Monarch Pass, Gunnison CO and Fun Stuff©

After coffee and breakfast on Friday May 31…we checked the weather over Monarch Pass, our preferred route to our next stop in Gunnison CO. Connie had been doing that for several days including looking at the webcam at the pass…and sure enough…the one at the pass picked that day to be out of service. She had already seen that the pass was dry so the lack of webcam was not a big deal…and we decided to cross Monarch rather than taking the 2 pass but lower elevation and 60 miles longer route we had as an alternate. With only 110 miles to go to Gunnison…we took our time getting ready and pulled out of the campground around 1030 headed west on US-50…the only road we would need today.

The drive started in beautiful weather as you can see…nice blue skies and we had some wonderful views from the highway…the photos really don’t do the beauty of the snow capped peaks justice…it’s so much better for real.


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After about 60 miles or so we headed up into Monarch Pass…or what we were calling “the death zone”…as the pass tops out at 11,312 feet. Headed up the curves were fairly moderate but the grade kept changing. The optimum way to head uphill with Big Red is to set the cruise control at 55 and turn it on…you’ll never get to 55 of course but it will just choose the optimum gear as the grade changes to keep the big Cummins diesel on the optimum portion of the power curve. We mostly stayed between 42 and 47 mph going up but slipped to 31 on the steeper parts.

As you can see…there was snow up at the top of the pass and the temperature was down into the high 40s maybe.

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Headed down the west side…the grade was almost constant at 6% with little variation…but it was a lot curvier with some posted 30 mph curves. The optimum downhill scenario with Big Red is to downshift to whatever gear you need to maintain speed and only brake for curves…this minimizes the likelihood of overheating your brakes and having to use one of those runaway truck ramps which really messes up your vehicle. We shifted down to 4th…or maybe 3rd…Neil didn’t actually force a particular gear in manual but tapped the brakes to get the computer to downshift but remain in auto. We maintained 34-38 going down and only braked for curves or if the speed got close to 40…much better to take longer to get down but maintain control. The downhill grade westbound is about 7 miles long as opposed to the 6 miles going up.

Once off the pass we continued on to Gunnison…we immediately noticed the different landscape on the western slopes…lots of green grass and trees as opposed to rocky and brown on the eastern slopes…no idea why as the elevation is much the same but the western slopes do get more rain than the eastern ones since the mountains force the clouds to dump moisture as they rise to get over the peaks…it’s science man.

We arrived at Mesa Campground west of Gunnison…elevation 7,700 feet…so there’s even less air than over where we were in Cañon City…this just means we go slower and take more breaks. After getting setup…Connie washed her hair as it was time while Neil did some laundry since the hamper was full. We drove down to Gunnison and ate dinner at the Ol’ Miner Steakhouse…it was decent but not great.

Saturday morning we headed out for our first Fun Stuff© day…although with the elevation, lack of oxygen, and very low humidity maybe I better call it fun stuff© instead as the environmental conditions made it more work than it shoulda been.

We were headed to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National park…about 60 miles west of Gunnison. The big attraction here is…obviously…the canyon but it’s really one of those drive through national parks instead of your normal hike, waterfalls, and such kind of park. The canyon varies from 1,700 to 2,300 feet from the rim to the river below and there’s a rim drive on both north and south sides of the canyon. There’s also a single road down to the river at the eastern end of the canyon…we elected not to take it because (a) when you get to the river there’s nowhere else to go, just take a photo and head back up, (b) we didn’t have enough time, and (c) the grade is 16% with hairpin turns and switchbacks. If there had been a waterfall or something to see at the bottom we might reconsidered…but since our plan originally included the Colorado Museum of the West in Montrose right outside the park we skipped the down to the river option…even though we eventually cancelled the museum since we were tired and decided it didn’t meet the fun/cost ratio to make it worthwhile.

The park contains the oldest rock in North America…1.7 billion years old…as well as the tallest cliff in the USA…and about 15 miles of class V rapids as the river is essentially rapids all the way through the park. Most of the rim drive is around 8,300 feet elevation…so we just took a lot of breaks on the short walks we took out to the various overlooks.

