16 May 2011

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Painted Wall, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Photo National Park Service, Lisa Lynch
On the way out of Hotchkiss we stopped at a 7-Eleven for gas and snacks before hitting the road. The young man behind the counter could not place our Canadian accents until we told him. He seemed surprised. Not many foreigners pass through Hotchkiss, a Colorado town that really is off the beaten path. The town is lost in the southwest corner of the state serving the local ranches and farms. As we made some small talk, he asked us if we had seen the Black Canyon. The Black Canyon? Never heard of it. What was it? Where was it? There’s nothing like it in all the world he insisted and it was less than a half-hour drive from Hotchkiss. He gave us directions, warning that the posted signs could be misleading. Well, why not? We were wandering around western Colorado on a week-long road trip without any real itinerary, so off we went to find the Black Canyon.

That part of Colorado is marked by gently rolling and low widely spaced hills, wide open country with a few farms and ranches scattered amongst huge fields of grass. There is the odd tree here and there, just enough to break the skylines. It was also a land of beef cattle. To the west, in the distance and just visible through the low haze, were the Rocky Mountains. We followed the directions taking state highway 92 south to the even smaller town of Crawford and turned onto North Rim Road. A few miles beyond the turn-off the pavement stopped and we went on over hard packed gravel. Once through Crawford the landscape changed to open range. No fences, no trees and no grass, just wide open expanses of low hills covered in sage bush.

North Rim Road ran parallel to the dried river bed of Grizzly Gulch. The smell of sage came through the open windows. At one point we had to stop to allow some cows to cross the road. A huge bull on an overlooking ridge gazed down on his domain. Twenty kilometres of gravel road, more sage bush, fewer cows but still no Black Canyon. At last we came to a T-junction and a sign gave us the choice of going either right of left. We chose left, drove another kilometre and parked at a sign marked “the Narrows View.” A footpath disappeared into the sage bushes and under the stunted oak trees. A few steps from the car brought us to a sight so compelling and unexpected that we could hardly believe it was real. At our feet was an immense gash in the earth hundreds of metres deep. The Black Canyon is a rent so deep, narrow and shear that no other geological feature in North America can compare to it.

We stood at the edge of the precipice trying to take in the view and make sense of it. About a kilometre away was the south rim of the canyon but it seemed much further. More than a half a kilometre below us, the Gunnison River snaked through a narrow channel cut through the ancient rock. In places the river squeezes between rock walls only metres apart. The depth of the canyon within the protected area of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park averages over 500 metres but it seems much deeper. The aptly named Painted Wall is a sheer rock face more than 670 metres high. Contributing to the grandeur of the canyon is its relative narrowness. The Gunnison itself is a wild river full of raging rapids and falls interspersed with quiet pools. The trout fishing is said to be very good, if you can reach the river.

A number of side canyons make it possible to reach the bottom of the main canyon on foot. A descent into the canyon while not requiring special climbing equipment will take at least an hour and a half. Some nerve is also required. The routes down into the canyon are steep and a lot of clambering is required. The return ascent will take three or four hours. Even for the physically fit the ascent will be arduous. Some high altitude acclimatization is suggested. The rim of the canyon is at an elevation of 2500 metres above sea level, Denver is at 1600 metres. There is no other way into the canyon other than by foot. The park rangers warn that the river is lined with poison ivy bushes some of them two metres tall.

The Gunnison River is a relatively minor tributary of the Colorado River. The canyon is more than 85 kilometres long but only the most spectacular 19 are within the protected area of the park. The Ute Indians that had inhabited south-western Colorado for hundreds of years seldom ventured into the chasm. The canyon was not seen by Europeans until 1873 when railway survey crews entered the area. The engineers decided to go around the area because of the difficulty of bridging the canyon.

Commencing about two million years ago the Gunnison River carved out the Black Canyon from a mass of Pre-Cambrian rock. The exposed rock faces of the canyon walls are a mess of colours. Lighter coloured rocks indicate where ancient lava intrusions penetrated into the parent rock. Standing on the rim and looking across the canyon to the opposite walls is like gazing on some immense modernist painting.

The Black Canyon can be rewardingly explored from the rim. Both the North and South Rim Roads are set well back from the canyon and signs indicate where the best overviews are. However, most of those overviews are not fenced and care should be taken when approaching the canyon as the drop is sudden and often without warning. There are a number of hiking trails along the rims that lead to more remote overviews. The North Vista Trail is a good example. This three mile hike, including return, winds through the sage bushes, stunted oaks and pinyon pines to some wonderful views of the canyon. Most of the trail is well set back from the rim and is safe and easy. Signs identify where to leave the trial to the overviews. There are no park services or facilities on the north rim and you must bring your own food and water.

There is an abundance of wildlife in the area. Eagles, falcons and hawks are very common soaring over the rims where they ride the updrafts from the canyon. Swifts are constantly swooping for insects along the canyon walls and various song birds abound in the sage and oaks of the rim lands. Chipmunks and ground squirrels are everywhere. Harder to see are the mule deer, coyote, black bears and the elusive mountain lion.

We spent the morning exploring the several overviews along the North Rim Road and hiked the length of the North Vista Trail. We saw no one during the time we were in the park area. At one point as we looked across the canyon we could see some cars on the south rim but they were so far away that it felt like we had the whole park to ourselves. The weather had been perfect, sunny with a few clouds and comfortable temperatures despite it being July. We had been fortunate to run across the chatty clerk at the 7-Eleven because otherwise we would never have found the Black Canyon. It was one of several pleasant discoveries that made for a memorable road trip.

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