the hike back up "strenuous."
The first mile of the trail and the second mile are very different. The first mile feels desert-like. You're hiking on a single-person wide, dirt trail in a place with trees, but not many of them are along the trail. That means there are few shady spots in the middle of the day.
Just a little over a mile from the parking lot, hikers cross a bridge and the trail changes. Now the trail follows the Curecanti Creek. While this section can still be hot in places, being next to the water helps. Even in late July, we found several little waterfalls to photograph.
In one rocky section, we suddenly felt a cold breeze, as if we were standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open. Park workers asked us later if we had found the "refrigerator rocks." We think we did. The rocks and the dirt trail have small cave-like openings that push out cold air. We even found two people sitting in one of the cave-like opening cooling off. If you find this spot, take a break and enjoy the temperature change.
The trail is steep and rocky in this section, but you're getting closer to the cove. You'll cross another bridge about 1.65 miles down the canyon, then it's just a third of a mile to the end. You'll know you're close when you find a small picnic and camping area with a table and a bear box. From there it's only a few more steps to the shoreline of the cove.
You can't get to the main channel of Morrow Point Lake/Reservoir from this trail without getting wet. The trail ends in a cove a couple hundred feet from the main channel. But you can see the Curecanti Needle rock formation in the main channel and you can go for a cool, refreshing swim here, if you choose.
If you come at the right time, you may even see one of the boat tours going by in the main channel.
This is a great place for lunch or a snack before tackling the climb out.
Details: The hike from the rim to the river is about 3.9 miles roundtrip with 900 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From U.S. 50, turn north at the intersection of Highway 92. Take Highway 92 over Blue Mesa Dam and drive 5.8 miles from Highway 50 to the Pioneer Point parking lot.
Note: The Curecanti National Recreation Area is made up of three reservoirs: Blue Mesa Reservoir, Morrow Point Reservoir and Crystal Reservoir. This hike takes you from the north rim of the canyon to a cove on the Morrow Point Reservoir.
Learn more about hikes in the Curecanti NRA: http://www.nps.gov/cure/planyourvisit/hiking.htm
Learn more about rim to river hikes in the Black Canyon National Park: http://www.nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/hikinginnercanyon.htm Rangers say there are no "trails" that go from rim to river in the National Park, only "routes" and you need a permit to hike them.