Two thousand feet deep, forty-eight miles long, and two million years old, western Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the most stunning geologic features in the American West. The fourteen miles along the Gunnison River have been protected as a national park since 1999, drawing more than a quarter million visitors per year.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park comprises fourteen of the steepest and narrowest miles of the forty-eight-mile-long canyon in southwest Colorado. Protected for the unusual and aged rock, the strength of the Gunnison River, and the opportunities to view wild country, the canyon inspires us to marvel at the power of natural forces in our world.
For many, just seeing Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a shock. There is little that can prepare us for our first visit to the canyon, and its vertical truth jolts us out of our normal range of understanding. Here the cliffs are extremely sheer, plunging a startling 2,000 feet to the Gunnison River below. Here plants and animals have adjusted to a perpendicular reality. Here people have plumbed the depths of the Earth to test themselves within the wilderness.
The Black Canyon has an old story to tell. The exposed metamorphic rock, changed by heat and pressure when deep in the earth, is among the oldest in North America; the enduring schist and gneiss was formed shortly before it helped form early North America. Through plate tectonics, the rock moved and joined with another plate to form the foundation of the continent.
Deep in the earth, magma intruded into the rock. These granites add dimension and color to the Black Canyon’s crags. Most notable are the stripes of pink pegmatite. They squiggle and twist on the faces of the cliffs. The Painted Wall, the highest cliff in Colorado, displays a range of geometric shapes.
The Gunnison River drains the many high peaks surrounding the river’s basin, including the Elk, Sawatch, and San Juan Mountains. These mountains gather snow through the winter before spring sun arrives, melting the snow with great urgency.
Like a crowded freeway that bottlenecks to a few lanes, the snowmelt floods into creeks, rivulets, streams, and side rivers before finally reaching the Gunnison. These seasonal floods give the river immense carving power. Year after year, century after century, the river grinds the grit and gravel that it carries at flood stage against its rocky bed.
The Gunnison River thunders down the canyon with more than 2.7 million horsepower. Vehicle strength does not rate in comparison; jetliner engines move with some 110,000 horsepower. The roar of the river provides an auditory hint of that might. The waters of the Gunnison have sliced down through this aged rock faster than the forces of freezing and thawing water have been able to chisel away at the sides of the canyon.
We glimpse the natural wonder of the Black Canyon two million years after such carving began. Even as we measure it in minutes, hours, or days, time stands still here. Though the canyon has been wearing away for a very long time, the rock itself holds an antiquity beyond our measure; the schist and gneiss are nearly two billion years old.
It is difficult to wrap our minds around such a large number. It might be easier to start with the “ancient” piñon and juniper trees at the western end of the park. Tree-ring dating suggests some have reached 700 to 800 years old, comprising some of the oldest groves of their species.
These and the other species of plants provide some of the noticeable rhythm of life along the canyon’s rim. This vibe includes the patterns of migratory birds such as the peregrine falcon, violet-green swallows, and turkey vultures. Black bears, mule deer, bobcats, and bighorn sheep also call the canyon home.
While we typically look for these larger animals, smaller creatures add an important dynamic to this vertical world. From otters and mink in the river to smooth green snakes and bullsnakes on the slopes, to the dusky grouse and yellow-bellied marmots on the rim, the spectrum of life is rich in this wilderness of water, stone, and sky.
Although prehistoric people made use of the canyon for thousands of years, it appears that the Ute Indians were among the earliest to call it home. They primarily frequented the canyon’s rim, hunting game and gathering plants. After 1800, explorers occasionally made their way into or around the canyon seeking animal pelts, precious metals, transportation routes, and water. John W. Gunnison, for whom the river is named, explored the canyon in 1853 while searching for a railroad route across the Central Rockies. His was the first written description of the canyon, which he called “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up” land he had ever seen.
By the early part of the twentieth century, people were coming to fish and float the Gunnison for fun. It was not until the late 1920s, though, that local townspeople conceived the idea of building a road to the rim of the canyon. Completed in 1930, the road made the canyon both accessible and vulnerable to human exploitation. Local leaders began an effort to protect the area from development, and a small portion was set aside as a national monument in 1933.
Original plans to provide visitor services in the monument seemed grand at the time. The country passed through the trials of the Great Depression and World War II, after which Americans desired rapid development of natural recreation areas. New voices arose to speak for wild country as well.
After World War II, wilderness seemed to be disappearing as fast as snow under the spring sunshine. Automobile tourists were looking for experiences in the untrammeled canyon. Anglers, kayakers, rock climbers, and hikers saw the Black Canyon as a means to test their abilities and endurance, experience the land with family or friends, and possibly find a spiritual connection among its towering cliffs and spires.
Their voices were heard, and in 1976 half of the monument was designated as a wilderness area. Enlarged and established as a national park in 1999, the canyon still draws visitors seeking solitude, peace, and a grander sense of place in a world that marks time in milliseconds and information in megabytes.
Among the best opportunities to feel that sense of place is to gaze at the night sky above the canyon. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015, Black Canyon is notable for its celestial tapestry of constellations, planets, and nebulae.
Wilderness, around the world and beyond, holds mysteries awaiting discovery. Our experiences at Black Canyon, whether we find them during the day or night, allow us to grasp something of the never-ending essence of our Earth.