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Musings On Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park

For a long, long, long time the Gunnison River has been cutting its way through the bedrock of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Lee Dalton photo.

I really didn’t know exactly what to expect when I pulled up to the first overlook at Black Canyon. But when I walked to the edge of the canyon at Tomichi Point and looked down, the only thing I could think was "Oh, my goodness!"

Not as colorful and wide and long and deep as Grand Canyon, Black Canyon is, even so, a place that takes breath away. A deep unhealed scar in Earth’s crust, the canyon stretches about 48 miles through tough granitic rocks. The river drops an average of 96 feet per mile as it courses along at the bottom of its sharp V-shaped cut.

In fact, in its short run through the canyon, the Gunnison loses more elevation than the Mississippi River loses during its entire 1,500-mile run from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. As the Gunnison Uplift began forcing its way upward a few million years ago, the already established river began gnawing downward. First, it cut through softer lava flows and ash deposits until it reached harder basement rocks of granite and gneiss. Then the river had no choice but to continue chewing deeper and deeper into some of the hardest rocks on the planet.

Until the river was dammed to create a couple of reservoirs upstream, floodwater flows of as much as 12,000 cubic feet of water per second deepened the canyon to its present depth of 2,700 feet. Even now, the steep gradient of the river’s flow continues to cut at a rate far greater than other canyons normally are able to do.

At any of the many overlooks along the canyon’s rim, there’s a continual thrumming roar that seems to pervade the very air around you. It’s a sound that never ends. If the river’s noise is that loud at the rim, half a mile above the rushing water, what must it be like at the river’s edge?

In fact, some of the early explorers who tried to penetrate the canyon, wrote that the noise was frightening, overwhelming and could “nearly drive one to madness.”

In the quiet evening, the river’s sound was audible in the campground some distance from the canyon’s edge. Black Canyon is home to a wide variety of birds and other animals. Great horned owls, Stellar’s jays, and the American dipper – or water ouzel – live there year-round. Mountain bluebirds, peregrine falcons, swifts, and canyon wrens are migratory.

I encountered several herds of mule deer grazing along the rim drive and throughout the campground where scrub oak provide almost exclusive tree cover and lots of acorns. And, of course, there are the other usual critters that makes places like this home. Just after I’d set up camp, I was lying down for a few minutes when I heard someone running around on my trailer’s roof. I opened my eyes and they met the eyes of a curious little ground squirrel looking back at me through the screened roof vent.

People And The Canyon

According to the park’s mini folder, “the canyon has been a mighty barrier to humans from time immemorial.”

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison's Painted Wall. Lee Dalton Photo.

There is evidence of prehistoric human habitation along the rims, but never in the gorge. Completely understandable. Early European explorers missed the canyon completely, and it wasn’t until 1873 and ‘74 that it was finally recorded by the Hayden Expedition.

There are apparently no trails leading to the river from the rim. If there were, I doubt that many visitors would tackle them. But adventurous souls who are experienced kayakers or climbers may obtain permits and test themselves against the canyon walls and roaring river. Rafting, they say, is “discouraged.”

As European settlers began filling Uncompahgre Valley southwest of the canyon, they needed water. The closest reliable source was the Gunnison. The trick was finding a way to get water from the depths of the canyon to farms and fields around the growing settlements near Montrose.

It seems there was almost nothing early settlers in the Southwest couldn’t do if they decided to do it and that leads us to another awesome tale of determination. In about 1900, five local residents decided to make a trip through the canyon to see if they could find a place where water might be diverted into a tunnel to carry it to Montrose. They set out in two wooden rowboats to explore those roaring canyon depths. They didn’t get far before the boats, and all their supplies, had been smashed to smithereens.

Still, they pressed on.

But finally, after their neighbors had given them up for dead and had stretched nets downriver in hopes of catching their drifting bodies, they managed to climb the canyon’s sheer walls to a joyful reunion.

But that didn’t kill the idea and need for water. So in 1901, a government hydrologist and surveyor, Abraham Lincoln Fellows, arrived from Washington for one more try. He recruited one of the members of the earlier party to accompany him. Instead of wooden boats, Fellows proposed using inflatable rubber “mattresses.” And so, in August 1901, Fellows and William Torrence set off into the raging darkness of Black Canyon.

At one point, where the canyon narrows to only 40 feet and the full force of the river crashes between, over, and around massive rocks, the two men came to what looked like the end of their trip and another climb out of the canyon. Or certain death.

