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On Walkabout At: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Basic Information

  • What: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  • Where: Outside Montrose, Colorado
  • Founded: October 21, 1999
  • Cost: $15
  • More Information: National Park website

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison


This past fall my family and I drove to Utah to visit Arches National Park.  During this trip we made a side trip to also see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  I can remember visiting this park many years ago as a kid so it is kind of cool to now be able to take my own kids to see this great national park.  The Black Canyon is located in western Colorado just off of Highway 50 outside of the city of Montrose:

We left Colorado Springs around 10:00 AM and reached the Black Canyon at around 3:00 PM.  Due to it being late afternoon, when we reached the park the sun was no longer over head to illuminate the canyon:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

So there was a lost of shadows covering the canyon which obscured some of the views.  However, even with the shadows the views were still spectacular.  After taking in a few initial views of the canyon, my family and I visited the park’s really nice visitor center:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The fee is $15 for admission into the park, but since I had a National Park Pass my family and I got in for free.  As expected with most national park sites the Park Ranger were very friendly and happy to see us visiting the park.  Since it was the off season and late in the afternoon, there was not a whole lot of people inside the visitor center.  We watched a movie in the visitor center’s theater all by ourselves that explained the history of the park.  Here is quick history of the canyon from the National Park website:

While the people of the Ute bands knew of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it was an obscure geographic feature to explorers for hundreds of years. The Spanish were the first Europeans to canvas western Colorado with two expeditions, one led by Juan Rivera in 1765, and the other by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776. Both were looking for passage to the California coast, and both passed by the canyon.

Fur trappers of the early 1800s undoubtedly knew of the canyon in their search for beaver pelts. They left no written record of the canyon, though, probably because they couldn’t, in fact, read or write.

By the middle of the century, exploration of the American west had captured the nation’s attention. In turn expeditions came to the Black Canyon searching for railroad passageways, mineral wealth, or in a quest for water. Eventually explorers came to see the canyon, not for commercial wealth, but for the renewal and recreation that it offered.

Today, you can walk in the footsteps of some of these hardy and inquisitive forebearers. The canyon still offers a rugged and demanding experience, even as it did more than a hundred of years ago. [NPS website]

The person most responsible for opening up the canyon was Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence.  Torrence was from Montrose and was an accomplished mountaineer.  In 1900 Torrence and Fellows had failed in their attempt to raft through and explore the canyon for a water diversion project to create a tunnel to move water to the dry Uncompahgre Valley.  For their second attempt they brought a single rubber air mattress instead of the heavy wooden boats that had been destroyed by rocks during their previous trip.  This time they entered the canyon on August 12, 1901 and successfully rafted through it in just 10 days.  They additionally found a suitable tunnel site that would lead to the successful construction of a tunnel to move water from the Gunnison River into the dry Uncompahgre Valley a few years later.  Because of this tunnel the Uncompahgre Valley is still a major farming region in Colorado today.  In 1933 this spectacular canyon was protected as a National Monument before finally becoming an official National Park on October 21, 1999.  In the visitor center tourists can see a nice scale model of the canyon that shows all the major features of this National Park:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The visitor center also has a number of displays that explain the geologic and natural history of the canyon:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Here is the geologic history of the canyon once again from the National Park website:

The uplift and volcanism of the early to mid-Tertiary established the highland that would serve as the headwaters for the Gunnison River. Snowmelt from the Sawatch Range to the east, the West Elk Mountains to the north and the San Juans to the south provided an ample supply of water to what would eventually become the Gunnison Basin. Geologists believe that the modern Gunnison River became established in its current course about 10 to 15 million years ago, just after the last eruptions in the San Juans and West Elks. This coincides with the beginning of a period of rapid uplift of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau provinces that lie between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada Range in California. To date, geologists are at a loss to explain the forces behind the uplifting of such an immense region.

Whatever the cause, the uplift allowed the early Gunnison River to easily cut its way down through the thick layers of Tertiary volcanics and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks. Then about two million years ago, the river began to expose the much harder Precambrian basement rocks of the Gunnison Uplift, a block of crust that had been forced upwards during the Laramide Orogeny. Trapped in its own canyon, the Gunnison had no other choice but to battle the rocks beneath it. At the rate of about one inch per every hundred years (or the width of a human hair each year), the Gunnison slowly worked its way through the resistant rock, forming the narrow, steep-sided Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Only a high volume, high-velocity river like the Gunnison could produce such a breath-taking canyon!

Spring meltwaters continue to feed the Gunnison today as it makes its way through both parks on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. The difference today is that you won’t see dinosaurs, erupting volcanoes, or lush tropical terrain along the banks of the Gunnison. The climate is not the only thing that has changed. The Gunnison River no longer flows freely through canyon. Three dams hold back its seasonal flood, reducing its former glory to a feeble shadow. Yet even in its diminished state, the Gunnison continues to add to the geologic story of Black Canyon and Curecanti drop by precious drop. [NPS website]

From the visitor center my family and I walked down a short trail where the geologic history of this canyon could easily be seen in the rocks:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

After hiking the short trail we then went back to my truck to drive the South Rim Road.  This road has plenty of lookouts to take in views of this spectacular canyon:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The end of South Rim Road is where Sunset Point is located:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

From there we took another short hike to a lookout where we had a beautiful view of the sunset:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The canyon walls were alive with color as the sun shone its last rays for the day on its sides:

Picture from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison


We ended up spending 2.5 hours at the park which is a very short visit, but was enough to get an appreciation of how beautiful this canyon is.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is another one of these places in Colorado I need to get back to, to spend more time at.  There are various trails along the rim of the canyon I would like to check out some day.  A hike down into the canyon would be really incredible, but considering how steep the rock walls are it seems climbing gear would be needed. There is just so much to do in Colorado and the Black Canyon is just one more place I need to find more time to explore further.

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