Imagine a canyon so deep, so remote, so dark, so dangerous, that only its rim, not the river gorge, showed evidence of human settlement. No early Spanish explorers reported seeing it, the Ute Indians avoided it, expeditions bypassed it, survey parties deemed it inaccessible, and not until the early 1900’s did anyone even dare to travel the Gunnison River down the length of the canyon. It’s the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and it has been beckoning me for many years. Every time I pored over the map of Colorado I would hear it call my name, enticing me to visit and explore. Finally, in September, we heeded the call and were able to visit both the south and north rims of the park and it was breathtaking.
Geologist Wallace Hensen notes, “Some canyons are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls as steep. But no other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness and somber countenance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.” According to the park brochure, “In just 48 miles in Black Canyon the Gunnison River loses more elevation than the 1,500-mile Mississippi River does from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The river drops an average of 96 feet per mile in the national park and drops 480 feet in one two-mile stretch.” With that kind of unchecked power, no wonder Black Canyon is steep, dark, and inaccessible!
In the early 1900’s, the nearby Uncompahgre Valley began eyeing the Gunnison River and its potential for irrigation. After some failed attempts at navigating the river by other groups, Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence floated the 33-mile length on a rubber mattress and arrived at the conclusion that an irrigation tunnel was feasible. In 1909, the Gunnison Diversion Tunnel was completed and water is still used for irrigation of crops in the neighboring valley.
In 1999, Black Canyon of the Gunnison officially became a national park after having been a national monument for nearly 70 years. Congress has also designated surrounding lands for protection under the National Wilderness Preservation System. How thankful I am for people who saw the value in preserving this wonder of creation for future generations to enjoy!
Our first visit to the park was on a rainy, cool day. We entered the park from Hwy 347 and stopped at the visitor center. We picked up some information and inquired about some hiking trails in the park. There are a few rim trails, from easy to challenging. Any trails below the rim require a permit and are rugged, very strenuous, and technical. Our son had informed us ahead of time that Black Canyon is mostly a “drive, park, and look” kind of park, so we weren’t put off by a “no hiking below the rim for us” kind of day. Armed with our map, we drove the South Rim Road, stopping at nearly every pull out and overlook. Most all of the overlooks have interpretive signs and give visitors wonderful views of the canyon.
We followed the rim road to the end, parked the truck, and hiked the Warner Point Nature Trail a moderate 1.5 mile out and back trail that gives you stunning mountain and canyon views. The trail is named after Mark Warner, an Ohio native, who came to western Colorado in 1917 and was instrumental in preserving the Black Canyon. Trail guides are available and I would encourage you to pick one up as you begin the hike as they provide a lot of information about the vegetation, landforms, and history of the area.
Our second visit to the park wasn’t exactly planned. We had taken Hwy 12 over Kebler Pass and were on Hwy 133, then Hwy 92, when we realized we would be driving right past the north rim entrance road. How could we pass that up? So what if the last few miles into the park were on a dirt road? We were up for the adventure! Now, I usually don’t have a big problem with vertigo or fear of heights, but when we stepped out at the first overlook, Chasm View, THERE WAS THE CANYON!! I mean the whole thing just opened up in front of us and it was overwhelming. I had to sit down. Whereas the south rim is much more “civilized,” with sturdy railings and walkways, the north rim is a bit on the wild side. There was not much between me and the canyon and it was a little frightening, but, wow! It was magnificent! After I “got my sea legs,” I was able to snap some photos and enjoy myself, though I did stay back from the edge! As a side note, I would not recommend taking young children to the north rim unless they were on a leash. Seriously. After having taken my own kids to Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, the north rim of the Black Canyon is nothing to laugh about. It is dangerous. But, if your kids are well-behaved and you are up for a challenge, it is so worth it!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has campgrounds on both the south and north rims. There are ample picnic areas, vault toilets, and ranger-led programs are held throughout the year. The north rim road does close in winter and reopens usually in mid-April. Elevation at the park is over 8,000 ft, so take that into consideration when hiking. There are no concessions available, so stock up on snacks before you get to the park. The town of Montrose is only 15 miles away where you can find gas, food, and lodging.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison was everything I imagined it would be—deep, dark, mysterious, and breathtaking. If your travels take you anywhere close to this park, make the time to stop in and revel in the beauty and ruggedness of the canyon. You won’t regret it.
***the tree nibbler was a porcupine!