When you’re out on the western slope screwing around in Montrose trying to find a place to camp, paying a visit to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a natural part of the journey. In November, the place is damn cold, and not coated with layers of tourists. In March, the story is somewhat similar. The north side of the thing has a road running there, roughly south from Paonia, CO and crossing the Gunnison River at Blue Mesa Reservoir. You can actually get from Glenwood Springs to the Black Canyon by going south through Carbondale, then more south via State Highway 133 to Paonia, and linking up with State Highway 92 which will take you further south to U.S. Highway 50, along the north side of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The views are actually cooler from the north side rather than the actual National Park, but both are pretty.
But you don’t get as good as a glimpse of the canyon itself from the north side. For that, you need to actually go to the National Park or get off your lazy ass and hike.
“The canyon has been a mighty barrier to humans. Only its rims, never the gorge, show evidence of human occupation – not even by the Ute Indians living in the area since written history began” – Kolb Expedition of 1916 (nps.gov)
In the image above, on the other side of that hill on the other side of the canyon is where that road is.
For those who don’t want to pay a fee to camp in the National Park, or when the campgrounds are closed early in the season, there is fortunately good camping not far from the entrance to the park.
We got bored and drew some patterns in the dirt. Maybe it will summon a ghost or something.
Highway 92, or the road that runs on the north side of the canyon itself, meets U.S. 50 at Blue Mesa reservoir. Keep in mind that images used in this trip log are sourced from two different trips, one in November and one in March.
I’ve only been to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison during the off-season, but it’s probably better that way. I’m not going to tell you which pictures are from November and which are from March, but see if you can figure it out.
Fun fact: they call it the “Black Canyon of the Gunnison” because the Gunnison River runs through it. No, really, they call it that because parts of the canyon are so deep that they only receive 33 minutes of sunlight in a day. The narrowest part is only 40ft wide at the river. It would suck to get stuck down there. Additionally, the Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile through the entire canyon, making it the 5th steepest mountain descent in North America. To put this in perspective, the Colorado River drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon. At its steepest, the Gunnison River drops 240 feet in a mile, at Chasm View.
There are numerous hiking trails to access the river in the canyon. All inner canyon descents require Class 3 climbing skills, basic route finding, and involve steep talus crossings, drop offs, and impassable ledges. Poison Ivy also grows along the river at the base. A descent can take up to two hours and the return ascent can take upwards of four hours. The Ute Native Americans who inhabited the area knew of the canyon for decades before Europeans saw it, and avoided it out of superstition.
According to the National Park Service, the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the area, in 1765 by Juan Rivera, and again in 1776 by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante. They were looking for passage to California.
The canyon is certainly formidable and clearly poses an obstacle even with modern-day equipment and means. It could prove fatal to climb off-route in the steep canyon. Regardless, it is an experience worth having if you’re ever in the area.