For many people, summer is a great time to celebrating the outdoors by camping. According to the Outdoor Foundation, 38 million Americans went camping in 2012. That’s a pretty respectable number of people! My family wasn’t big into camping when I was a kid, but now, as an adult, I’m trying to make up for time lost. On Labor Day weekend I plan to go camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park. My goal is to visit all the U.S. National Parks, so this will be another stamp in my park passport. Hopefully this time will go a little better than my last trip!
My first experience camping was a few years ago with a Boyscout leader friend of mine. He made it easy and painless to set up the tents, get the fire going, and figure out meals. A second camping trip with him under our belts and my fiance and I decided we were ready to undertake our first solo camping trip, which we did this past Memorial Day weekend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not a very well-known national park–I’d never heard of it until just this year–but it’s a spectacular one. Designated a national park in 1999, it features steep, nearly black walls (the origin of its name) made of schist and gneiss carved out by the path of the Gunnison River. Unbeknownst to us at the time, however, the park also features some of the lowest temperatures in the state of Colorado.
I knew we were in for some cooler weather than I’m used to from Memorial Day weekend, so we packed accordingly with jackets, sweatshirts, and pants. The weather forecast also called for rain so we stopped by The Sports Authority on our way down and bought a canopy to keep our camp site mostly dry.
The Black Canyon features some amazing bird life, so in-between helping my fiance set up the tents and gear, I birded. There was an amazing number of yellow warblers flitting around and that vaguely cat-like mewing? A green-tailed towhee; my first sighting of that bird. Also running around were a bunch of chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels. Despite the warning stapled to the picnic table, we didn’t see any bears. We did see a dusky grouse, however.
True to the forecast, shortly after we set up everything, it started to drizzle. It continued to rain on and off until we woke the next morning, which turned out to be gorgeous. It’s hard to sleep in when birds are singing and so I did more birding. One unconcerned green-tailed towhee pecked around in the dirt by my feet as I stood completely still and snapped pictures. A mule deer emerged from the trees as I stalked a spotted towhee for a picture near the park’s amphitheatre. It stared for a moment, then wandered on.
Once my fiance woke up and we had breakfast, we decided to drive down East Portal Road into the canyon itself. Unless you’re particularly fit and want to climb, the road is probably your best option for accessing the canyon itself and getting down to the river. This was the best part of our trip. In the canyon, the weather was warmer than on the rim as partly evidenced by the sighting of a snake. We had a picnic by the river and watched a couple beavers swimming near their lodge. By early afternoon though, it clouded over and began to rain again.
When we got back to camp, our new neighbors had arrived. Camping spaces are fairly small and close together in the park and they were excited to see each other so they were pretty loud that night. Unable to sleep, I ended up sleeping in our car. As the night wore on, it grew colder. The rain turned to snow. Around 4 or 5 in the morning, the weight of the snow on our canopy caused one of its legs to buckle. I didn’t hear it because I was deeply asleep at the time, but the sound of the snap woke my fiance who was still in the tent. When he decided to brave the cold and wet to check it out, he also decided to put some things in the car. Of course, the sudden light and sound of the door opening jerked me awake and, because of all the warnings about safely stowing food, I thought a bear had somehow managed to open the car door. I yelled in a feeble, groggy attempt to scare the “bear” away. I wonder what our neighbors thought?
By that time, we were both wide awake, cold, and wet. While we’d been prepared for the cold and wet, we definitely hadn’t been prepared for it to be quite that cold and wet. We definitely hadn’t expected snow (see above about the Black Canyon having some of the lowest temperatures in Colorado, which I only found out AFTER our trip). I’d reserved our campsite for another night, but we decided instead to cut our losses, pack up, and drive home. Despite the rain, it really was a beautiful drive back through the mountains.
At the time, the fact that the trip didn’t go perfectly was frustrating. I really wanted our first solo outing to go smoothly. Looking back at it though, I can now see the humor in the experience and it’s definitely a time I’ll remember for a long while! It makes for some great stories too! Next time I’ll remember to pay even more attention to the weather and climate of a campsite.
Do you have any memorable (disastrous or not) camping experiences?