From the surface high above the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the gash that cuts across the land appears to be little more than a shallow indentation, no different than any other river that that flows through Colorado’s mountain valleys. Only when peering over the rim does the dramatic depth of the sheer cliffs—in places more than 2,000 vertical feet—disrupt the seamless narrative of typical river topography. Mother Nature patiently put her all into splitting open the earth in the Black Canyon, carving out a deep rend in the hide of the planet through some of the oldest known rock in the world.
The “black” in the name Black Canyon comes from its near-perpetual state of shadow and darkness—the canyon only receives a maximum of 33 minutes per day of direct sunlight. The world illuminated at the floor of the canyon has a filter of shade that gives a spooky ambiance to the grey and pale green walls. As these rock walls rise into the light, the striated gray and white faces reveal the intrusion of the lighter colored pegmatite, creating a marbled canvas on ancient stone.
Known for centuries by the local Ute tribe, the first documented exploration of the canyon was by Captain John Williams Gunnison in 1853. Gunnison, who was surveying the area, originally called it the “Grand Canyon” but the river and canyon were renamed in his honor following his death at the hands of Ute warriors alleged to be under the command of Mormon leader Brigham Young (the exact details of his death remain controversial to this day). In the mid 1880s, an audacious act of engineering brought a railroad into the Black Canyon to harvest silver and gold in the region and it remained in operation until 1955. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was declared a National Monument in 1933 but it wasn’t until 1999 that the 30,750 acre area was upgraded to National Park status.
The Blue Mesa Reservoir at the east end of the park belies the gnarly canyon that gradually develops to the west, but it is a great place to camp, paddle on the water, or let your dogs sprint on the beach. Colorado Highway 92 begins here and is the gateway to the heart of the Black Canyon, following the Gunnison River as it seemingly disappears into the earth. There are also campgrounds on both the north and south rims, but if all this seems a little too tame… you’re right!
For the adventurous, the absolute best part of exploring the canyon is the fact there are no established trails leading down, only makeshift paths that involve, wet, sketchy class 3 moves in the best of conditions. Descending into the canyon is an incredible experience and complainers need not apply. Case in point: one route from the northern rim is officially called the S.O.B. Trail. It drops 1,800’ in 1.75 miles (!) along cracked, loose rock, narrow ledges and oh yes, a healthy smattering of poison ivy is deviously tucked into essential handholds. And that’s one of the better ways of getting down into the canyon (and remember, you still have to get back up!) Oh and one more thing: you may have some trouble getting to the bottom, but the local black bears sure don’t—keep your eyes open for the ursine climbers and don’t leave any trash behind.
If there is anything remotely close to an “easy” way down, it would be along the Gunnison Route, a 1-mile, 1,800’ descent that features a section helped by an 80-foot chain. Those who are on the threshold of chickening out will have their best chance to reach the bottom along this route.
There are also several other established routes, none with maintained trails, that reach the canyon bottom. In the heart of the canyon is an amazing world of prehistoric rock, vibrant plants, the casual and unassuming namesake river, and a surprising amount of animal activity. For rock climbers with nerves of steel and solid trad skills, the Black Canyon is paradise. Legendary lines, some upwards of 16 pitches and rarely with difficulty levels below 5.10b, are considered some of the best in the world—for those with the talent to climb them.
Secrets of the Park
A scramble down into the canyon is a brag-worthy adventure, but to really absorb the spirit of this dark, exotic landscape, camping in the canyon is without equal. Almost defiantly, there are dozens of campsites in the canyon proper and once again, wimps need not apply. It’s cold, often wet, and for good measure, campfires are not allowed. Some campsites require wading through chilled pools of river water and of course, you’ll have to lug your gear in and out. If this description makes you say to yourself “Bring it on!”, you will not be disappointed. The isolation and solitude is a curious thing; as the crow flies, you’re less than a mile from civilization. But 2,000’ down, locked in by towering rock walls, it feels like you’re a visitor on an unexplored planet just starting to evolve its primitive lifeforms. If you’re tough enough to handle it, the rewards are immeasurable. There is nothing like setting up your tent under the hallowed shadows, the lifeline of the Gunnison River the sole reminder of the world above. Stars glow in the slash of open sky and the dim moonlight casts a pale glow on the canyon contours. Wake in the middle of the night and your mind will ponder if it is still in the midst of a dream.
And for those who are curious, it is possible to kayak through the length of the canyon, but the act borders on sheer lunacy and should only be attempted by extremely skilled paddlers who have no qualms about being battered by the rocks and debris in the fast-moving water.
You will literally be immersing yourself when you take the plunge into the inner canyon. Every trip down has a way of warping time and requires all of your focus and energy to enter into this amazing, dangerous, and daring place. Camping may seem daunting, but if you’re up for the challenge, it’s a wonderful and memorable experience that is nothing like camping in the mountains far above. The prolific wildlife in the canyon proper seems impossible until one considers the fact there are distant ramps of earth that also access the canyon.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
- In most other outdoors adventures, you can get away with lazy preparation. Not so here. Make sure you have the proper gear and clothing, plenty of water, enough food, first-aid kit, and a good sense of navigation. Even GPS is marginally useful, as the contours on a topo map are mashed together in steep succession.
- It can be wicked cold at the bottom of the canyon, even on a hot summer’s day. For routes that require wading or swimming, make sure your have dry clothes, a towel, and pack whatever you need in a dry bag. The scrambles up out of the canyon are difficult enough, adding in a shivering body and clammy hands makes it even tougher.
- Permits are required for all visitors to the canyon proper and they are free. Make sure to get as much information from rangers as you can, they know what they are talking about.
- If you can help it, stay out of the river (and in most cases, you can help it). The water rarely gets over 50°F and people have died in the swift, frigid river. The only places where wading is a good idea is in still pools that sometimes block access to campsites and even then, it might be worth reconsidering your options.
- There are a limited number of day-use permits and while it’s not normal for them to all be used, you may get shut out if you arrive late on a busy weekend.
- Scared yet? Well don’t be! The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an amazing adventure and dropping into the depths is a great time for those who crave the thrill of exploration. But if that’s not your cup of tea, the upper rim has plenty of wonderful hiking trails along flat, non-exposed trails that lead to incredible viewpoints. The Warner Point Trail is one of the best in the park. At 1.5 miles one-way, it’s the best way to take in all the beauty from afar, though don’t be surprised if the airy distant views still cause a shiver up your spine.