“Some are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls just as steep. But no other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness and somber countenance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.”
~Wallace Hansen, geologist, from his book “Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Depth”
The Black Canyon is an impressive crack in the shrub-covered plains of Western Colorado. The rolling landscape suddenly plunges down rocky cliffs to the Gunnison River below. The steep walls leave the canyon in “black” shadows for most of the day. I had read “If the Grand Canyon was chiseled out with a blunt instrument; then Black Canyon was cut with a thin sharp blade”—which pretty much summarizes what we were about to set our eyes on.
In all of our trips to Colorado through the years, we had never taken time or the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison. Ironically, we had even driven by the entrance on more than one occasion . . . curious as to what lay beyond its entrance gates, but always on a set timetable with places to get to and no time for improvising. Until now, that is. Time was no longer a constraint. Curiosity was more of a driving force. Being national park aficionados as we now are, this was a definite draw. Certainly not to be passed by. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison would be another notch in our national park belt. We couldn’t resist. Nor did we want to. Leaving Crested Butte, it would be a short drive, first through the town of Gunnison and then a little farther west. We were about to bag another destination to add to our national park collection.
Sheer walls of dark gray stone rise more than 2,700 feet above the swift and turbulent Gunnison River to create one of the most dramatic canyons in our country. Deeper than it is wide in some places, this great slit in the Earth is so narrow that sunlight penetrates to the bottom only at midday. The national park protects the deepest, most thrilling 14 miles of the gorge, about 75 miles upstream of the Gunnison River’s junction with the Colorado.
The old adage is true—seeing is believing. All the reading I had done previously, all the research and published images perused, what I perceived in my mind’s eye could not have possibly prepared me for the reality of this place. I knew it was steep, with precipitous walls; I understood that the blackness came from little light filtering in; but there was nothing in my previous experiences and observations that could have prepared me for this canyon. It was, simply, all and more than what had been advertised. It was an impossibly abrupt, knife-cut gorge through the earth. And first sight was a sudden and abrupt realization of exactly what my research was attempting to prepare me for.
Until you find yourself standing before the chasm there’s no way to convey the actual sight. It is deep, extremely so, with precipitous walls dropping abruptly down into the dark depths, and yes, those walls are dark as coal . . . it’s a veritable chasm reaching down to the seemingly core of the earth.
It is black because it is so deep, so sheer, and so narrow that very little sunlight can penetrate it. What a spectacular sight, so different than all the canyons we’ve seen so far. So hard to believe that the rushing water of one river created this precipitous canyon. It is one of those places where words are insignificant, a place where you can do no more than admire and gasp at nature’s creation . . . it almost goes beyond a human’s capabilities to comprehend. Timelessness is a word that comes to mind.
Most rivers of the Southwest cut through relatively soft sedimentary rock, forming canyons that tend to be quite wide, colorful and stepped—descending in a series of cliffs and ledges through layers of differing hardness. When rivers flow across harder igneous rock they produce steeper gorges, spectacular in different ways, such as Hell’s Canyon in Idaho, the deepest in the US, or the multicolored Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Wyoming. One of the steepest, darkest and most rugged of these canyons is formed by the Gunnison River as it flows through hard ancient rocks at the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, on its way to joining the Colorado River at Grand Junction. The canyon walls are composed of volcanic schist, predominantly black in color, and as the gorge reaches depths of over 2,000 feet while often being only 1,500 feet across, sunlight illuminates the walls only briefly, hence the name ‘Black Canyon’. It is unsettling, almost frightening to stand at the very edge of one of the canyon overlooks, such is the menace and sheerness of the jagged rocks below.
Some of the hardest and oldest rocks on earth form the sheer walls of this canyon, the deepest and most impressive gorge in the state. The river cutting through the Black Canyon falls faster than any other in North America—dropping 2,150 feet in under 50 miles—and the canyon bottom is so rugged that there are no trails along it. Unlike the Grand Canyon with its layers of exposed rock, the Black Canyon is basically one solid hunk of stone, a half-mile-thick chunk of two-billion-year-old Precambrian rock.
Our first sighting came at an extremely opportune moment. One of the rare Colorado summer afternoons with clear skies, there was warm, low-angle lighting just coming on as evening approached. We had settled into our camp, only to turn around and go exploring. The start of the Rim Drive begins just at the exit to our campground—the opportunity was too tempting to ignore. With the greatest of anticipations, we headed out.
Gunnison Point presents the perfect introduction to the features of the canyon. Down a short trail from the Visitor Center, the river below is barely visible, but it’s the incredible walls of the canyon so in-your-face up close and personal that are what make this viewpoint so memorable. Standing on the overlook platform, the opposing walls of the canyon are so close you can see every crack and crevice within them. It is here where you might begin to comprehend what makes this canyon different—it’s undoubtedly something you’ve not encountered before. A place you need time to digest, to allow the reality to sink in.
Native Indians referred to it as “much rocks, big water”. In 1853, Capt. Gunnison who was leading an exploratory expedition referred to it as “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up” and declared it too formidable to pass through. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a National Monument in 1933. It became a National Park in 1999. During 1933-35, the CCC built five miles of roadway and five overlooks. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places today.
