Town Story: Montrose
Just beyond the cliffs of Black Canyon lies historic Montrose, agricultural hub and hidden gem of art and adventure.
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(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine.)
IF YOU WERE to take a map of Colorado and stick a tack in the spot that’s directly adjacent to every outdoorsy pursuit the state has to offer, chances are the pin will pierce paper squarely between the “T” and the “R” in the printed word “MONTROSE.”
Location is everything for Montrose, an 18,000-population city in southwest Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley. The angular San Juan Mountains jut into the skyline south of town, the Uncompahgre Plateau is just west and the Grand Mesa lies north across a stretch of farmland. But the crown jewel of the grandeur that sur
rounds Montrose is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The Gunnison River, swelled by annual snowmelt, carved the canyon over countless millennia. Rock climbers scale the sheer canyon walls, which plunge a vertiginous 2,000 feet straight down to the river that’s adored by fly fishermen and kayakers. When the Gunnison is at its fullest and fastest, the National Park Service website gives this uncommonly blunt assessment: “Kayaking should not be attempted even by experts … death is probable.”
But you don’t have to be the least bit outdoorsy to appreciate the Black Canyon – you just need to be human. Though it’s only 11 miles from Montrose, the view of the canyon from its south rim transports you just about as far from ordinary existence as you’re likely to get.
Paul Zaenger, a National Park Service supervisory ranger, stands at on overlook with a startling vantage of the Painted Wall: a 2,250-foot cliff made of dark, 1.7-billion-year-old metamorphic rock “painted” with diagonal lines of pink pegmatite formed by ancient magma intrusions. From this height, the crashing of the whitewater rapids becomes a vast but distant white noise. Zaenger loves the moments of stillness and solitude, when
he can stop to take in his surroundings with all of his senses.
“A place like the Painted Wall can shock us out of our numbed sense of existence,” Zaenger said. “It’s that stunning beauty that says, ‘Wait a minute, maybe you ought to step back and think for a moment.’”
While Montrose is a prime jumpingoff point for the Black Canyon, the city is also a jumping-off point for almost any other outdoor adventure imaginable. Some people head to Calamity Trail to go “rock crawling,” a quaint term for driving across boulders in highly modified fourwheelers. In the winter, there are a host of snowmobile trails to ride near Montrose, as well as snowshoeing and cross country skiing for the less mechanized adventurers. And Montrose Regional Airport brings in direct flights from both coasts for people looking to hit southwest Colorado’s ski country, with Telluride to the south, Crested Butte to the east and Powderhorn to the north.
MONTROSE AND THE REST of the Uncompahgre Valley is the ancestral home of the Uncompahgre band of Northern Utes. The most famous of the Uncompahgres was Chief Ouray, who in the 1870s was designated chief of all the Utes by the U.S. government. Ouray was committed to brokering a peace between his people and the white settlers encroaching on their land, and in 1880 he traveled by train to Washington, D.C., to negotiate with President Rutherford B. Hayes. Ouray died soon after returning to Colorado. Though there was end to the fighting between the Utes and whites, the three Ute tribes were moved to reservations. The Northern Ute reservation is in Utah, while the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes reservations are in the Four Corners region of Colorado.
Few Utes live in Montrose these days, but their cultural heritage lives at the Ute Indian Museum. Operated by History Colorado, the museum is one of the few in the nation dedicated to a single tribe. Visitors can learn about the Bear Dance and other ways of life preserved by contemporary Utes. There’s also a large collection of historical Ute belongings, including items owned by Ouray. CJ Brafford, the museum’s director, says her favorite thing on display is the buckskin shirt made by Ouray’s wife, Chipeta, for him to wear to meet the president.
“Knowing that Chipeta made it with her own hands, I like to imagine what she was thinking when she was tanning the hide or doing the beadwork,” Brafford said.