June 18, 2015
The North Rim of Black Canyon is only 1,100 feet away from the South Rim at the narrowest point. Even the wider points of the canyon are a quick flight away for the birds who live here, but for Morgan and I to reach the North Rim we had to drive for over 2 hours for 80 miles, including several miles on dirt roads. But the long drive was worth it to experience more secluded views, trails and camping. When we got all the way over to the North Rim campground, we liked it so much we realized we should have just packed up our camp at the South Rim and planned to stay here for the night. Next time, we told ourselves, we’d spend the majority of our time on the North Rim for a fundamentally different experience.
The scenery around us on the drive to the North Rim gave us more perspective on the canyon’s length. We still had driven only the middle third of the 48 mile long canyon when we crossed over the mighty Gunnison River where the Blue Mesa dam reduces the astonishing force of the water and forms the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Three dams create the reservoirs of the Curecanti National Recreation area, which offers stunning boating opportunities and a ranger-led boat tour on Morrow Point Reservoir within the steep walls carved by the “once wild” Gunnison River. On our drive around to the North Rim side of the National Park, we stopped to look down at the Morrow Point Reservoir from an overlook at the beginning of Hermit’s Rest Trail, which I wrote down for future adventures.
When we got out of the car at the North Vista Trailhead, we noticed that the land and air seemed much dryer here than it had on the canyon’s other side. Almost immediately when we hit the trail, a tiny blue-winged butterfly flitted around our knees before landing on a common yellow flower. When the butterfly landed, we could see that the folded wings were grey on the outside, but when they opened they revealed a stunning shade of blue. When I looked in the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, this butterfly was quickly identifiable as one of the most common and widespread in North America, the spring azure (Celastrina ladon). I took interest in the plant it landed on, which turned out to be a variety of yellow buckwheat (Eriogonum spp). I had heard of the pioneer classic food buckwheat pancakes, but more reading about Native American ethnobotany revealed that this plant can be prepared for treating wounds, as well as for headaches, coughs, toothaches and diarrhea.
We saw many spring azures and wiry wildflowers as we walked along the grassland toward a juniper and pine forest punctuated by rock formation that were as aesthetically pleasing as if they had been carved by an intentional sculptor, not millions of years of chaotic weather.
We admired smooth sandstone walls and a hunk of stones naturally cemented together with red dirt juxtaposed near each other as though as a reminder of the inherent link between the natural forces of destruction (erosion) and creation (sedimentation, compaction, cementation). In order for the cemented stone to exist, the sandstone had to be worn down to fine powder and pieces of other rocks had to be chipped off and ground into roundness.
We stopped to admire the first overlook on the trail and cool off.
While Morgan took a picture of me looking very small in front of the vast canyon, a ground squirrel hopped along the rocks. He watched us for a moment before jumping fearlessly off a ledge. On the rocks below he stood still long enough for a descent picture, but not long enough for me to switch lens for more zoom.
We continued along the trail and found our first succulent on the trip. Though I love succulents and cacti (which are or are not succulents, depending on whether you’re talking to a botanist or a horticulturalist) for making terrariums back in Texas, I only realized when I saw this succulent on the trail that I have no guide to identify and learn about the species out here. After the hike, I was disappointed when I looked in my “mobile library” (a water-tight box full of books) and found that I left my cacti guide in Texas, probably thinking that because it specifically written for Texas it wouldn’t be useful in other places, though I’m sure many of the species across the southwest could be identified with it, since plants follow biome borders and not the ecologically arbitrary border lines on our maps.
As for the correct ID of these two succulents, I’m not sure. I believe the cacti is probably a type of hedgehog cactus (which I wrote about in Big Bend). But since I have no idea about the leafy succulent I’ll post it on iNaturalist, a magnificent tool for crowd-sourced species identification.
All our hiking finally brought us to Exclamation Point, which granted us an incredible view to the east of a long stretch of the churning, white-water Gunnison River. As we stood cautiously a few feet from the edge, the wind gusted up from inside the canyon, cooling our sweaty faces.
Though the trail continued several miles to a place locals we met on the trail called Green Mountain, but our map left unnamed, we headed back, eager to get out of the heat. On the way back, I managed one last picture of a stunning red flower so brightly colored that I struggled with the camera to get it to come out in focus and with accurate color. This common flower, which I had tried to “capture” many times before has a name as unforgettable as its color: skyrocket (Ipomopsis aggregata).
When we got back to the car we decided that before we drove all the way back to the South Rim Campground, we should check out the overlooks along North Rim Drive. I don’t have much to say about those incredible views. I took pictures to save myself from writing thousands of words that could never quite capture the image. Check out the Oakleigh Explorations Facebook Page to see views from the North Rim Overlooks, including The Narrows and Island Peaks.
Ready to get off the beaten path?
Check out the next story in our adventure here
to read about when we get lost trying to find a campsite
and end up camping at Walmart