Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is unique and looks very different from other western national parks. Its steep walls make it difficult for sunlight to penetrate into its depths. As a result, the canyon is often shrouded in shadow, causing the rock to appear black, thus its name. At its narrowest point, the canyon is only 40 feet wide at the river. It is so deep that you could fit three “cash register” buildings from Denver’s downtown, one on top of the other, and still have room for more.  (The Wells Fargo Center is 698 ft. high and the Painted Wall in the Black Canyon NP is 2250 ft., river to rim.)

The park only contains 12 miles of the 48-mile-long Gunnison River, but it is the deepest and most dramatic section of the canyon. The flow of the river can be very fast compared to other rivers in the west because the descent is very steep.  In the steepest part of the river, the drop is 240 feet per mile.  In comparison, the Colorado River drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon.

The geology of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison dates back more than 1.7 billion years. Much of the canyon walls visible today are evidence of nearly 2 billion-year-old Precambrian rock deposits, often referred to as basement rock, some of the oldest in Colorado. There was a period of uplift when these rocks were raised, followed by large episodes of volcanism, which buried the area in volcanic ash and debris. Then, 15 million years ago, the modern Gunnison River set its course from the surrounding mountain runoff and cut through the soft volcanic deposits, eventually reaching the Precambrian rocks of the Gunnison Uplift. The Gunnison River caused the erosion of the canyon walls at the rate of one inch every hundred years and the extreme hardness of the Precambrian rock walls has prevented the river from ever changing course.

(Note: there is an excellent description of comparative profiles of several well-known American canyons, reprinted from The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Today and Yesterday  by Wallace R. Hansen in Geological Survey Bulletin 1191.)

The first people in the Grand River Valley, the area surrounding the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, were the Southern Ute Indians who, according to their oral traditions, had lived there since the beginning of time. There is no sign that any early Americans ever settled in the canyon, only on the rims, so it has been a barrier to humans since they came to the region. The first Europeans to write about it were Spanish explorers, Juan Rivera in 1765 and Fathers Dominguez and Escalanto in 1776. By the middle of the 19th century, as new land opened to the west, exploration of this vast and diverse region had captured the attention of the nation. Many of the explorers were military men, engineers, geologists, mapmakers, illustrators and, later, photographers, as well as adventurers. These explorations in the Grand Valley focused on potential trans-continental railway passages, mineral wealth and quests for reliable water to irrigate the fertile but arid farmlands in southwestern Colorado.

Several expeditions in the early 1900’s were made to discover if a tunnel could be built from inside the canyon to run water to surrounding farmland in the area. The first attempt was in 1900 and was organized by John Pelton, who provided two heavy wooden boats. Expecting a quick trip, the group embarked on the waters of the upper canyon.  As they made their way downstream, the journey became increasingly difficult. The first boat was lost on the second day and then the rains began. The walls of the canyon became narrower and the river’s fall became much steeper. Heaving the remaining boat around rocks and pounding waters, they made it a short distance further, only to be faced with the disappearance of any shoreline altogether. After a night spent pondering this development, the group agreed to abandon the attempt and climbed out of the canyon along a very steep and dry cleft.  They then walked fifteen miles to a farmhouse before they could find a wagon to take them back to the train station.

In 1901, Abraham Lincoln Fellows hired William Torrance from the previous year’s expedition. Taking clues from the disasters encountered then, they gave up on the idea of boats and decided to navigate the river on rubber mattresses, with rubber bags for stowing instruments, cameras and other gear. They also went in August, when the water in the river would be lower. They began on the shore, encountering steep slopes and boulders.  They went into the frigid water when they had to, portaging around rapids when they could, and jumping from boulder to boulder while navigating the “Narrows”. The final stage of the journey was a series of deep pools with dangerous currents, which they were able, amazingly, to swim successfully.  Fellows and his crew poured over the canyon for two more years and what they were able to map out led to the start of tunnel construction in 1905.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a National Monument on March 2, 1933. It was designated a National Park on October 21, 1999. For more photos, click on this link: Photos and Multimedia – Black Canyon of the Gunnison.