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Exploring Black Canyon: Colorado

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

WHEN PEERING INTO THE BELLY OF COLORADO’S NEWEST national park, visitors are in awe of what
took the Gunnison River 2 million years to create. Drop by drop, the river relentlessly
gouged its way through 2,700 feet of solid rock. It easily cut through the upper layer of
soft volcanic rock, but as the canyon deepened, the river reached the older and harder
crystalline rock that forms the inner core of the canyon. The river continued to carve
through the ancient rock at a rate of about 10 inches every 1,000 years. That amounts to an
inch per century. Today, the process continues, but at a much slower pace. Upstream dams
have slowed the river’s flow, but, little by little, it will continue to attack the canyon
as it makes its way to the Colorado River. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not the
longest, deepest nor narrowest of the canyons of the West, but few have walls as steep. It
is the combination of its depth, its narrowness and the sheerness of its walls that make
this canyon special. The 14 miles within the national park encompass the canyon’s most
spectacular features. Although the canyon is 50 miles long, some of the upper canyon lies
beneath water that has been impounded by three dams. The area that has been set aside for
National Park System protection covers just over 30,000 acres, making it the third smallest
in the system. Your first stop should be at the beautiful new visitor center. Displays
explain the flora and fauna as well as the geological history of the canyon. Be sure to
view the excellent audiovisual story of the canyon in the theater. Then take the short
trail behind the center to Gunnison Point, where you can see the surging river as it cuts
through rock that was created 1.7 billion years ago, some of the oldest exposed rock in the
world. You will be standing on a dike that protrudes out into the canyon. It remained when
the relatively softer rock around it eroded away. Before leaving the visitor center, pick
up a brochure that will guide you to designated viewpoints along the south rim road, which
follows the canyon rim for seven miles. You will find interpretive information at each of
the stops. Some require a short walk to a spot where you can look down into the canyon, but
none of the walks is steep. At some locations where the road skirts the rim, it is possible
to view the depths of the canyon without taking a trail to the edge. You will find picnic
areas and toilets at several of the stops. At the end of the short trail to Pulpit Rock,
you can view 1.5 miles of the river as it crashes through the canyon. Rocks at the canyon’s
bottom are testimony to the forces of erosion as water seeps into cracks, expands as it
freezes and eventually sends boulders thundering down into the canyon. One of the popular
viewpoints along the canyon rim is the Painted Wall. Soaring 2,250 feet from the canyon
floor, it is the highest cliff in Colorado. Wavy streaks on the sheer rock wall were
created eons ago when molten material forced its way into cracks and joints in the darker
base rock. The streaks tell of a turbulent time in the Earth’s formation. If you arrive at
Sunset View as the sun goes down, you might be treated to a spectacular sunset, especially
after an evening thundershower. On a clear day, look downstream and you will see the Grand
Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in North America. At the end of the road, you will
note a change in vegetation. Here is a forest of Gamble oak, yucca, prickly pear cactus and
other high-desert plants, accented with wildflowers. If you are game for a hike, the Warner
Point Nature Trail leads through the semidesert ecology to still more spectacular views of
the canyon and surrounding mountain ranges. Allow two hours for the 1.4-mile round trip,
and be sure to take along plenty of drinking water. Enhancing the canyon views are the
gnarled pinons and junipers, some estimated to be 700 years old. The tortured shapes that
have resulted from wind and weathering add to the mystique of the Black Canyon, which
actually isn’t black. Because the canyon is deep and narrow, the sun reaches the narrows
for only a brief time each day; hence the name. Black Canyon is home to a variety of
wildlife. Herds of deer might cross the road in front of your vehicle or wander through the
campground, and you’re bound to see chipmunks and ground squirrels looking for a handout at
most of the scenic pullouts. Weasels, badgers, marmots and black bears usually keep their
distance from visitors, but may be spotted. Less frequently seen are the bobcats and
cougars that roam the area, especially at night. The oak and serviceberry bushes that cover
the ground provide a good habitat for towhees, western tanagers, pinon and scrub jays.