The canyon was originally over 50 miles long, but three dams have been built along the eastern (upstream) section flooding two thirds of the gorge, which is now part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area and offers many recreational opportunities based around the artificial lakes. Only the lower 14 miles of the canyon remain unspoilt, but this includes the deepest and most scenic section. The canyon may be approached from the north or the south, but most visitor services are along the south rim and are reached by the short spur road, CO 347, which joins US 50, a few miles east of the town of Montrose. Here, the terrain is quite flat, but CO 347 climbs steadily through scrub-covered foothills to an elevation of 8,500 feet near the canyon rim, yet with no indication of the great gorge ahead.
Making our approach from the South Entrance, our first stop was the campground. Typical of most national park campgrounds we’ve encountered, many of the campsites were smallish—intended more for tents, pop-ups and small RVs, although there were some sites that proved ample for even larger motor homes. Some sites were set out as parallel to the camp road—their version of a pull-through site, while others backed in quite a good distance. Three loops for a total of 88 sites make up the South Rim Campground, with the added benefit of the 23 sites in Loop B having electrical hookups. With the advantage of having reserveable sites through Recreation.gov, come during mid-week usually gets you a site. Obviously, Loop B goes fast, so reserve early.
With minimal water available (fill your tanks before coming), the trade-off you’ll get for the campground lacking amenities and extras, are private sites well-separated by juniper bushes and scrub oaks. Pleasant surroundings and nightly ranger talks in the summer will give you a very enjoyable camping experience.
The South Rim Drive is a spectacular feature of the park. Spanning a little over 7 miles in length, it connects 12 overlooks which give excellent opportunities for peering into the magnificent canyon and marveling at its cliffs and towers of stone. Each overlook has a different view—no two having the same perspective. Moreover, ravens, eagles and falcons soar on the currents of air above the canyon, nearly at eye-level with you.
A little history, if you care . . . An expedition led by Capt. John W. Gunnison, whose name was given to the river, bypassed the gorge in its search for a river crossing. The first written record came from the Hayden Expedition of 1873-74. The Hayden and later, Denver & Rio Grande Railroad survey parties deemed the Black Canyon inaccessible. These early travelers found it shadow-shrouded and foreboding. By 1900 the nearby Uncompahgre Valley wanted to take Gunnison River water for irrigation via a diversion tunnel. Consequently, five residents hazarded an exploratory float of the river but gave up after a month….losing their boat the first week and everything along with it. (Why they stuck it out that long begs the question, I think.) Then, in 1901, here comes Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence, running 33 miles of the river in 10 days on rubber air mattresses, no less! (Maybe that’s how these river rafting companies got their idea). Upon their return they nevertheless reported that an irrigation tunnel was feasible.
“Our surroundings were of the wildest possible description. The roar of the water … was constantly in our ears, and the walls of the canyon, towering half mile in height above us, we’re seemingly vertical. Occasionally a rock would fall from one side or the other, with a roar and crash, exploding like a ton of dynamite when it struck bottom, making us think our last day has come.” ~ Abraham Lincoln Fellows
The longest irrigation tunnel in the world when it was dedicated in 1909, Colorado’s Gunnison Tunnel was an engineering marvel. The 5.8-mile tunnel cut right through the sheer cliffs of the famed Black Canyon, taking water from the Gunnison River and funneling it to the semiarid Uncompahgre Valley to the west.
On September 23, President William Howard Taft dedicated the tunnel in Montrose. The East Portal of the Gunnison Tunnel is accessible via East Portal Road which is on the South Rim of the canyon. Although the tunnel itself is not visible, the diversion dam can be seen from the campground.
Of course we had to go down. We had seen plenty of perspectives from above in canyon, now it was time to take in the view from BELOW. Early one morning we set out—fortunately a paved road (however steep and winding with hairpin turns) would take us there. We dropped 2,000 feet in elevation and it was a thrilling ride.
Once down, the river flows surprisingly calm, almost placid. The canyon opens up and is much less narrow and precipitous than the inner canyon. With a foot trail running alongside it, the river is a popular fishing hole. Chris gave it a try while I captured its different looks.
if you try it. The one most popular trail leads down from the North Rim to reach what’s known as The Narrows. Appropriately named, the canyon narrows from only 1,300 feet at the rim to as little as 40 feet wide at the river. Running through the park’s boundaries, the 12-mile stretch of river drops an average of 95 feet per mile, but drops 240 feet per mile at The Narrows. By comparison, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon National Park drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile. That Gunnison is one ripping river!
If there is one iconic image of this Black Canyon, it would have to be a view of the Painted Wall. It is simply one of nature’s masterpieces. Here you’ll see threads of brightly-colored pegmatit intruding through the black rock of volcanic schist. These sinuous strands that are white to rose in color, were they to be examined up close would reveal lustrous crystals of quartz and sheets of mica up to 6 feet across.
Two especially great hikes will provide views you just won’t have from the overlooks. One trail, the Oak Flat Loop, will dip beneath the rim of the canyon without going all the way to the river. The hike will take you through groves of quaking aspen as well as thickets of Gambel oak. A welcome shade from the exposure you have on the rim. And the views get even better.
We saved the Warner Point Trail for our last evening in the park. Located at the far western edge of the park, the trail leads to a promontory where the canyon is deepest and from this point begins to widen.
With an awe-inspiring view, it’s a place that can fill you with reverence and wonder, as only those unique things in life can deliver. It’s simply a place I felt privileged to see.
From a small but dazzling jewel of our national parks,
Melinda & Chris
heading back into the Colorado mountains.