Tag Archive | Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado 2015: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Day 4: August 4, 2015

Have you ever heard of the Gunnison River and Black Canyon of the Gunnison? I don’t blame you if you haven’t – I really hadn’t either until a couple of years ago. But after hearing about a canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in terms of its awe-inspiring beauty – I knew I had to see it.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has two main roads, one on each rim of the canyon. Driving to the other rim is about a 90 minute trip, because you have to go outside the park and drive around. We chose to visit the South Rim, based on what worked for our trip route, which has a Rim Road that is about 6 miles long with several viewpoints along the way.

A view of the Gunnison River

A view of the Gunnison River

We went to the Visitor’s center, which has a fabulous view of the Canyon from an overlook. Jon and I also went on a 2 mile hike, the Oak Flat Loop Trail, which took us through stands of Gambel Oak trees, and descends a short distance into the canyon. It gave a great perspective on what the canyon walls look like from below. At one point of the trail, there is a sheer wall of granite – you can look up and see the sparkly rock, and see the swifts leaving and returning to their nests high above.

A butterfly on the Oak Flat Loop Trail.

A butterfly on the Oak Flat Loop Trail.

After our hike, we did the scenic drive, and stopped at several of the viewpoints, which have overlooks between 100 and 600 yards from the parking areas. Each viewpoint has a sign marking how far the walk is. Each overlook offers something different, showing various features of the geology of the canyon.

Rock formations at Black Canyon

Rock formations at Black Canyon

The Pulpit Rock Overlook has a unique rock formation jutting out into the canyon, giving a great view of the river.  Another of the overlooks, the Painted Wall overlook, gives a view of the Painted Wall to those who are willing to walk the 200 yards, which at 2,250 feet is the tallest cliff in Colorado, and 1,000 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

The Painted Wall with its unique features.

The Painted Wall with its unique features.

The view of the river below the Painted Wall

The view of the river below the Painted Wall

The last overlook on the South Rim Road is at Warner Point; it offers a 1373 yard hike (about 1.5 miles round trip), to a panoramic viewpoint.  In one direction, you can see the canyon, in the other, you get a spectacular view of the farmland outside the park.  Jon and I really enjoyed ourselves on this hike, and we were virtually alone the whole time!

A view of distant farmland from the Warner Point Trail

A view of distant farmland from the Warner Point Trail

After hiking the overlooks, we decided to take the 5 mile road down to the Gunnison River.  The road is extremely steep, with over a 16% grade, so we had to shift into low gear and take it slow (it did take us a little while to figure out how to get the rental car into the lowest gear).

Once at the river, we sat for a little while and relaxed, watching a fly fisherman further up the river.  Only catch and release is permitted.  We also saw a small branch floating down the river, and when it got just past us I realized it was actually a river otter!  I didn’t get any pictures though, because I was caught completely by surprise.

A fly fisherman in the Gunnison River.

A fly fisherman in the Gunnison River.

We had a fabulous day in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, taking in the amazing views, and spending some time hiking along the rim.  Jon would like to see the south rim as well, but that will have to wait for another trip.

We couldn’t stay at the park too late, because we still have quite a long drive ahead of us – we were going to be visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park the next day.  We had dinner on the road, at the Blue Mesa Grill in Gunnison, which had an assortment of dishes.  I mixed and matched my dinner, with a Philadelphia sushi roll with mango and a cup of Baked Potato soup.  Jon had a Tuna roll, and shared his dad’s burger.  It hit the spot!

My Philadelphia Roll and Baked Potato Soup at the Blue Mesa Grill

My Philadelphia Roll and Baked Potato Soup at the Blue Mesa Grill

Obligatory pic at the Continental Divide

Obligatory pic at the Continental Divide

On the rest of the drive, we saw lots of magpies and rabbits, plus two bighorn sheep!  No photos though, as it was dusk and we were moving at a good clip along the highway.  What a great day!

Total driving distance on Day 4: 195 miles – Montrose – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Alamosa
Hotel for the night: Super 8, Alamosa – dated, strange room configuration, smokers right outside our window (YUCK!), decent breakfast.  

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park History

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.

I love the sign at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!

I love the sign at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!

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.

Our first view of Black Canyon.

Our first view of Black Canyon.

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!