The sheer walls and stone towers of the narrow, half-mile deep gorge at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado are breath-taking. But once you catch your breath, then what?
We showed up at the entrance to the South Rim on the afternoon of National Public Lands Day, so admission was free. Great start!
We also were pleased to find the diminutive Gambel Oak, sagebrush and other deciduous high desert scrub atop the plateau above the canyon were aglow with oranges, red and yellows. Apparently fall comes early at 8,500 feet.
The walk out to the overlook at the Visitor Center? Amazing! The canyon is stunning from the edge of the narrow peninsula of rock. Squeamish? No worries, the overlook is enclosed by a fence with thick wooden rails.
Unfortunately, the developed trails on the South Rim are limited to rambles through the scrub and along the rim. We didn’t hike them all, but the several we tried were neither challenging nor terribly interesting beyond the vast canyon beneath.
The canyon is difficult to photograph, and the late-afternoon sun added to the challenge. The famed Painted Wall – at 2,250 feet, Colorado’s highest cliff – with its bands of white pegmatite embedded in the canyon’s ubiquitous gneiss were shrouded in shade,
It is possible to hike to the bottom of the canyon, but the Park Service info make it sound pretty unappealing.
The trails down are neither maintained nor marked, the Park Service cautions. The terrain is “unstable,” and the odds of being “cliffed out” are high.
And if you happen to make it safely to the river, the Park Service says the water is chock-a-block with giardia (don’t drink it) and too cold to wade, and the rocky shoreline is slick with moss. Trailside poison ivy stalks topping out at 5 feet are described as “nearly impossible to avoid.” And then there’s the treacherous and exhausting climb back out of the canyon. Can you imagine the giant eye roll when the rangers are called on to make a rescue?
So, maybe raft in? Nope. The Park Service says the river through the canyon is “unraftable.”
Whelp, we got lucky. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an International Dark Sky Park, and we just happened to show up with the new moon. So, with two hours till twilight, we zipped back down the mountain to Montrose for a quick bite before returning as darkness fell.
We joined one other car in the visitor center parking lot and waited. Leaning back in our seats with the top down on our tiny convertible, we spotted three stars. Then eight. Then 20. And before long, too many to count.
This post is the seventh in a series about our adventures on a 6,000-mile road trip across the American West in Fall 2019.