Take an absolutely stellar October weekend day in western Colorado.
Combine that with a van full of friendly folks who all share an interest in local landscapes and the early days of Delta County.
Then add a tour guide who knows her subject from the ground up because she has lived it herself as part of a Delta County pioneer family.
With those ingredients, plus your own sack lunch, you have the makings of a truly fun, entertaining and informative day trip through the astonishing landscape of Escalante Canyon, back to the beginnings of western civilization’s arrival in western Colorado.
The guide for this tour is Bernice Musser, a member of pioneer families who settled and ranched in Escalante Canyon. Every now and then a few local residents are fortunate enough and have the chance to accompany Bernice on one of her interesting and fun guided tours of the canyon.
A good preparation for the tour is a reading of Muriel Marshall’s book “Red Hole in Time” which gives a comprehensive background of the canyon’s history. But while reading — Marshall’s book is well worth anyone’s time, and a number of the features on Bernice’s tour refer to Marshall’s book — reading it isn’t a requirement for enjoying and learning a lot on the tour.
After heading west on Highway 50, the tour bus turns south on Escalante Road and begins a descent to the Gunnison River and across. This is where the interesting part of the trip really begins.
Pointing out features along the way, Bernice makes sure no one misses any of the sites: ruins of little stone pioneer homes, the remains of cabins and school houses all highlighting the history of civilization’s march through the canyon. Still home to a working agriculture operation today, Escalante Canyon’s pastures, fields, and orchards testify in the present to the agricultural production potential of this scenic canyon that attracted early settlers. And that is thanks to the abundant waters of Escalante Creek that has made the canyon bloom.
The tour includes reference to dozens of landmarks and descriptive place names the early settlers gave to geologic features and man-made structures – names that sometimes entertain with creative word play, or which aptly describe physical characteristics, or ownership and habitation.
There is “The Huff” named for the Huffington family which loaded its fruit there.
The “Windy” is where some sturdy ranch structures stand now in the canyon bottom on the Gunnison, a prime spot for strong winds to whip their ways between the narrow canyon walls.
The McCarty Trail, evokes yet another retelling of the infamous 1893 Delta bank robbery in which two of the three bandits were shot dead making their escape. The trail is thought to have been the thieves’ planned route for eventual getaway.
The tour takes you near the place where Cash Sampson and Ben Lowe gunned each other down one day for an unknown reason.
The tour heads along and past the routes and roads that pioneer settlers traveled, and guests will learn the names of Brent Grade, Boyce Gulch, Big Hill and Suicide Hill, Kelso Mesa, Long Point, and Canfield Flats.
Interesting natural features of the tour include Table Rock where Ben Lowe displayed his famous horse jumping maneuver, The Key Hole or Peek-a-boo rock, an area known as the hanging Gardens, and a relaxing rest stop at The Potholes. Here, the creek has cut down through the soft sedimentary layers of sandstone and shale to expose the bedrock granite, said in some areas of the west to be thousands of million years old.
The Walker Cabin, Ben Lowe’s Cabin, and Captain Smith’s Cabin all provide interesting side trips and an opportunity for the 10 or 15 tourists to get out of the van, stretch their legs and get to know one another a little.
The local names associated with places and events of early Delta County history are sometimes as familiar as those of your neighbors. That’s because many descendants of early settlers still live in Delta County.
Names like Huffington, Shreeves, Musser, Austin, and others will ring with familiarity as Bernice recounts a bit of each one’s contribution to the settling of Escalante Canyon and to the early days of Delta County.
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