We drove the south rim drive…which means you don’t get to see the Narrows where the gorge narrows to 40 feet wide at 1,750 feet below the rim. The south rim generally has better views but if you’re on the south rim it’s about a 75 mile drive to get to the north side and the north rim drive is not paved for the last 6 miles of the road. If we had another day we would have probably done the north rim as well though…my suggestion is that this is a 2 day park so that you can do both sides…but if you have to choose 1 do the south rim. The reason the views are better from the south is that the north side cliffs have eroded less, and hence they are more vertical…whereas the south rim cliffs are more eroded. Since the south side cliffs get much less sun than the north side…they dry out less…which leaves more moisture to seep into the rocks and then through the freeze/thaw cycle cause more cracks in the south side cliffs…which means more rockfalls which means more of a sloped gorge side rather than a cliff gorge side. Folks who are more used to the elevation…or younger than our Medicare age lungs…and hence less susceptible to the lower oxygen…might be able to do both sides in the same day…but it would be tough. In addition…you really want to do the drives earlier in the morning…there are fewer people competing for limited parking spaces and the light for photography is way better.

The park is located on the Gunnison Uplift…which is this really old, really hard black rock that was pushed up about 70 million years ago. Later on volcanic activity pushed some brownish, softer rock up into seams in the harder rock…which resulted in the varied colors seen in the canyon sides…and in addition the softer rock eroded more resulting in fins and hoodoos seen today.

We passed Blue Mesa reservoir on the way…about a 20 mile lake formed by a dam on the Gunnison River 30 miles or so upstream of the park.

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Shortly before the town of Montrose…we turned off onto CO-374 to the park and passed this carved bear on the side of the road.

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Entering the park proper…we got lots of photos at various overlooks throughout the south rim drive…notes on photos added where some explanation seemed needed.

Our intrepid explorer getting the bear photo above.

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Yep…there is a river down there…somewhere between 1,700 and 2,000 feet down.

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Taken from the visitor center overlook…this is looking down at about a 30 degree angle.

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This is an example of the old/hard rock that had seams filled by the softer rock…the latter has eroded away and left the old/hard rock behind forming the fins you can see here.

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This is looking almost straight down into the entrance to the Narrows…except you can’t see all the way to the bottom and it’s around the corner anyway. North is to the top of the photo…the river (if you could see it) enters at center right, passes above the fin with the greenery on it at center bottom and below the multi pointed fin at top center, then continues just north of the canyon wall at lower right before a hard left turn into the Narrows section…where the river goes wall to wall 40 feet wide with no non-flooded portion of the floor 1,750 feet below the rims.

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Neil took this flower for Connie…she was out of breath at the time on the way back to the car…and needed a longer lens than she has anyway.

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Connie the wildlife spotter saw this Green-tailed Towhee and Neil was able to get a nice shot before he flew away.

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A really nice view of the mountain range to the north of the park…it, along with another to the south…constrained the Gunnison River to flow where it does many millions of years ago…it used to flow up here at rim level but slowly over the millennia eroded the canyon we see today.

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This is the best view we almost got of the Narrows…this is looking east or upstream. The Narrows is just upstream of what you can see here…just below the three fin/hoodoo structures at the far side of the canyon at center top the river curves to the right and into the exit from the Narrows. If we had taken the north rim drive…we would have been able to look directly down on them…the north rim Narrows overlook is just out of the frame at top and a bit left of center. Barely a half mile from us as the crow files…but then we ain’t crows and to get there from here is a 2 to 3 hour drive.

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Zoomed in as much as possible on the rapids just about at the center of the above shot. These are clearly class V…and from what we saw about 95% of the river in the park is rapids. I took a SWAG and figured this little waterfall is maybe 10ish feet high.

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White throated swift soaring overhead…this was the only shot (of about 20 attempts) that was even close to post-worthy. There were also some other small swift/swallow birds nesting in the cliffs with a lot of green and red on the uppers…but they are even harder to catch and none of them ever came close enough for even an attempted shot while Neil had the camera in “fast bird focus continuous high speed shot” mode. We think they were Violet-green swallows based on the colors we remember…but don’t have any shots to compare to Peterson’s Birds of North America.

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Connie got another flower shot while Neil walked out to the Painted Wall overlook…she was done walking at high elevation by this time.

