Established in 1999
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is nestled in western Colorado in the United States. Although this National Park isn’t one of the most well-known in the country, or even the state, it acts as a remote and breathtaking destination for true adventurers. The park protects over 30,000 acres of this rugged and steep canyon, while Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area lies to the north and the Curecanti National Recreation Area lies to the south. Expert rock climbers and kayakers flock to the region to test their limits amongst the historically rich canyon. A scenic drive along the rim showcases the beauty of the region while steep and rugged trails lead down to the river.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was explored by the Ute Native American tribe long before European settlers ever explored it. The Ute people inhabited parts of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, which was named after them. While expeditions had happened during the 1700s, the surrounding population began to grow in the 1850s as fur traders moved into the area. The region was described as rough, rugged, and dangerous by those who tried to explore the canyon. Finally, in the 1880s the first passenger train made its voyage through the steep, deep, and rugged canyon. The route extended 15 miles through the canyon and at the time was one of the most expensive stretches of railroad in the world. Of the fifteen miles there is less than half a mile of straight track, making for a difficult even today. However, this section of railroad was only used for two decades until a much straighter path was added to nearby Glenwood Springs. The route itself was abandoned during the 1950s though much of it has remained preserved within the Park. In the early 1900s a 5.8-mile tunnel was built within the canyon to divert water up to Uncompahgre Valley. The sheer distance of the tunnel meant that it was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world at the time it was built. It wasn’t until 1993 that the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was named a National monument and then later a National Park in 1999.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is carved deeply throughout the state of Colorado. The rugged canyon was formed over the course of millions of years. Around 60 million years ago land uplifted rock that dates back to 1.8 billion years ago, and formed the Gunnison Lift. Another 30 million years later volcanic eruptions covered the lift with newly formed rock. Just 2 million years ago the Gunnison river started flowing and eventually eroded to create the canyon we can explore today. At its greatest depth, the canyon is 2,722 feet deep, at Warner Point. While some sections of the canyon are relatively wide, much of it is characterized by its narrow walls. Rightfully named, “The Narrows” is the narrowest section at just 40 feet across. In places like this, plant life struggles to flourish with sometimes only half an hour of sunlight each day. While the canyon itself spans 48 miles across Colorado, only 14 miles of it lie within the National Park boundary. Because of how the canyon was uniquely formed, much of the rock that we see today dates back to over 500 million years ago. Most of the rocks are composed of Gneiss, Schist, Quartz Monzonite, and Pegmatite.
Flora and Fauna
The steep nature of the Black Canyon National Park allows for a variety of flora and fauna to flourish. The walls of the canyon, though steep, are dotted with pinyon pine, juniper, and scrub oak trees. Along the road at the top of the canyon are Oak Flats, full of Gambel oak, grasses, and seasonal wildflowers. As the canyon descends for the river, the shaded walls are home to a variety of plant life. Here trees such as Douglas fir and aspen grow out of the rocks, in a way one would expect to see at much higher elevations. The shade provided by the steep canyon walls also help mycorrhizal fungus grow and stabilize the trees. The north facing wall often has much more plant life due to the amount of sunshine it receives compared to the south facing wall. Along the river cottonwood dominates the landscape while trout flourish in the Gunnison waters.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, though rugged, is home to a vast amount of wildlife. By driving along the canyon and heading to the viewpoints, visitors can often spot eagles, bighorn sheep, coyotes, elk, and eagles soaring above. And while these populations flourish, no animal is as prevalent in the canyon as mule deer. The deer can often be seen during the summer months, feasting on the newly sprouting shrubs and wildflowers, both at the top and along the bottom of the canyon. Throughout the canyon also live yellow-bellied Marmot, ground squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, Peregrine falcon, badgers, and the occasional mountain lion.
The largest attraction to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the scenic drive along the top of the rim; highway 50 and Colorado highway 92. Here drivers can take in some of the best views from the comfort of their car. Along the route are also numerous viewpoints to get out and take in the impressive canyon. The eastern end of the park meets up with Blue Mesa Reservoir, and is the most developed spot for camping of all times. More primitive campsites exist along both the north and south rim, within minimal or no RV hookups. The views at Gunnison Point, along the drive, attract thousands of tourists each year. Here, visitors can enjoy an accessible picnic while wildlife thrives both above and below them. The East Portal Road provides car access down to the bottom of the canyon along a steep and winding road. For even more of an adventure, tourists can begin exploring the many trails throughout the National Park.
