Independence Day in Western Colorado

Nearly four hours from Denver, Gunnison is home to one of the biggest bodies of water in Colorado—the Blue Mesa Reservoir. The small city also houses a college, restaurants and shops. It is home to about 6,500 full-time residents, but during peak season or when school is in session, that number can grow by about 2,500. 

Gunnison has a rich history of ranching, agriculture, mining, tourism and outdoor recreation opportunities that bring many more people through the community.

The City of Gunnison

Jeremiah and I drove down Highway 285 to get to our Independence Day destination, where we would spend the weekend with a few of his friends. The drive takes you through national forests and landscapes vastly different from those found in and around the Front Range. To leave the Front Range and enter the Western part of the state is like walking into a new world full of adventure… and during tourism season, many of the same Patagonia-wearing, hydroflask carrying hikers you’d see in any other part of the state. A few stop-worthy communities you drive past or through on this dive include Buena Vista, Leadville and Salida.

We reserved our campsite a few months in advance, and it made quite the difference in our stay. We rolled into the site late in the afternoon on Friday and began setting up in the warm evening sun. As expected on Independence Day weekend, it was packed. We positioned our tent to see as few people as possible and rolled out our sleeping pads.

After setting up, we ventured into town (a twenty-minute drive) for dinner. We first attempted The Dive, which came up full. Our next attempt found us at  El Paraiso Family Mexican Restaurant, which offered burritos big enough to feed us Friday and Saturday night. With full bellies, it was time to enjoy the best part of camping—a nighttime sky and a campfire. 

Gunnison is part of the dark sky region, which means when nighttime finally arrives, you’re greeted by a sky full of blinking stars. In fact, in 2015, The International Dark Sky Association and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park announced the official selection of Black Canyon as an International Dark Sky Park. The national park is close to the reservoir. While we might not have gotten a sky that dark, we enjoyed a similar view. We studied the big dipper intently while our knees felt the heat of a crackling fire and I pulled my fleece tighter against me to stay warm. 

We crawled into my parents’ old tent around 11 p.m., snuggled into our soft sleeping pad/sleeping bag bed and fell asleep to the sound of rustling trees, feeling the breeze that promised a cool night (which would get down to 45 degrees).

The next morning, we woke up with the sun and walked around the campground’s four different loops. As we sauntered in the cool morning air, we pointed to our dream cars—Tacomas with tent toppers and Four Runners with big tires and lifts. Then settled at an open site with a waterfront view to appreciate where we got to spend our time for the weekend. 

By 9 a.m., we were heading for the water. Blue Mesa Reservoir is about 30 miles long, leaving plenty of opportunity for lake exploration. The reservoir is where the the Gunnison River waters gather before they carve through the breathtakingly steep Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

We sped around in Jeremiah’s friend’s boat for an hour or so, then parked by a beach to take a dip, have a drink and relax. Between plenty of time in the 65-degree water, peanut butter sandwiches and a couple of beers, we were happy and sleepy by the end of the day. PSA—remember to reapply sunscreen. The cool water helps you forget that you’re baking. 

I filled our evening back at camp with a post-sunshine nap, half a burrito, and s’mores I must say, I went to bed quite happy on that cool evening. 

We woke the next morning to rain. Thankful for the rain cover, we went back to sleep while we waited it out. By 6:30, we were packing our things and preparing to hit the road for the next part of our Western Slope adventure—stopping at Tributary Coffee for some breakfast burrito and coffee fuel.

The day looked forward to two stops—Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Box Canyon Falls in Ouray. Social media is an interesting thing that I’m more often than not irritated by, but this time, I got to be grateful for it. Jeremiah saw Box Canyon on Instagram the day we left for Gunnison. I explained that it was close (by Colorado standards) to were headed in. We added it to the list. 

Our route took us through Black Canyon to Ouray. We drove in with no reservation (a rare occurrence for Rocky Mountain National Park goers), and were immediately bet with an astonishing view. With its deepest point reaching 2,722 feet and a width that reaches 1,100 feet, a photo in front of the natural wonder makes it look as if you were posing in front of a screen.

The canyon is a geological masterpiece, in my humble opinion. According to the National Park Service, the canyon is about 60 million years in the making:

About 60 million years ago, a small area of land uplifted (grow), bringing 1.8 billion year old metamorphic rock to high elevations. This is called the Gunnison Uplift. About 30 million years ago, large volcanoes erupted on either side of this uplift, burying it in volcanic rock (blow). Then, as early as 2 million years ago, the Gunnison River began flowing in force (flow). The river and time eroded all of the volcanic rock and cut a deep canyon in the metamorphic rock below. What you see today is a deep, steep, and narrow canyon: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

National Park Service

We drove through the park, stopping at a few vistas, the last one being High Point. I’m not quite sure we got the whole experience because we did not stop and truly hike around. However, by the time we arrived, the morning rain made it humid, and the sticky air just got hotter. So, we continued on after taking in one last breathtaking view. 

We started our hour-long trip to Ouray two and a half hours after arriving at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Driving through the Western Region of Colorado is my favorite drives because it is so vastly different from the metro area. The communities are smaller and rolling hills and sweeping landscapes give you an idea of what the land looks like with less of us. 

We rolled into Box Canyon Falls with more rain. We paid the $5 entry fee and were warned to get off the metal high bridge if we saw lighting, then, began our ascent. From the high bridge, you get another breathtaking view, this time of Canyon Creek.

We walked through the park, taking in the high views of the creek and the jaw dropping waterfall that rushed past visitors as they descended toward its base. While I’m not sure the falls were worth a trip all to themselves, they were a welcome addition to exploration around the town that houses them.

After seeing the falls, we moseyed into town with grumbling stomachs and settled on the rooftop of the Ouray Brewery, where we were—again—greeted by incredible views. On this rooftop, you get stunning mountain and town views, delicious burger (or chicken sandwich) options and quick service. We were thrilled by the choice, but I suppose as Denverites, we are partial to rooftops. 

Ouray, the Switzerland of America, was officially incorporated in 1876. Over 2,600 people lived in the town by 1880.

The local area around Ouray had significant ore deposits, but the greatest concentration of high quality deposits were in the Ironton area 10 miles south of town and the Sneffels district and Imogene Basin workings to the west and southwest. Ouray became the shipping point and logistics center of the region, a role that it would serve for over 90 years.

Jerry Clark

Ouray showcases its mining history today. Unlike many other mining towns, this one has not seen devastation like town-consuming fire. The result is a town full of 19th Century structures—City Hall, three hotels, Wright’s Opera House—visitors get to gape at today.

Like most old western towns, Ouray has numerous stories to share and a fascinating history well-worth hearing. We did not stick around long enough to explore this time, but added it to our list for the following summer.

Finally, our journey home began. Our path took us past Rifle, my hometown. Naturally, we stopped at Rifle Falls so I could show Jeremiah the park I grew up at and explain how a girl who didn’t like the outdoors still had to like the outdoors. We explored paths to the falls and ventured through caves, giggling as if we were children. It was the perfect way to round out an eventful Western Colorado adventure.

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