If you are the kind of traveler who is simply not satiated with plains and forests, and you want to feel the thrill of danger and unexplored areas, then the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is the place for you.
Even if you are not much of an adrenaline junkie, Even though this national park has been there for ages, it remains one of the least visited parks, so better use the opportunity while it still remains.
A natural site, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, encompasses a narrow but steep 15 miles gorge. Established as a national monument in 1933 and then elevated to the level of national park in 1999, the Gunnison National Park is situated on a total area of 47 square miles. Located in western Colorado, Black Canyon gets its name from the black-stained, lichen-covered walls as well as the fact that parts of the gorge only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day.
The dramatic landscape alone is enough to leave you mesmerized, let alone experiencing the beauty of Montrose, Gunnison and Crawford altogether. The national park itself contains the deepest and most dramatic section of the canyon, but the canyon continues upstream into Curecanti National Recreation Area and downstream into Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. The Black Canyon is the habitat of mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, rock squirrels, and a wide variety of birds, including the golden and bald eagles. Most of the monument has a vegetation cover of Gambel oak and serviceberry.
What to expect when planning a trip to the rim of this 2,000 feet deep canyon
While a few minutes of internet search will tell you that Black Canyon is neither the steepest nor the longest canyon in the US, nothing will prepare you for the irresistible magnetism of this site that comes from the rare combination of extraordinary steepness, narrowness, and darkness. Despite all its beauty, however, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park remains one of the least explored sites in the country. It could be because of the fact that only the bravest and the most avid of adventure seekers have thought of visiting this amazing part of the world, but as of now there are a little over 300,000 visitors annually.
Another factor contributing to the lower number of visitors is the five hour drive from the nearest airport, located in Denver, as well as notable distance from any other major interstate. Minimal infrastructure combined with low accessibility mean that you really want to see this place to actually reach this place, but if you do, chances are that you won’t be able to forget the experience for a lifetime.
To shed more light on the matter, the inner canyon is a designated wilderness area, meaning that there are no maintained trails that directly lead to the Gunnison River at the bottom of the chasm. It does not mean that you cannot get closer to the bluish-green trout-teeming water, which has carved the canyon over millennia. However, it does mean that only those who have above-average fitness, exceptional route-finding skills, an insatiable thirst for adventure, and plenty of courage should consider exploring the true depths of this national site. All others are politely advised to roam the North and South rims, and enjoy the breathtaking and possibly head-spinning views, either through a vehicle or on the few walking and hiking paths along-the-edge. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park promises you an overwhelmingly huge yet incredibly intimate experience of thrill and adventure combined with the beauty of nature.
Steep trip down memory lane
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a national monument in March 1933, and was given the status of a national park on October 21, 1999. However, the first renown expedition to the site can be dated back almost a century. In 1853, American military officer and explorer John William Gunnison went on a crusade to survey a railroad route between the 38th and 39th parallels, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
He and his companions traveled along the Arkansas River, navigated the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and crossed the Continental Divide before coming upon the Grand River and the intimidating canyon. Gunnison concluded the canyon to be impassable and led his team around the South Rim. As per his written records of the experience, he found the Black Canyon to be “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up he had ever seen”.
It would be three more decades before another human being would take heart to explore this formidable area, and that too for the purposes of establishing a rail track. In 1883, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was quickly expanding its tracks from eastern Colorado and on its way to Salt Lake City. When the line reached a natural break in the cliffs of the canyon at the Cimarron, the engineers had a tough decision to make. They could either continue the tracks down the canyon and the town of Delta or take them over Cerro Hill and into Montrose.
Black Canyon Exploration
An explorer named Byron Bryant was contacted to conduct a survey to see whether the company’s line could continue west through the middle and lower stretches of the canyon. The initially planned exploration project of 20-days with 12 men ended up extending to more than two months with only five men with the heart to continue. Byrant finally ruled that bringing the railroad through the canyon would be finally catastrophic. One of Bryant’s crewmembers Harvey Wright recalled the experience as, “Hereto was unfolded view after view of the most wonderful, the most thrilling of rock exposures, one vanishing from view only to be replaced by another still more imposing.”
Several more expeditions were conducted, each ending up with the same or similar outcomes and opinions, and all solidifying the Black Canyon’s reputation of being untamable and unconquerable.
After another expedition in 1901 that finally led to the fraught-with-difficulties construction of the Gunnison Tunnel, eventually, in 1933 the site was declared a national monument. Two years later, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the North Rim Road to design by the National Park Service easing the access to the canyon. Right about the turn of the century, in 1999, it was finally redesignated to a national park.
What to do at the Black Canyon?
Even though the inner canyon will be the most challenging of the exploration journey with extremely difficult hiking, rock climbing and kayaking as the possible options, there are other less terrifying avenues for hiking, driving around, watching wildlife, and exploring the night sky.
The main tourist attraction – and thereby the easiest accessible part of the park – is the scenic drive along US Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92, as well as the south rim. The east end of the park, where it meets Blue Mesa Reservoir at Blue Mesa Point, is the area most developed for camping. You can do tent camping and RV camping with full hookups, and can also take canyon tours, and go for hiking, fishing and boat tours.
The Curecanti National Recreation Area
The Curecanti National Recreation Area is nearby, which also includes a visitor center, provides marina facilities and is among 10 campgrounds within the NRA, the Lake Fork Campground. You can also access the west end of the park through a car, and you will easily find tour guides there as well to further enlighten you of the mysteries that this steep slope has been holding for millions of years as it was being carved by the Gunnison River.
A short hike is also possible at Blue Mesa Point Information Center that heads down to Pine Creek and the Morrow Point. You may also take boat tours here and do fishing. At the south rim there is one campground for tent and RV camping, one loop of which has electrical hookups, and several hiking and nature trails. The north rim is also accessible by automobile and has a small, primitive campground. Automobiles can access the river via the East Portal Road at the south rim.
Gunnison Point Trail at the South Rim is another destination but it is relatively harder to best as compared to the Morrow point. The river can be accessed by steep, unmaintained trails, called routes or draws, on the north and south rim. These routes require about two hours hiking down, and about twice as much to hike back up, depending on your hiking skills and which route you take. All inner canyon descents are strenuous and require at least Class 3 climbing and basic route finding skills. You will have to deal with not only steep talus and impassable ledges, but also a lack of cover. Beware of the Poison ivy as well as it grows abundantly in the draws and on the canyon floor. Long sleeves and hiking boots are strongly recommended if you are determined to see the trail for what it is.
The flow rate of the Gunnison River should also be considered for those planning on camping in the canyon, as high tide levels can wash out the camp sites. The National Park Service warns, “Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes. Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue.” A free backcountry permit is required for all inner canyon use except at the west end.
If you plan on fishing, then remember that the Gunnison River is designated as a Gold Medal Water from 200 yards downstream of Crystal Reservoir Dam to the North Fork. Only artificial flies and lures are permitted, and all rainbow trout are only catch and release. Fishing is completely prohibited within 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam.
Going towards the East Portal, that is where you can go for rock climbing. Again, most of the climbs are difficult and are better left to be attempted only by advanced climbers.
Rafting opportunities are also possible depending on the tide levels, weather and time of day, but the run through the park itself is a difficult and technical run suited to only the best kayakers. There are several impassable stretches of water requiring long, sometimes dangerous portages. Downstream, in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, the river is somewhat easier to navigate, though still very remote and only for experienced runners.