Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The first time I heard of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was just a few months ago while flipping through an old edition of Backpacker Magazine. The park had been designated in 1999 and the article was little more than a blurb but the photo was captivating. I almost bypassed it on my original route plan, opting for traversing Colorado in the way South from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde in the West, thereby bypassing a great deal of mountain driving. I was, however, planning to check out Monarch Crest, 50 miles to the East. There was a world-class mountain biking trail that I had hoped to ride. Aside from a breath-taking trail, I was curious if it would prove a viable option to host some Vets on a wild biking adventure. There was a free campground midway up the Pass and I figured that if I had any spare time after the ride, I would go check out Black Canyon on a short side hike. I ended up with more spare time than I expected and learned the Black Canyon is no side hike. This place moved me. emotionally and physically. And the hike, to coin the phrase of wild-man “Salami” Morales, flat out “stole my lunch money”. The Black Canyon gorge is a pure expression of life in the extremes. If it is a new name to you, add it to your bucket-list of must see places in the Country.

I thought I had it made in the shade as I rolled up Monarch Pass. I had not seen a car in miles, much less another RV. I had started out from Buena Vista, Colorado at the crack of dawn determined to claim a first come, first serve spot at Monarch Park Campground. I hung the left onto the dirt road leading to the camp but just around a corner of Aspens, the train came to a screeching halt. The road leading into the camp was under a foot of crunchy old snow and the remnants of the recent storm that had hit last week. Clearly, the park was closed and while no gates impeded progress, the absence of any tracks indicated no one had taken effort to forge ahead. I wasn’t going to be the first to try either, so I navigated back onto the Pass. This created a three-day issue as I had planned to hang for a few nights to ride and research. I had passed an independent operation on the way up and made my way back down to see if they had any openings and I lucked out with a spot only two miles away. Accommodations were addressed but my bike tour looked like a bust so I opted to scout out Black Canyon.

The Black Canyon is forty-eight miles long and cut by the Gunnison River creating the fifth steepest river in the US with an average decent of over thirty feet per mile. The park contains eleven miles of the most extreme sections of the gorge with drops averaging between one-hundred and four-hundred feet per mile. The walls of the canyon are in-excess-of two thousand feet in many areas. What makes it so awe-striking is that at the narrowest points, it’s only a few hundred feet from rim-edge to rim-edge and a mere forty feet at the bottom. It is an incredibly deep feature, moving a massive volume of class V water, with sheer drops so narrow that parts of the gorge receive little to no sunlight during the day, thus the name Black Canyon.

I was more than pleasantly surprised to learn that the lands had not been forcibly seized from the indigenous Ute Indians. No Euro-Americans have ever lived in the canyon and few explored it until Captain John Williams Gunnison in 1853 who claimed it the “roughest” land he had ever encountered. My elation diminished when I learned that no Ute had ever lived in the canyon either. It was a dreadful area that harbored superstitious energy and we have no evidence that the canyon has ever been inhabited by human beings at any point in the past.

I spent the first two days driving the two scenic by-ways along each rim side of the Canyon. Through the East Portal, along Colorado Route 92, lies a harrowing hair-pin cruise along the North rim on sixteen percent grades. No RVs or Semi’s allowed. It would be the single best motorcycle cruise I think have ever crossed. If you ride a scooter…you need to see this ride! I confess that by the third trip around the rim, I was hanging turns at speed along sheer cliffs and wishing for my hog. The roads begged to be hugged and the views without compare. At the North rim, you can easily see the South rim, but with no connecting bridge, it takes hours to cover the distance between the two, back down CO 92, West US 50 and Northeast on CO 347 into the West Portal of the park.

By the third day I had relocated the Ruck-Rig to the base of the canyon in the Curecanti National Recreation Area and I could no longer resist the urge to experience the canyon at its heart, down in the belly of the gorge. I obtained a back-country permit and headed towards the trailhead as soon as the Ranger Station opened. I had received a briefing on the trail. Or absence of. The journey starts on a well-maintained trail through gorgeous thickets along the rim opening into steeply descending switchbacks of Junipers and Pinion Pines and then gives way to shale, scree and washouts as the trail vaporizes for the remaining hike in. The Ranger flipped through a book of pictures of several areas on the hike to look out for. After describing each shot, he would glance up. “it’s really steep here”, Glance. “you will descend 1,600 feet and then the trail washes out” …glances over his glasses again as if to ask, “do you really want to do this?” … “then another 1,500 feet of drop after the chain”. Glance…The Chain? He reveals a picture of a chain dropping along a near vertical section of trail. “yes, not much to hold onto in that section”. Glance. I humored him and my excitement built as he handed me the permit. Finally, a good excursion!

I have seen Virgin Falls in Tennessee described as a strenuous hike before. At around 9 miles round trip, you lose and gain around eight hundred and fifty feet of elevation over the entire distance. Most people I take find it a bit exerting under load. If I may offer some perspective, the route into Black Canyon was just shy of three thousand feet loss and then gain in less than a single mile. Almost a thousand feet every quarter mile. This constitutes a strenuous hike. A Class 3 hike specifically, on the Yosemite Decimal System, the leading route standardization system used to ensure good adventure by guiding each wanderer to the appropriate hikes based on skill-set. This hike is not for the weak, faint of heart or those prone to vertigo. I will be posting it as a trek soon with maps and elevation profiles for your trip planning. It took under an hour to get to the bottom and the trail is so steep that more focus went into navigating the near-vertical route than on the looming canyon walls that majestically rose higher with every dropping foot. It was amazing. At the bottom, a sliver of land with a fire ring sat feet away from turbulent Class V water. The gorge was alive with Jays, Wrens and Swifts and roar of the rapids drowned out all other sounds pounding along the sides of the canyon walls. I took it all in atop a large flat rock in the shade of the canyon. An hour passed before I could bring myself to stand up again. I had been completely transfixed by the surroundings. An ominous cloud stirring to the South began to creep over the edge of the rim. Rain had been predicted by three in the afternoon so I had planned on starting the ascent back shortly after noon. I had little doubt that the climb out would be incredibly treacherous fighting against descending rivers of rain seeking the bottom of the deep ravine. I had the place to myself for the entirety and enjoyed a few more moments before packing up my ruck and setting to the climb. I did not pass another permit holder until several hundred feet back up the path. Only 6 permits were issued that day and I had been hours ahead of each of them. I measured each hiker as we greeted and exchanged pleasantries, wondering how their faces might change once the return was well underway. It was a challenging hike out to say the least. Steep and with no trail and multiple route selections visible, it was critical to have maintained awareness of what lie behind me as I descended. This enabled me to avoid following a washout trail too difficult to continue up thus requiring a back-tracing of steps. It was far too steep to do much of that. I could climb about a hundred feet or so before needing to catch my breath and precariously swivel on rock shelves to take in the view, and then trudge out another hundred feet. I made it out in just over an hour. The Ranger had said to set aside three. That left me feeling rather accomplished. I checked back in with the Rangers and made my way back to the rig for some R&R and to reflect on the National Park that raises the bar in park exploration. If every park you have visited in the past was inundated by those “other” tourists, then point the compass to the Black Canyon, I can almost assure you will find the prefect solitude on a visually spectacular hike or rim-side cruise.


      Thanks for the support Bill! It warms my heart to imagine you and the old man sharing the tales over a cold one!

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