Dad and I went to Colorado to see spectacular scenery. We based our itinerary on visiting the state’s four National Parks and the Colorado National Monument. That’s a lot of territory to cover in seven days. It ended up being 1600 miles. Naturally, we counted on seeing plenty of other sights along the way, but we kept our exact route flexible and we made no advance accommodations, leaving us free to stick around when we found something that attracted us, or travel farther if we felt like covering ground. Both circumstances occurred during the week. There were days that we drove longer and farther than we had expected, and there were days that we found reasons to linger in a particular place. I’ve already covered two of those latter instances: on our final day, we had time to see the Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy (CLICK HERE for that post), and throughout the week we explored some old mining towns that weren’t a predetermined part of our plan (CLICK HERE).
The Colorado “scenery” that comes to mind is, of course, mountains. The state contains the greater part of the U.S. portion of the Rocky Mountains, and there are 54 “fourteeners,” peaks above 14,000 feet elevation. The entire state is above 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) elevation. We spent most of our week west of the front range of the Rockies, often at 8 or 9,000 feet or more, even when we weren’t on a “mountain,” per se. Colorado is high country.
One of our planned destinations was not an altitude, but a declivity: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. It’s been a national park since 1999, and I admit that it only came to my attention after it appeared on the NPS list. While traveling with the goal of checking off national parks is a somewhat contrived approach, there are always good reasons that the places have been designated, and the Black Canyon proved to be no exception. It’s not a well-known travel destination in the U.S. and we knew little about it beforehand, but it’s worth the journey.
Colorado is replete with wild, beautiful rivers: from its namesake, the Colorado, and including the Arkansas, Animas, San Juan and the unforgettably-named Uncompahgre rivers, to list only a few that we encountered on this trip. Foaming through rocky gorges or flowing across broad plains, they often provide the only motion in a landscape of majestic peaks, quiet forests and deep ravines, other than the wind in the trees. The most famous canyon associated with Colorado, of course, is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. However, that natural wonder is located downstream in Arizona.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison River shares a significant feature with the Grand Canyon. It has cut through a geologic “uplift,” scouring a deep canyon as the land rose around it. In other words, a few million years ago, the Gunnison, like the Colorado, was flowing merrily upon its way as the land rose beneath it, and, in order to continue flowing, the river had to cut through the rising land; at times, it was eroding an inch of rock every hundred years. This rapid rise of the land resulted in an extremely narrow, steep canyon. The gorge of the Gunnison is more than two thousand feet deep, and only forty feet wide at river level at its narrowest, a mere thousand feet wide at the top at its narrowest, deepest point. The river cuts through some of the oldest rocks on the planet, formed 1.7 billion years ago, which rose in its path as it ground away. The river flows on a remarkably steep gradient, falling 240 feet per mile at its most extreme point, compared with an average 7.4 feet per mile for the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. This is a river that means business.
In other words, the Black Canyon is vertiginous. That cliff in the photo above, “Painted Wall,” is the highest cliff in Colorado, 2250 feet tall. As for the canyon’s name, look at the photo while I quote from the Black Canyon entry on Wikipedia: “The Black Canyon is so named on account of its steepness which makes it difficult for sunlight to penetrate very far down the canyon. As a result, the canyon walls are most often in shadow, causing the rocky walls to appear black.”
Dad and I can attest to this. On a brilliant high desert morning — with light ideal for photographing everything from rare birds to geologic wonders — we found it almost impossible to capture representative images of the Canyon. Black gneiss and schist walls and impenetrable shadows veiling the depths made this one of the world’s most elusive photographic targets. We stood at the edge of the chasm, peering straight down to catch sight of the tiny ribbon of river. We could hear its roar — amplified by those sheer rock walls — but it was nearly invisible from some vantage points. If one could set the Empire State Building on the river bed, the top wouldn’t reach above the cliffs. And this in a cleft that is only about 1,000 feet wide. Here’s one spot where I got a look at the Gunnison:
The canyon is easy to get to and, to an extent, to visit … as a spectator. We visited only the south rim of the canyon, a few miles east of Montrose on good roads. It’s also possible to get to the north rim, but it’s a long drive around; there’s no bridge across the canyon. Inside the park, an easy drive of a few miles takes you to many vantage points along the canyon rim that require only moderate walks to place you at the edge of the chasm.
However, it is NOT easy to explore the canyon. There are no trails down there. If one enters the inner canyon, it’s heavy going, dealing with whatever tumbled, rocky terrain the river has left. It can be done, but it’s advisable to contact the rangers before you go, to find out what you’re going to encounter. For the cautionary language on the Park Service website, CLICK HERE. Back country veterans will take heed of the Park Service’s advisory to “be prepared for self-rescue.” If you run into trouble down there, they might not come to get you! There are, however, several maintained trails in the high desert above the canyon: CLICK HERE. Also note that part of the park road closes for the winter (closure now in effect as I write, according to the NPS site), and the entire place can be inaccessible due to heavy snow.
The top of the canyon lies at about 8,000 feet of elevation. It’s sere, beautiful high desert.
We were there in late October, and were blessed with an unseasonably warm, sunny day. I could have spent hours contemplating and photographing what I think is one of the earth’s most beautiful sights: sun on desert vegetation. It’s what I had in mind when I named this blog Under Western Skies. I hope some of you have an opportunity to see this place.
© Brad Nixon 2012, 2016