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Painted Wall…some 2,300 feet high…this is one of the “signature” park views and is the highest cliff in either CO or the US…Neil can’t remember what the sign said. It’s not as tall as the Grand Canyon…but then most of it doesn’t really qualify as a vertical cliff. The pink veins are the softer rock known as pegmatite…the darker blue black gneiss is the really old really hard rock that forms the Gunnison Uplift. For comparison…the Empire State Building would reach barely halfway up the cliff opposite…and the worlds tallest building…Burj Khalifa…would only exceed the cliff’s height by about 400 feet. This view is looking northwest…the river flows from right out of view then exits the frame at upper left as it heads down toward the town of Montrose.

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After the painted wall…we stopped at the second highest overlook…Sunset Point…and spotted these Bighorn Sheep Rams…there were a total of 3 that we could see. Neil had to go back to the car and break out the bird lens to get any useful photos at all…and even these are significantly cropped so there’s not as much detail and clarity as he would like.

This pair was a little closer to where we were eating lunch…but a little closer was still 400 or 500 yards away.

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Another view of the mountain range to the north.

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And a final couple of shots of one of the rams…this first one is really a crappy shot…well, actually it’s an excellent shot of ram butt…but it does serve to show how much wider the horns are than the rest of the body of the sheep.

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And here he is…the master…surveying his domain…at least in-between snacking on grass or lichens or whatever they were eating over there.

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With that…our one day tour of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was done. We headed out…and down…from the park, drove a couple miles west to the museum but decided we were blowing it off, and headed back home. Once home…we had a nap…an excellent idea Ima tellin’ ya…and then dinner. It was all leftovers…Connie had leftover trout, mashed taters, and veggies from Ol’ Miner Steakhouse last night and Neil had some leftover chicken and mushroom pasta from the other night…he baked a couple of rolls to go along with it.

Sunday we headed off to Mass at 1030 and then stopped by Subway for a quick lunch…then headed again west on US-50, past the south rim entrance to Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP into downtown Montrose…and then turned south on US-550 toward a road known as the Million Dollar Highway. It’s only the portion between Ouray and Silverton that has this name…as it heads through the Uncompahgre Gorge and over the 11,018 foot Red Mountain Pass. It’s supposed to be one of the most scenic drives in the US…and I gotta admit it was mighty scenic…but the road was essentially blasted out of the side of the gorge and in most places the distance between the almost non existent line at the side of the pavement and the 1,000 foot drop-off is like 3 feet. And there are almost no guard rails. And on the way south from Ouray to Silverton…you’re mostly on the outside lane on the road.

Anyway…as we headed south on US-550…we started getting some nice views of the mountains…these are the same ones that I talked about on the south side of the National Park above…the San Juan Mountains.

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We passed through Ridgway CO…we’ll come back to that town in just a bit…and then continued on down towards Ouray. A few miles before we got there…Connie the wildlife spotter looked over and spotted these doe mule deer in a field on one of the many ranches we passed.

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Neil also got a shot looking south up into the Uncompahgre Gorge where we would shortly be traveling.

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We passed through Ouray…and headed up the mountain road into the gorge…we stopped and looked back north at the quaint little town of Ouray.

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Then continued onto the Million Dollar Highway.

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Snow shed in the avalanche area…complete with avalanche remains.

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Red Mountain Creek…these two are just upstream of the snow shed.

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And a shot from just downstream…you can see that most of the creek is still covered by 3 feet or so of ice/snow, it’s only open for about the last bit at the right side of the frame.

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Finally we arrived in Silverton…an old mining town at 9.300 feet. Silverton is pretty much a blast from the past…combined with a little of the present.

It’s got paved streets…well, one of ‘em anyway…Main Street.

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And a bunch of side streets that aren’t paved…and did I mention stagecoaches too?

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It’s got the world’s highest Harley Davidson dealership…at least they claim it to be.

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And the convenience store sells oxygen in a can…20 bucks for the large, 15 for the small. They were amazingly light…they feel empty when you pick them up, but there’s a note on the advertisement that says that’s normal as it’s just oxygen which is about the same weight as air is. I don’t know how many puffs you get out of a can…Neil forgot to check.

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We didn’t stay long in Silverton…too little air for us to walk around and look at all the old buildings (and some that are new but were built to look old as well)…so we pretty quickly headed back over the pass. On the way Neil got this shot of part of an abandoned mine complex. Immediately out of frame to the left is a 200 or 300 foot drop-off…you can just see the edge.

