I wrote last week about the “Grand Canyon of Colorado” – Unaweep Canyon – but some people could reasonably argue that the grandest canyon in Colorado is really the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Some states choose their “grand canyons” because they look the most like the Grand Canyon in Arizona (see Utah or Mississippi). Other states choose their “grand canyons” because it is the grandest canyon in the state (see Louisianna). Unaweep Canyon looks the most like the Grand Canyon but The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the grandest canyon in the state.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located just a little east of Montrose Colorado. It is a small national park, compared to some, but the canyon is stunning. The Gunnison River has cut a canyon through some of the hardest rock in the world at the excruciatingly slow rate of one inch every 100 years. But the force of the water is inexorable. The Gunnison River loses more elevation in 48 miles than the Mississippi river loses in 1500. The Gunnison River drops an average of 96 feet per mile. At Warner Point, the Black Canyon is 2,772 feet deep. At its narrowest, the Black Canyon is only 40 feet across.
The sheer walls of canyon – sun never reaches the bottom of it in some places – and the dark rock gave the canyon its evocative name. There are no trails to the bottom and only those with rock-climbing experience should attempt to climb down. The Black Canyon was considered inaccessible until 1901 when it was navigated by two men on inflatable rubber mattresses. Attempts to navigate the river in wooden boats had proved disastrous and short-lived.
Most people see the canyon through the scenic drive and overlooks along the south rim. The north rim has a dirt road that is closed in the winter. There is a small campground and a visitors center on the rim. Water is trucked into the national park so is not readily available. There are rim hikes of varying lengths and ability. Tom and I took several moderate hikes that all had outstanding views. We also saw more wildlife in one day here than we have in any other national park. We saw a bobcat in its lair – eating a rabbit it had just caught. Bears are common and cunning. We also saw lots of birds including an eagle, several hawks, and a wild turkey. BLM land and Curecanti National Recreation Area serve as buffers between the populated areas and the national park.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the grandest canyons I have seen. The walls of the canyon are sheer and vertigo-inducing. It seems just as inaccessible today as it did 115 years ago. Here are some pictures, but like the Grand Canyon in Arizona – you don’t really get it until you have seen it for yourself.