Anyone who watched the last two seasons of Game of Thrones can tell you it takes more than subverting expectations to create an enjoyable experience.
It can, however, be an important ingredient, as I found out over the holiday weekend on a camping trip near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
I’ve made no mystery of the fact I love national parks. I’ve been to quite a few since moving to Utah, including all of the in-state parks except Capitol Reef. Many of the parks have been bursting at the seams with people, holiday weekend or not.
Visitation to national parks topped 318 million in 2018, the third-highest total since record-keeping began in 1904, according to the National Park Service. I’ve been to three of the most visited — Zion (4.3 million), Yellowstone (4.1 million), and Glacier (3 million).
So my expectations for visiting a national park over Memorial Day weekend with three others were it would be something of a mob scene. Even after our muddy campsite on National Forest Service land was the only one in sight, I assumed there would be crowds of people. There are always crowds in national parks, especially on holiday weekends once school is out.
So you can imagine my surprise as we drove down a dirt road to the north side of Black Canyon to discover there was no line. There wasn’t a toll booth, with a park ranger handing out maps, or a massive asphalt parking lot. There was only a dirt road to the right and a dirt road to the left.
We still hadn’t seen another car. Consider my expectations completely subverted.
On the north side of the park there is no visitor center. There’s simply a ranger station, which was sometimes occupied and sometimes not during our trip, a vault toilet and a spigot for water, which didn’t boast any particular warnings and was therefore deemed drinkable.
While the gravel parking spots were full to overflowing at the ranger station, there was still only about 15 cars. Most of them were connected to rock climbers who were off to parts unknown.
From the north side of the park, you can see the south side, with its paved roads and amenities. While it’s just across the yawning chasm for which the park is named, it’s actually a nearly 2-hour drive from one side of the park to the other.
Even paying was a different experience; visitors simply put cash into an envelope, deposit it, and retain an attached receipt. It was nearly an honor system, especially since I only saw one ranger on duty at any point, and they weren’t driving around the park looking for cheats.
The first day, we filled out a wilderness permit so we could travel on one of three routes to the bottom of the canyon. We chose one of the two easier routes, as the description for the most difficult one mentioned it as “unsettlingly steep.”
The route was short in distance — only .9 of a mile — but dropped over 1,500 feet. It wasn’t really a hike but more of a rock scramble down, where you had to pick your way through loose footing, prickly plants and poison ivy.
It was all worth it for the payoff at the bottom, however. The route ends on rocks along the rushing Gunnison River, with nearly 2,000 feet of sheer rock walls rising overhead.
The bottom is a peaceful place to grab a snack and rehydrate for the journey upward, with the stunning views and places to sit amongst the large stones. It’s a good thing, too, because the hard part is yet to come.
Heading back over the 1,500 vertical feet on the way out is a fairly demanding cardio workout, complete with portions where a bit of rock climbing experience doesn’t hurt and scrambling on all fours over loose ground. It was about as quick to go up as down, but certainly more physically demanding.
We returned to the park the following day for a more traditional hike, which gave high-angle views of the canyon. It’s always fascinating to look down on birds flying hundreds of feet above the ground.
Despite the beautiful weather and interesting terrain, we only saw eight people on the hike. Compared to the usual conveyor belt of humanity at a national park, even on off-peak times, it was a refreshing change of pace.
If you’re looking to see more of America’s natural splendor but don’t feel inclined to deal with crowds, I’d strongly recommend Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It may not have the Instagram appeal of the more iconic parks, but anyone who has wanted a clear picture of Delicate Arch without 35 people in it can tell you, that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.