Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

“By God, it’d make a magnificent national monument or even a national park. And I swear it will be if I have anything to say about it.”

Assistant Director of the National Park Service [who later became the Director] Horace M. Albright, while standing on the south rim of the canyon in 1917
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an interesting name for a national park, but the distinctive name is certainly fitting for such a unique place.

This awesome gorge was deemed “inaccessible” and “impenetrable” by early dwellers in the area and only the rims show any evidence of human occupation.  It was referred to as the “black canyon” because it is so deep, so sheer, and so narrow that very little sunlight ever penetrates it.  Capt. John W. Gunnison, an early explorer of the land surrounding the canyon in the middle of the nineteenth century, bypassed the gorge during his expedition.  Interestingly enough, it would be his name that was attached to the river he was looking to cross.

This incredible canyon surrounded by wilderness is 48 miles long, 14 of which run through the park.  The deepest part of the canyon is 2,722 feet from the rim — that’s over a half mile deep!  It has the greatest combination of depth, steepness and narrowness of any canyon in North America.  And get this: in just 48 miles in Black Canyon the Gunnison River loses more elevation than the 1,500-mile Mississippi River does from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico!  

At a pace of approximately one inch every hundred years, the Black Canyon has been a work in progress; carved over a span of some two million years by the Gunnison River, a large tributary to the Colorado River which carved the Grand Canyon in similar fashion.  

Of interest to note in a geeky geologist sort of way, the difference between the Black Canyon and the Grand Canyon is that the former is hard metamorphic rock that uplifted, then was cut through by fast-moving water; the latter is soft rock that was carved by the river and sculpted by some five to six million years of erosion.  Okay, I didn’t know this; I read all about it, though, in the NPS Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP pamphlet.  But cool, eh?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The deep gorge of Black Canyon

We weren’t planning to visit this park at this time, but a rather last-minute decision on our routing back to Chicago took us further south from Salt Lake City through Colorado and right by the park so we thought we’d swing by.  [We were trying to stay out of the snowy weather — look how that turned out!]  We will be coming back through this area in early September and will explore the park further, but this sort of reconnaissance trip was very helpful.  As we are wont to do, we watched the overview movie in the Visitor Center at the south rim and got a chance to see the park with snow on it — we figured we should just embrace the snow at this point!  But snow prevented us from driving along South Rim Road and also East Portal Road, the two main roads in the park, so we will definitely spend more time here once the roads are open and the weather is a little nicer.

Snow-covered Black Canyon

Regarding the above quote, ol’ Horace was right on both accounts nearly one hundred years ago and he did do something about it — Black Canyon of the Gunnison became a national monument in 1933 under President Taft, and in 1999, Congress proclaimed this wonderfully unique canyon a national park.

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