Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP: All the “Est’s”

WHO HAS BEEN DREAMING of visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?! Wait, you’ve never heard of it? Admittedly, it is not on many people’s radar, and therefore, we had fairly low expectations.  We were shocked, therefore, at its “wow factor” … surprising scale and unusual beauty, best described in superlatives: Deepest! Steepest! Narrowest! Darkest! Fastest!  ALL The ‘est’s!

DEEPEST:  dropping up to 2,600 feet below to the Gunnison River.  If you stacked New York’s Empire State Building and Chicago’s Willis Tower, you’d still be two stories short of the canyon rim!

STEEPEST:  these walls are near-vertical!  Predictably, climbing in Black Canyon is for experts only.  But with 145+ known routes, adrenaline junkies take it on!  Pick any one of those pink pegmatite veins in the photo of The Painted Wall below. Then picture yourself clinging to it on that wall. Then picture yourself pooping your pants in terror. Yikes! That’s a-gonna be quite a tumble if your hand cramps up!

NARROWEST:  the river has carved a knife-thin gouge through the rock, just 40 feet wide in some parts of the canyon.

DARKEST:  the bottom of the canyon, because of its depth, receives just 33 minutes of light a day. The dark blue-black gneiss rock takes on various shades based on weather conditions, but always maintains a mysterious feel.

GULP-IEST:  I can’t lie, looking down-down-down into the chasm was a little stomach-clenching, and it was quite surprising how many of the overlooks had little or no guardrails. But lucky-for-me, I have a supermodel in my life who will do anything I ask, for a photo! #goodhusband

GREENEST?:  I made this one up, because I don’t really know that it’s the greenest, but it certainly looked that way!  Low water levels and rising temperatures have allowed for blue-green algae blooms, contributing to the unusual hue of the water. That was the actual color … not photo-enhanced! So weird!

FASTEST:  this is no lazy river … the Gunnison drops a whopping 240 feet per mile.  Need some relevance?  The Colorado River drops an average of 7.5!  It might look tame from way up high, but among all the tributaries contributing to the Colorado, only the Green River contributes more water than the Gunnison.

The main activity at Black Canyon is driving the South Rim Road, with twelve viewpoints scattered along a seven mile road. Most viewpoints are a short walk from the road, poking out into the canyon. Pets are allowed on all the viewpoints walks!

The North Rim also has great viewpoints, but with no bridge from one side to the other, it is a long 2-3 hour drive around to get there.  Even with the majority of visitors opting for the South, this park is still blessedly free of crowds, and easily experienced by most in just one day. The visitors you DO encounter, however, are most likely looking down (and clutching hands)!

A good way to experience the bottom of the canyon, assuming you don’t want to hike (or fall) to the bottom, is to drive the East Portal Road.  This grade is extremely steep, at 16%, and with hairpin curves all along the 6-mile road, you’ll want to take the entire drive down in first gear!

But at the bottom, serenity, great views, and the perfect picnic spot!

Black Canyon has a few hiking trails, but pets are only allowed on the Rim Rock Trail.  Skirting the edge of the canyon between the campground and the visitor center, this short but exciting trail is perfect for most visitors, even at its 8,000 feet elevation.

Our 37th National Park was an unusual diversion, but we also enjoyed the area about 20 miles east of Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  The Blue Mesa Reservoir is part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.  For kayaking, paddle one of the reservoir arms known as Lake Fork, with beautiful rock formations to gaze upon, or rent a pontoon boat at the Lake Fork Marina. 

At 29 miles long, this is by far the largest body of water in Colorado, and with 96 miles of shoreline, you’re bound to have any part of the beach you might choose, all to yourself! 

It was here that our puppy Finn learned to fetch sticks from the water – no matter how big they might be (or how many in one mouthful)!

Water is the main draw, but landlubbers will enjoy the 4-mile Dillon Pinnacles Trail, to pretty sandstone hoodoos.

Our camping site had us perched above one section of Blue Mesa.  We never got tired of gazing outward at the constantly changing views of the lake through our front window!

With only two weeks left in this three-month trip, next we’re heading southward along the Million Dollar Highway toward Durango!

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