After standing and looking at the water for a time, Fellows squared his shoulders and then, grasping his rubber mattress, jumped in and disappeared around a bend. Torrence, left alone on the rock, figured he had seen the last of his companion, but finally decided he had nothing to lose but his life. So he clutched his mattress and followed.

There was a very happy reunion a few hundred yards later. When, after nine days, the two men emerged from the canyon, Abraham Lincoln Fellows had found a location where a diversion dam could be constructed and a tunnel drilled to carry water to Montrose. It took several years, but finally in 1909 a tunnel -- 12 feet tall, 11 feet wide, and 6 miles long through hard rock -- was completed and water began flowing. The tunnel still supplies water today.

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An overlook with views into the depths of Black Canyon. Lee Dalton photo.

There’s a lot more to the story of the tunnel, but it can’t be told here for lack of space. You’ll just have to make a trip for yourself to learn it all.

Visiting Black Canyon

Black Canyon National Park preserves only 14 miles of the total 48 miles of canyon. It’s really a kind of bare-bones park. Water must be hauled in by truck from Montrose. There is no food service, no lodging, no cell phone service (at least not Verizon) and not much to do except hike short distances and look down into the canyon in awed wonder.

A modest visitor center on the South Rim is a pleasant break. The south rim drive is about 20 miles of good paved road with a number of overlooks along the way. Pit toilets are frequent. Elevation is about 8,000 feet above sea level. The road is plowed in winter only as far as the visitor center and the center is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years day.

When I was there back in September, interpretive activities had wound down and only a small staff was working.

Like the rest of the park, the campground is kind of bare-bones, too. Three loops contain a total of 88 campsites. Spots for large trailers are scarce and so is shade in most sites. Reservations may be made for loops A and B through Loop C is always first come. It’s bear country. Loop B has electric hook-ups and no generators are permitted at any time in any of the loops.

Photography is a frustrating challenge. Parts of the narrow, deep canyon are shaded no matter what time of day it may be. Finding the right exposure is something that will challenge even an experienced photographer.

While I was there, smoke from a number of distant fires added dense haze to the scenery. I found it amusing that signs at the head of each trail use yards instead of feet or miles to let visitors know how far they’ll need to walk. Measurements are precise, too. At Warner Point trail, we discover that we’ll need to walk 1,373 yards to reach the overlook. For my small brain, it was just a little confusing. Three-quarters-of-a-mile would seem a bit easier to comprehend.

There is no bridge across the canyon and traveling from the South to North rims requires a very long drive. The north rim has a shorter gravel road and a small campground and visitor center that is closed in winter.

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A bird's eye view of the canyon. Lee Dalton photo.

I didn’t have time to make it over there, but have heard that because the canyon walls tend to fall straight down from the south rim, views are even more spectacular over there.

The People Of Black Canyon

As I said, when I was there interpretive action had ended for the year except in the visitor center. But the ranger and a volunteer made the Visitor Center a fun stop. The auditorium’s video tells the story of Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence and that alone is worth stopping there.

When I told ranger Tom Hardman I was heading next to Hovenweep, he told me to inquire about a young law enforcement ranger named Sarah and let her know that her husband, an "L.E." ranger at Black Canyon, was happy and healthy. It seems he has to commute to Hovenweep to spend time with his wife each week.

That brought home once again the dedication of the people who staff our parks. Although the Park Service tries to arrange dual assignments for married couples, sometimes it’s just not possible.

I passed the message along to the staff at Hovenweep a few days later, but never had a chance to meet Sarah in person.

Black Canyon was simple, but impressive. All the facilities were absolutely clean and it was as peaceful a place as anyone could ever hope to find. The only problem with it is that now I’ve had to add one more park to my list of places to which I must return and spend more time.

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Nice musing, Lee. I hiked--and slid!--down the Warner Route to the river at dawn. Challenging but worth it to see the early light on the water, grass, and canyon walls.

Lee - A nice piece about one of those great areas that is often overlooked by travelers.

Excellent visitation journal, Lee. We visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in 1976 before it became officially a "Park". A little chipmunk came running up to us at one of the overlooks, sat up at our feet, and waited. Caught a picture in action of my daughter giving the little guy an M&M peanut, then he took off running right over the edge of that yawning canyon. He evidently had a little nest in the cliff, well hidden, but convenient to display his charms the minute he heard a visitor arrive.

And yes, there is nothing to do there but enjoy the quietude, the views, and wonderful world of nature in the raw.

I visited there in Oct., it is well worth seeing. The views are breathtaking. I had never heard of it and I live in Colorado. My wife found it on the internet looking for places to see.

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