The steep trails that lead from the rim, down to the canyon floor, and not for the faint of heart. The unmaintained terrain covers an average of 2,000 feet over the course of just one mile, though easier routes do exist. One of the most popular trails in the Park, and the most well-known route that leads to the bottom, is the Gunnison Route Trail. This trail is a 1.8 miles round trip with 1,781 feet of elevation gain. The trail drops steeply to the canyon but is not one of the most technical routes. Loose rock and step cliffs make for a challenging hike back up from the bottom. However, once at the river, hikers can look up at the thousand-foot cliffs towering above them. For a less strenuous hike the Warner Point Nature Trail also offers amazing views of the canyon. The route is 1.5 miles with only 400 feet of elevation gain. The trail is located along the south rim, off of the main scenic road. The out and back route has benches throughout with viewpoints around every single turn. Along the North Vista Trail lies the route up to Green Mountain Summit. The out and back route is 6.5 miles round trip with 1,230 feet of elevation gain. From the summit of Green Mountain, hikers have unobstructed views of the canyon spread out below them.
There are two major campgrounds with the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The South Rim Campground offers some of the most impressive views within the National Park. Next to it lies the 2,250-foot Painted Wall, which happens to be the highest cliff in the entire state of Colorado. The North Rim Campground is much more remote. It can be accessed by the North Rim Road, with the final seven miles being unpaved. Here campers have much more solitude than at the South Rim Campground. For those looking to camp at the bottom of the canyon, the East Portal Campground sits two miles downstream from the Crystal Dam along the Gunnison River. The nearby dam is part of the Gunnison River Diversion Tunnel. This campground is surrounded by the steep walls of the canyon, making it an ideal location for rock climbers and fishers alike.
Rock climbing routes can be found throughout much of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The steep walls offer routes for even the most expert of climbers. While the Painted Wall stands at 2,250 feet, much of the climbing routes in the park can be found by the North and South Chasm Walls. Here the canyon walls stand at 1,820 feet. There are 145 named routes within the park, with 90 percent of them being trad climbs. The canyon has a reputation of having loose rock, making for dangerous climbs and a higher fall risk. Almost all of the climbing routes within the canyon are found along the North Rim. Here popular climbs include Maiden Voyage, Scenic Cruise, Comic Relief, and Escape Artists. The looming Painted Wall attracts some of the rock climbers in the entire world. The cliff is the third tallest in the lower 48. The Southern Arete leads off the left side of the face with 17 pitches throughout the climb.
While rafting is not possible within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, expert kayakers can experience the beauty of the canyon from down below. Many of the rapids are rated as class five with some sections being impassable. Though the Gunnison River is beautiful, only extremely experienced kayakers should enter its waters within the canyon. Strong currents can often make rescuing impossible.
The Gunnison River is rated as a Gold Medal Water and Wild Trout Water, making it perfect for going fishing in. The Gold Medal for water is given to waterways within the state of Colorado who provide healthy habitats for large trout to flourish. The best place for fishing begins a few hundred yards downstream from the Crystal Dam. The easiest access to the Gunnison River by car is via the East Portal Road, which is closed during the winter. Fishermen are limited to just a few fish so as to not disturb the natural wildlife.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is five hours from the city of Denver. Though no major cities surround the region, that helps keep the park a hidden gem of the state. To the southeast lies the city of Gunnison with a population of approximately 6,500. To the northwest of the park lies the small town of Delta, offering local shops, dining, and accommodations for those passing through the area.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a hidden gem within the state of Colorado. It’s steep and rugged canyon walls are unlike any others within the nation. The narrow canyon walls provide hikers with technical descents and break taking views along the way. Explore the viewpoints as you search for abundant wildlife, and take in the historic remains of the once treacherous railroad. Whether viewing the canyon from the south rim, or along the Gunnison River, it is sure to impress even the most avid adventurers.
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