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He then got this shot standing right next to the end of that snow pile…seewudImean. Downhill out of the gorge is about at 10 o’clock in this frame…although the road obviously winds around a lot to get there.

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Pretty quickly we were back out of the gorge…and headed back to Ridgway for our final stop of the day…I tol’ya we would get back to it…didn’t I?

As you might recall…a few blogs back I talked about the story of the recently deceased Navajo Code talker who awarded the Honorary Unsubscribe award by Randy Cassingham of the Internet newsletter This is True.

The newsletter was established back in the mid 90s and is one of the earliest successful make a living from the internet companies. Along the way…several side projects evolved into key parts of the This is True empire…Honorary Unsubscribe, Obliviots, Get out of Hell Free cards (modeled after the Get out of Jail Free card in the Monopoly game)…but I digress. Suffice it to say that I highly recommend you take yourselves over to…and sign up for the free version of the newsletter. You’ll quickly find it’s definitely worth the small annual cost to upgrade to the Premium version that has twice as many stories.

Anyways…getting back to where I was two paragraphs back…Randy has some saved Google searches for things like his name, This is True, and probably several others. The thing about saved searches is that you can get Google to continuously search the web for whatever term you’ve saved…and whenever the term is found in a new location you get notified.

So one of these searches caught the mention in the blog back on 5/15…he followed the link to this blog, found our email address after seeing our schedule on the blog…and lo and behold an email showed up in Neil’s Inbox that we would practically be in his neighborhood when we were in Gunnison. He recommended the Million Dollar Highway (thanks Randy), and offered to get together for a beer and pizza at Colorado Boy Brew Pub in Ridgway. They compared notes and schedules and since we were passing through Ridgway anyway they set a meetup at 1730…Randy said he had never seen a derby wearing bear and liked Golden Retrievers.

The adults arrive at Colorado Boy about 1715, grabbed a seat at the bar and a table reservation for whenever the current occupants departed (estimated 20 minutes by the waitress) as well as a couple of brews…Scottish Ale for Connie and Brown Ale for Neil…both were excellent. ‘Bout that time…Neil got a text that they were running a bit late but were on the way…no worries on our part. Randy and his lovely wife Kit arrived 5-10 minutes later just as the table came ready…so perfect planning. Both of them are…in addition to their regular jobs…volunteer paramedics for Ouray County. They had been paged from a graduation party they were attending to a situation…it was resolved quickly…so we sat down to dinner. They were on call for the day…so no brews for them…and had already eaten once so they had a salad while Neil and Connie had a pizza. We spent a very pleasant hour and a half with them…conversations ranged from his old job at JPL working for NASA on the space program to submarines to hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. A good time was had by all…before we departed we got an ussie…that’s like a selfie ‘cept there’s more than one in the photo…of the 4 humans as well as Kara and I.

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Randy gave Neil two of his Get out of Hell Free cards…and even signed one for a shot for the blog. He’s sold or given away over 2 million of these over the years. Thanks Randy…that will definitely go into the “cool stuff we’ve collected on the road” archives. 

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You can read all about the origin of the cards and get your own here. I mean it…go sign up for the newsletter…you can thank me later…and get yerself some of those GOOHF cards too if’n you’re inclined to.

About 1900…we said our goodbyes…if they were RVers it would have been our “until next times”…and I’m hereby declaring both of them honorary RVers…hey, it’s my blog so I can most certainly do that…so “until next time” to both of you. They headed off as did we…since we had about 2 hours back to the rig at Gunnison.

We did spot this beautiful partial rainbow on the way back…not bad for an iPhone shot, eh?

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We dragged into the rig about 2100…after a very long and very tiring day. A little TV and then off to bed as we had a travel day on Monday.

No interesting things found on the net this time…it’s already a pretty photo intensive post.


About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
This entry was posted in RV, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Monarch Pass, Gunnison CO and Fun Stuff©

  1. A good time was had by all! Glad you were able to pop over the Million Mile Highway. It’s not for the faint of heart. 🙂

    • Neil Laubenthal says:

      Yup…a good, er very good time was had by all. You’re right about Million Dollar Highway…the views were pretty spectacular. Definitely in the top 5 views we’ve had in the past 8 years.

      Again…thanks for taking the time to get together with Connie and I…it’s always nice to meet people in person that you consider online friends.


  2. Jim Noble says:

    What a cool website.

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