White-throated swifts, swallows, golden eagles, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks can be
seen soaring in the updrafts from the canyon. Early explorers to the area heard about the
deep gorge from natives who inhabited the canyon rims, but none of the expeditions sought
out the chasm; to them, it was an obstacle to be avoided. Even Captain John W. Gunnison,
for whom the river was named, carefully avoided the canyon when leading an expedition
through the region in 1853. It wasn’t until 1874, as the nation was recovering from the
ravages of the Civil War, that a surveying expedition, gathering information to attract
settlers to the area, skirted the north rim of the canyon and made note of it on maps. As
American immigrants started settling in the semiarid Uncompaghre Valley, they found fertile
soil, but little rainfall. There was a dire need for water for growing crops. Tapping the
Gunnison River was the obvious solution to the problem, but could this wild river be tamed?
To answer that question required exploring the river through its canyon, a feat that was
deemed impossible. The first attempt, in 1900, proved to be just that. In four weeks, the
expedition had traversed only 15 miles, losing one of two boats and many supplies. The
canyon walls towered 2,000 feet above, and the canyon narrowed to 40 feet. With what energy
they had left, the explorers roped themselves together and crawled slowly up the canyon
wall. It took the expertise of William W. Torrence, a young bachelor who had been on the
first expedition, to learn from the mistakes made on that attempt. Using only a rubber
mattress for a raft, Torrence and A. Lincoln Fellows, an irrigation engineer, made their
way through 33 miles of the canyon in nine days. En route, they kept notes that made it
possible for engineers to tap the river. Building the diversion tunnel took four years, but
when finished, the 5.8-mile tunnel carried sufficient water to irrigate the farms of the
Uncompaghre Valley. As the population of the area grew around the little community of
Montrose, citizens determined that the beauty of the canyon should be preserved. They
appealed to President Herbert Hoover who, in 1933, established the Black Canyon of the
Gunnison National Monument. On October 21, 1999, the monument was given national park
status by Congress. Few hikers venture down into the Black Canyon. Unlike the Grand Canyon,
there are no established trails, and the steepness of the canyon walls requires an
experienced climber to find a route to the river and back to the rim. Navigating the river
is attempted only by expert kayakers. However, there are reports that the fishing is
fantastic. Although the southern rim is more developed, there is a gravel road to the
northern side of the canyon and along the canyon rim. There is a campground on each rim
that has water and toilets. Visitors to the southern rim can attend evening programs
presented at the campground amphitheater during the summer season. Camping is on a
first-come, first-served basis. Because the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is at
8,000 feet elevation, the area enjoys four distinct seasons. Budding trees in the spring
later provide shade from the summer sun. The colors of fall paint their own picture, and
when snow falls on the canyon, it takes on an entirely different look. No matter when you
visit this new national park, you will be rewarded with scenes unlike any other on this
continent. Before You Go: The southern rim of the Black Canyon of the
Gunnison National Park, which is situated in west-central Colorado, is 15 miles east of
Montrose via U.S. Highway 50 and State Route 347. Just follow the signs to the park
entrance. To visit the northern rim of the park from Montrose, take either U.S. 50 east and
State Route 92 west through Curecanti National Recreation Area to Crawford, or U.S. 50 west
and State Route 92 east through Delta to Crawford. From Crawford, a graveled road leads to
the northern rim. Access is closed during the winter months. Admission to the park is $7
per vehicle. An annual pass is available for $15. There is no admission fee for holders of
the National Park Pass or the Golden Eagle, Golden Age or Golden Access passports. The
National Park Service maintains one campground on each rim; the north rim is open from
April 1 to October 1; the south rim, year-round. Each campsite has a fireplace or a grill
and a picnic table, but no hookups. Water is available, but must be used sparingly. Camping
is $10 per night. For further information, contact: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National
Park, 102 Elk Creek, Gunnison, Colorado 81230; (970) 641-2337, ext. 205. Web site:
www.nps.gov/blca. For additional RV parks in Montrose and other nearby communities, visit
the Trailer Life Directory For state travel information, call (800) COLORADO. Web

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