Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park does not get a lot of hype, though I am not sure why. Perhaps because of its remote location, which is wedged high up in the mountains, right in the center of 5 National Forests, both of Colorado’s main interstates being more than 60 miles away. The Colorado Interstate is a savior for many people. Driving through the Rocky Mountains is intense, there is no doubt about that. I can imagine it would take years to get used to the zipping roads, the 12% upgrades, dark tunnels, steep drop-offs, and narrow gravelly pull outs.
Though it can be tempting for some to just stick to the Interstate, don’t. Interstates were designed to be boring! plain and simple. They were built with one goal in mind: to get the driver from point A to point B in the easiest way possible. Take the scenic route, take the old road, take the long way around. Take the road that was designed to follow the river, or the tree line. Take the road that moves with the curves of the mountains, not the one that just cuts right through it. If you don’t, you’re going to miss all the good stuff. You’re going to miss your adventure. You might get lost, you might get scared, but you’re going to have more fun. I promise.
Another possible reason the Black Canyon of the Gunnison gets overlooked is the location of its very famous brothers on either side of it. With Arches to the West just outside Grand Junction, and Rocky Mountain to the East just outside Denver, it may be no fault of its own that Black Canyon doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
This canyon began forming over 2 million years ago, the torrential Gunnison River slicing down a new page in the book of time, year after year, until what we have before our eyes is a narrow dark chasm like something you’d see on the cover of Fantasy novels.
To give some sort of fathomable idea of the shape of this canyon, at its highest point it is over 2,700 feet deep (this can be seen at Warner Point) and at its narrowest point down at the river, it is only 40 feet across. Though that is less than half as deep as the deepest part of the Grand Canyon, the sheer verticalness is what makes it truly outstanding and incomparable to the rest of the extreme canyons in North America.
There is a North and a South Rim, and just like the Grand Canyon, the South Rim is considerably more popular. It is open year round and has more paved roads, campsites, hiking trails, and overlooks. We did not make the three hour venture over to the North Rim, although it does boast to have some of the best overlooks due to the almost vertical canyon walls.
The South Rim contains a 7 mile drive and 12 overlooks. A short trail will take you to each overlook to give you a unique and impossibly steep view. Once in a while you may see what are called Rock Islands, sharp spires of rock that jut skywards, holding onto nothing but the ground far, far below.
At the rim of the canyon there are several hikes ranging anywhere from 1/2 to 5 miles. These hikes offer great opportunities to study plants and wildlife, especially the different birds that seem to float effortlessly on the updrafts created by the canyon.
Unbelievably, there is hiking in the inner canyon as well, though no one will go as far as to call these “trails”. They are recommended only for the most experienced and physically able hikers as there are points of no return and places where chains are dredged into the wall to aid a hiker from one ledge to the next. Hikers are expected to find their own way and be prepared for self-rescue.
We chose to camp just outside of Montrose but the campgrounds inside the park would have been just as nice, if not an even better experience. The South Rim has 88 sites which are divided into 3 Loops. The park is very specific about two things: One is to conserve water since it must be brought in by truck, and Two is that you keep your food sealed off in bear-proof storage lockers or in the trunk of your car. They go as far as to recommend that you do not keep anything scented (including toothpaste, tobacco, even sunscreen) in your tent.
Black bears are frequently roaming through the park and have on numerous occasions visited campsites and have gone to great lengths to snatch campers’ food. What is terribly sad is the fact that most bears that end up doing this ultimately have to be killed because after becoming accustomed to human food instead of foraging for themselves, they become very dangerous for obvious reasons.
It is not a pretty slogan but keep in mind, “a fed animal is a dead animal’. Fed as in by you or something you’ve left lying there either in the form of trash or scraps. This goes for all wildlife but especially bears since they are considered the most formidable.
It’s fun and cute to feed birds and chipmunks some of your trail mix or whatever and I have been guilty of it myself, but these animals get used to the type of food that you’re giving them (which usually isn’t healthy for them in the first place) and the ease at which they’re given; soon they get used to people and even cars and this will lead to their untimely deaths. It’s healthy and natural for wildlife to be scared of humans. Though it’s a magical experience to be able to get close to them, we need to look at the big picture and be content to respect and admire them from a distance.
It is possible to drive to the bottom of the canyon by way of East Portal Road. This road is quite possibly the steepest I have ever been on, with 16% grades and hairpin curves. Make sure your breaks are in excellent condition before heading down as there are no guard rails, either. Vehicles longer than 22 feet aren’t allowed on the road, but there is room at the top to unhitch and park a trailer if you need to. The road isn’t very long; it’s over pretty quickly but it’ll get your heart racing for sure!
The bottom of the canyon is technically referred to at the Curecanti National Recreation Area; there is camping, fishing, and picnicking available. Some of the best fishing in the entire state of Colorado can be found at the bottom of the Black Canyon, though there are some strict regulations to be followed. They can be found on the Park’s official website. Out of 9,000 miles of trout steams in Colorado, 168 are considered Gold Medal Water and this is where you can find some of it.
From Rim to River, the canyon contains four life zones due to differences in sunlight, temperature, and air quality. Needless to say, being at the very bottom of the canyon was like being in a completely different world.
I had arrived at the bottom of this dark canyon and now that I was here it was warmer and sunnier, not all what I had expected while standing on the precipice of the obsidian cliffside only moments earlier.
What is a dark silver ribbon from up above, is a beautiful river with a pearly opaqueness to it, like a rolling green marble. As you stand in the heart of the canyon, your eyes have never seen so much green. The water is green, the trees and plants are green, it seems to reflect off the sides of the canyon walls. The light that filtered down is even green, somehow. At certain points, the river is still as glass, making for perfect reflections.
We wanted to be at the rim of the canyon for sunset so after an enjoyable little spell down by the river, we headed back up that steep road, and continued on through the park to get some views at the remaining overlooks.
The Painted Wall is the tallest vertical cliff in Colorado, at 2, 250 feet. The sun was just creeping below the horizon, shooting this powerful glare right into my lens. For art's sake, I like these photos. But technically, they're pretty bad. They don't do much justice to the detail of this intricate cliffside. I believe this wall would make an amazing sunrise shot.
Sunset Point was the final stop for us, and did it ever live up to its name. There was quite a crowd at this overlook. I’m pretty sure that almost everyone in the park was gathering here for the final show of the day.
Here is the progression of the sunset. It softened the crags of the canyon; the magic light melted into the darkness and turned shadows blue and lavender. The clouds above thinned out into spun sugar as the last rays pierced the sky sharply and then disappeared over the far rim of the canyon.