Photo: Kayaker on river rapids

Kayakers brave rapid waters in Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. As it has for eons, water continues to carve the gorge, known for its unmatched combination of narrow opening, sheer walls, and startling depths.

Photograph by Richard Durnan/Photo Library

Location: Colorado

Established: October 21, 1999

Size: 30,750 acres

Sheer walls of dark gray stone rise more than 2,700 feet above the swift and turbulent Gunnison River to create one of the most dramatic canyons in the country. Deeper than it is wide in some places, this great slit in the Earth is so narrow that sunlight penetrates to the bottom only at midday. The park protects the deepest, most thrilling 14 miles of the gorge, about 75 miles upstream of the Gunnison's junction with the Colorado River.

Imagine chiseling two parallel walls of hard gneiss and schist running the length of Manhattan and standing higher than two Empire State Buildings stacked atop one another, with water as your only tool. At the inconceivable rate of one inch per century, it would take all of human history just to cut through five feet of rock. What you see from the rim is the product of two million years of patient work.

The metamorphic rocks exposed at the bottom of the canyon are nearly two billion years old, dating from the Precambrian or oldest era of the Earth. Here and there swirling pink veins of igneous pegmatite shoot through the walls, livening up the canyon's somber appearance.

Indians and white explorers generally avoided the formidable canyon up through the 19th century. In 1900, five men attempted to run the river in wooden boats to survey it as a possible source of irrigation for the Uncompahgre Valley. After a month, with their boats in splinters and their supplies gone, they gave up. But the next year two men ran it in ten days on rubber air mattresses. A water diversion tunnel was soon in the works; the four-year project, dedicated in 1909, resulted in a six-mile-long tunnel through rock, clay, and sand. The labor was so grueling and dangerous that the average period of employment was only two weeks. Today, three dams upstream have further tamed the Gunnison, but the canyon and its section of river remain wild.

Rim drives and hikes offer plenty of opportunities for peering into the magnificent canyon and marveling at its cliffs and towers of stone. Ravens, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons soar the great gulf of air out in front. On top grows a thick forest of Gambel oak and serviceberry, which provide cover for mule deer and black bears, while farther down the canyon Douglas firs thrive in the shade, and cottonwoods and box elders find footholds along the river.

How to Get There

The South Rim is located 15 miles northeast of Montrose, via US 50 and Colo. 347. The North Rim is 80 miles by car from the South Rim, via US 50W and Colo. 92. Turn south off Colo. 92 onto the 15-mile North Rim Road, the first half of which is paved. Airports: Montrose and Gunnison.

When to Go

Summer is the most popular time to visit. But be prepared to perspire if you hike at midday on exposed trails, and bring lots of water. Crisp days in late spring and early fall make for excellent walks. Winter affords opportunities for backcountry camping, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. With the rim at 8,000 feet above sea level, winter can set in as early as November and last until April. Snow closes vehicle access to the North Rim; the South Rim road stays open as far as the second overlook year-round.

How to Visit

You can spend most of the day driving the seven-mile (one-way) South Rim and exploring its five or so miles of trails. But reserve the afternoon, or a second day, for a walk down to the canyon floor. If you have more time, visit the North Rim and its five-mile unpaved drive.

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