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By the Numbers: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


The Painted Wall, highest cliff in Colorado. NPS photo by Lisa Lynch.

Hemmed in by ancient volcanic rocks, the Gunnison River carved a narrow canyon with monolithic rock walls that rise over 2,000 feet above the river. The numbers tell the story of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.


Approximate age (years) of the Precambrian “basement rock” that erosion has exposed at the bottom of the canyon.


Recreational visitors in 2009. Although it’s a respectable 7 percent increase over 2008, this tally is still far below the 1976 peak (373,600 visitors).


Acreage of the park. Nearly half of the park (47 percent) is federally designated wilderness.


Elevation (feet) of the South Rim Campground. Visitors are reminded that people can dehydrate and tire quickly at this altitude.


Depth (feet) of the Black Canyon at Warner Point. That’s impressive, but not by comparison to the true monsters. Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America, is 7,913 feet deep at Hedevil Point (on the Idaho side). The Grand Canyon averages about 5,000 feet deep.


Height (feet) of the park’s Painted Wall, the highest vertical cliff in the state of Colorado. The Painted Wall is considerably higher than Chicago’s Willis Tower (former Sears Tower), the tallest skyscraper in the U.S.


Greatest descent of the Gunnison River, in feet per mile, as it flows through the park. The Gunnison’s average drop as it flows through the park is 95 feet per mile, which means “experts only” conditions for kayaking.


Approximate annual temperature range, degrees Fahrenheit. Summer daytime temperatures can soar to 100 degrees and winter lows can plunge to minus 20. Winters are snowy, producing around 8 feet of the white stuff in an average year.


Total length (miles) of the Black Canyon, including not just the 14-mile segment within the park, but also the segments in Curecanti National Recreation Area (upstream) and BLM’s Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (downstream)


Width (feet) of The Narrows, the canyon’s narrowest point at river level.


Grade (percent) of East Portal Road, the only vehicular route to the river. At least one stretch of the original cut had a grade of 32 percent! Don’t attempt East Portal (open mid-April to mid-November) with an ungainly RV. Due to hairpin curves and switchbacks, vehicles exceeding 22 feet in length (including trailers) aren’t allowed.


Canyon overlooks on South Rim Drive, the park’s main auto tour. The less frequently traveled North Rim Drive, a gravel road, offers six canyon overlooks.


Miles of maintained trails, ranging from easy to strenuous, on the South Rim. The North Rim has slightly more than double that.


Number of dams upstream of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The flow of the Gunnison River through the park is now only about one-fifth what it used to be at its peak.


Number of bridges between the North and South Rims. You’ll need to take the long drive around on a gravel road if you want to enjoy the spectacular views from the less-visited North Rim. Allow a minimum of two hours. It might take you three.


I've only been to the North Rim and it's wonderful views. The ranger station is usually shut down sometime in October due to snow, but you can still drive in - just make sure you have 4 wheel drive. Because of it's sheer drop, acrophobics should avoid this park.

Thanks for the headsup, Rangertoo. I suspect that many Traveler readers will be surprised to learn that it is apparently perfectly legal to build a 25,000 square-foot mansion on the highest, most visible tract of land in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.


Thanks for the link. This developer's non-sequitur response to the issue is a bit baffling: "I'm a private property advocate and a capitalist, for which I would never apologize."

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