Wallace Stegner once said that national parks are “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” I could not agree more. The 59 national parks across the U.S.A. include some of the most breathtaking landscapes and historically significant sites in the country. Colorado is lucky to have four national parks within its borders each showcasing a unique outdoor experience in the Centennial State. From the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to an ancient civilization to the nation’s largest sand dune to a canyon that cuts through 2 million years of history, Colorado’s national parks help preserve the environment, history and unique character of the state. This four week series will highlight the life of and the life in each of Colorado’s four national parks: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dune, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
- Wednesday, July 17: Rocky Mountain National Park
- Wednesday, July 24: Mesa Verde National Park
- Wednesday, July 31: Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve
- Wednesday, August 7: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The least well-known, though not the least stunning, of Colorado’s four national parks is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (BCGNP). Stretched between the towns of Gunnison and Montrose in western Colorado this national park protects one of the most spectacular canyons in Colorado. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison runs for over 50 miles and fluctuates in width from as wide as 1,100 feet to as narrow as 40 feet. Its massive cliff walls which appear black in the shadows that often cloak the canyon (hence the name) are some of the highest in Colorado. The extreme nature of this landscape is mirrored in the extreme outdoor activities which visitors can enjoy including rock climbing and kayaking.
This imposing landscape has an extraordinarily long history. For 2 million years the Gunnison River has been cutting through the rock, working tirelessly to form this geologically impressive canyon. This hydraulic manipulation of the landscape has exposed some of the oldest rocks in the nation called Precambrian rocks which are nearly 2 billion years old. It also produced some of the highest cliffs in the nation such as Painted Wall which is the tallest cliff in Colorado. It measures 2,250 feet from river to rim, nearly 800 feet taller than the Empire State Building.
Native Americans were the first people known to have visited the area. However, while there is evidence of their presence on the rim of the canyon, there is no evidence that these early explorers ventured into the depths of the canyon itself. Spaniards were the first Europeans to come to the area in 1765 and again in 1776 followed by fur trappers in the early 1800s. Early surveys of the canyon by Americans sent to explore and map the then still untamed western territories were wrought with difficulties and many failed at their first attempt to traverse the canyon. It wasn’t until 1901 that an expedition made it successfully through the entire canyon. By 1933 the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was a protected national monument, then in October 1999 it officially became Colorado’s third national park.
Nowadays scenic drives are a popular way to view the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in BCGNP much like Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. South Rim Road in BCGNP follows the canyon’s southern rim for seven miles and has 12 overlooks; the most dramatic being Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall and Sunset View. The nearly vertical cliff walls of the northern rim allow for unobstructed views from the six overlooks on North Rim Road and are considered some of the most breathtaking views in the park. This gasping effect is also partially due to the lack of guard rails. East Portal Road is the only road with access to the river, but with 15% grades and hairpin curves it is an extreme drive not suitable for all cars.
Besides scenic drives another popular activity in BCGNP is ranger-led programs which change with the season. In winter those programs include snowshoe walks, cross country ski clinics, and winter survival classes; in the summer hiking and wildlife watching; and year round there are moonlight expeditions and night sky programs.
Sans ranger there are several outdoor activities visitors to BCGNP can indulge in including camping, hiking, horseback riding and birding (the world’s fasted bird, the Peregrine Falcon, can be spotted in BCGNP). However, while outdoor activities along the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison are suitable for the whole family, the steep cliff walls and dramatic landscape of the inner canyon make physical activities there suitable for only the most experience sportsmen. There are no marked or maintained trails in the canyon so hikers must make their own way down and back up the rocky and often unstable footing in the canyon. Rock climbing in BCGNP is still in the infancy of documentation and so climbers attack the sheer cliff faces at their own peril. The Gunnison River at the base of the canyon has class V rapids which only kayakers are allowed on as the river presents too many difficulties for rafts, and there are some parts of the river that are simply unsafe to traverse. The Gunnison River in the BCGNP also offers pristine fishing conditions and is designated Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water (only 168 miles of the 9000 miles of trout streams in Colorado are rated Gold Medal), but to reach that water anglers must first make it down to the river. Every year dozens of visitors who try to tackle the rugged conditions inside the canyon are hurt or require rescuing and fatalities are not uncommon in this challenging environment.
Early on this area was called the Grand Canyon of Colorado, and it’s easy to see how the size and drama of the landscape could draw this comparison. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the most stunning geological formations in Colorado, and being located in the southwest of the state it keeps good company. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is only 200 miles southeast and Mesa Verde National Park is 160 miles to the southwest. Visitors to BCGNP can also travel to nearby Colorado National Monument or the neighboring Curecanti National Recreation Area for additional outdoor adventures.