Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the relatively new entrants to the National Park system, designated on October 21, 1999 by Congress and President Bill Clinton. Before becoming a National Park, it had been a National Monument since 1933.
The park protects 12 miles of the 48 mile Black Canyon of the Gunnison, so named because the canyon is so narrow and the walls are so steep that some areas of the canyon only receive 33 minutes per day of direct sunlight!
Black Canyon is also notable because of its steep river drop; the Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile within the canyon, compared to the Grand Canyon’s average drop of 7.5 feet per mile. At its steepest point, at Chasm View, the river drops 240 feet in one mile!
The canyon’s walls are predominately made up of Precambrian gneiss and schist rocks that are approximately 1.7 billion years old. During the Laramide Orogeny, that also formed the Rocky Mountains, these rocks were uplifted, between 40 and 70 million years ago.
The Gunnison River took on its current course about 15 million years ago; the flow of the river was much higher than it is today. As a result of the river not being able to change course within the canyon, it began to cut through the relatively soft volcanic rock at a rate of about 1 inch every 100 years.
The Ute Indians knew about the canyon and avoided it out of superstition; the first Spanish explorers had passed by before 1776. However, the first written record of the canyon was created in 1853, by Captain John Williams Gunnison, who was looking for the best route between St. Louis and San Francisco. Gunnison was killed by Utes the next year, and the canyon was named in his honor.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began cutting a rail bed through the canyon in 1881; it took more than a year of heavy manual labor and was enormously expensive. The narrowness of the canyon meant that they had to use the narrower gauge track – 3’ instead of the standard 4’ 8 ½” (how that ever became the standard is insane!). The railway didn’t last long though, as it was bypassed not long after for cheaper, easier routes.
Visitors today can visit either the North Rim (closed in winter) or the South Rim. The two rims are not connected within the park, the route outside of the park to reach one rim from the other is about 90 minutes. The South Rim, that we visited, has a 6 mile road along the rim of the canyon, with several viewpoints. There is also a 5 mile, very steep road that provides access to the river, and a campground. Vehicles over 22 feet are prohibited on that road, as it has very sharp switchbacks and over a 16 percent grade.
The park has a lot of plants and animals, including aspen, Ponderosa pine, sagebrush, desert mahogany, Utah juniper, Gambel oak and single-leaf ash. Wildlife includes coyote, elk, and mule deer. Birds include great horned owls, American dippers and Steller’s jay as well as migratory birds such as the mountain bluebird, peregrine falcon, white-throated swift and canyon wren.
183,045 visitors went to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in 2014, making it one of the lesser visited National Parks. But we had an opportunity to visit on our trip!