During our time at Curecanti National Recreation Area (CNRA), we hiked two of the trails close to our camp at Elk Creek Campground. Both hikes were recommended by the park rangers at the visitor center. May I just put in a plug for park rangers and volunteers? From Yosemite National Park in California to Fort Fisher State Historic Site in North Carolina, every staff member we have met is friendly, kind, patient, knowledgeable, and more than willing to share their love for and expertise of their park. Anytime we visit a state or national park our first stop is the visitor center where we gather maps and information and then strike up a conversation with one of the rangers or volunteers. They often share valuable insights about the history, geography, and features of the park that aren’t on any interpretive sign or brochure; have up-to-the-minute information on trail conditions, road closures, and weather stats; and can make recommendations for epic, memorable hikes. So, once again, we took the ranger’s advice and enjoyed two fabulous hikes.
Our first hike was,….
Dillon Pinnacles is a fascinating rock formation created from volcanic activity. The weirdly-shaped, constantly eroding spires, some rising to 600 feet, dominate the landscape. To capture a shot of the entire Pinnacles, cross the Blue Mesa Reservoir on US 50 and stop at the photo-op pull-out. From this vantage point you can see the Dillon Pinnacles displayed in all her glory. But to get up close and personal, cross back over the bridge and hike the trail. That is the best way to view the pinnacles and experience her ever-changing moods.
At the trailhead, which is 6 miles west of the West Elk Visitor Center, there is a parking lot, garbage can, and vault toilets, but NO water, so come prepared. The trail itself is a relatively easy 4 mile out and back, passing through mostly open ground with sagebrush (which smells simply heavenly) and a few washes filled with oaks and pinion trees. Since shade is scarce plan your hike to avoid the intense noonday sun.
As you draw closer and closer to the foot of the Pinnacles, unloose your imagination and you may begin to see spires, castles, animals, gnomes, giants, and lots of faces—-angry ones, happy ones, mysterious ones, and frightening ones. Whatever shapes and creatures you recognize will all depend on sunlight and shadow, making the Pinnacles a place you can spend all day admiring the constantly changing views.
Since our hike occurred in late September, the aspens and oaks treated us to some spectacular fall color. Blue Mesa lived up to its name that day and was a deep, vivid blue. The sagebrush and pines were a splash of green against the tan and brown of the sand and surrounding rocks. What a delight to be surrounded by such gorgeous color!
Benches and interpretive signs dot the trail. Stop and read the signs, but wait until you get to the bench at the turnaround spot to rest your weary legs. This is where you can drink in the views. Take your pick, you can gaze at the Dillon Pinnacles and the West Elk Mountains to the north or the Blue Mesa Reservoir and the San Juan Mountains to the south. It’s all beautiful and totally worth the hike!
Our next hike was,….
Curecanti Creek Trail
If you only have time to hike one trail at CNRA, the Curecanti Creek Trail is the one you want to take. This strenuous, 4-mile trail begins on the high rim of the Upper Black Canyon of the Gunnison at Pioneer Point and ends 900 ft below where the Curecanti Creek feeds into Morrow Point Reservoir. We have a certain affinity for canyons. When we stand on the rim looking into its depths something akin to a siren song lures us downward. We have to go. We have to explore. We have to find out what is at the bottom. I’m sure there is a name for this kind of condition,…..maybe hyper-canyon-itis???
Pioneer Point on Hwy 92 (which is a thrilling road to drive with tons of stunning canyon views) is where you will find the trailhead along with ample parking and a vault toilet, but NO water. Pioneer Point has a couple of overlooks with interpretive signs, well worth your time to visit so you can peek over the edge to see where you will end up! The trail descends gradually through some open meadows and clusters of trees that provide a bit of shade. What makes the trail so interesting is that it twists and turns so much that you get north, south, east, and west facing views as you make your way further down into the canyon.
The further we hiked into the canyon the closer we came to Curecanti Creek. Sections of the creek were calm and gentle while others were a torrent, cascading over rocks on its way to Morrow Point Reservoir. A couple of sizable bridges cross over the creek and there are two established campsites and a vault toilet along the trail.
The trail itself is not too challenging, lots of switchbacks and gentle inclines UNTIL you reach about the last quarter of a mile, then it becomes really tricky as you have to carefully pick your way down shifting, loose rocks. The reason the trail is tough in that section is because during the spring rains, that portion of the trail always gets flooded and swept away making it very difficult to maintain. But don’t give up! After you get past the treacherous sliding rock section, you will cross over to the opposite shore and it will be pretty much smooth sailing from there out.
And prepare to be amazed! We walked through some lush vegetation, stepped onto a sandbar and saw this,…….
WOW! Before us the canyon walls rose up and up and up, the waters of Curecanti Creek flowed into Morrow Point Reservoir and Curecanti Needle stood as a sentinel, guarding the entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This, my friends, is why we always hike to the bottom of a canyon. This is a sight you cannot behold up on the rim. It’s a wondrous part of Creation and we thanked God for the good health that enabled us to hike down to see it. There are many other hikes in and around the CNRA, some longer and more challenging and others quite easy, but none this spectacular.
If you find yourself near CNRA, I would encourage you to take one or both of these hikes. Getting out of the car and walking the trails allows you to be enveloped in the wonder of Creation, from the minute details of a butterfly to the majestic mountain peaks, and no doubt will cause you to proclaim, “Great is the Lord, the whole earth is full of His greatness!”