BACKYARD ADVENTURES: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

After the ski season ends and before Summer jobs start, myself and other seasonal workers in Crested Butte are left with ample time to explore the country around us. Just getting back from an extended river trip through Desolation Canyon, we were ready for an easy day outing nearby. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a small, lesser known national park tucked away in Western Colorado just East of Montrose. The park is a mere hour drive from Gunnison; perfect for a last minute day trip.  

 

Precambrian gneiss and schist comprise the majority of Black Canyon's geology. 

Precambrian gneiss and schist comprise the majority of Black Canyon's geology. 

While the overlooks along the road offer stunning views of the steep canyon’s Precambrian gneiss, Sydney and I knew we were finding a way to the bottom before stepping foot out of the car. A ranger at the visitor station helped us with route-finding and issued us a wilderness permit.

Sydney walks along the path to the Gunnison overlook, accessible from the visitor's center. 

Sydney walks along the path to the Gunnison overlook, accessible from the visitor's center. 

 

After a quick tailgate lunch, we were off on the Oak Flats trail, switch-backing deeper and deeper into the canyon until we came to the wilderness boundary. From here, there is no designated ‘trail’ to the canyon floor, but the route is more or less obvious. The dirt path starts out steep with scattered rocks and roots, and becomes progressively steeper and more scrambly as it descends.

A wilderness permit is required to hike down into the canyon, and can be obtained at the visitor's center. 

A wilderness permit is required to hike down into the canyon, and can be obtained at the visitor's center. 

 

At one point, there is a chain tied to a tree to assist hikers in down climbing a steep rocky section of the route. Loosing 1,800 vertical feet over one mile of hiking makes for some exciting scrambling. The route isn’t for the faint of heart, but is by no means a challenge for anyone comfortable hiking on steep and rocky terrain.

Sydney uses a chain to descend a steeper section of the Gunnison route. 

Sydney uses a chain to descend a steeper section of the Gunnison route. 

 

Once at the bottom, the view of the canyon walls is unbelievable. Stark walls of vertical rock surround the river on every side; the canyon only gets narrower downstream. With no view of anything beyond the walls, it’s as if there is another separate world in the canyon bottom. A sense of peace and serenity is juxtaposed by the fierce and towering rock faces. There are a few beautiful camp sites at the bottom- Sydney and I were both regretting not bringing bedrolls and tents.

Once at the canyon bottom, large rock walls encircle the river. 

Once at the canyon bottom, large rock walls encircle the river. 

After a long time attempting to take in the essence of the canyon and all of its magic, we started the strenuous climb back to the surface. The climb proved easier to navigate, but harder on the lungs. We set free a couple loose rocks and slipped a few times due to poor footing, but made it back up in one piece.

 

A view of the canyon from the top of the Oak Flat trail. 

A view of the canyon from the top of the Oak Flat trail. 

Winded, we gazed down into the world we left behind. We returned to the truck and cruised down the road until we reached Sunset View, where we parked and began preparing lunch. Pancakes and eggs it was, and no better place to prepare a dirtbag deluxe breakfast than at a National Park picnic area.

Didn't see many other cooking pancakes on the roadside- weird. 

Didn't see many other cooking pancakes on the roadside- weird. 

 

Feeling satisfied with the park experience, we said goodbye to the canyon, and returned home to the Gunnison valley. With nowhere to go and no place to be, we settled down at Hartman’s rocks, and wrapped up the day with a mellow campfire among giant granite boulders. Life in the Gunnison valley can be hard at times, but today was picture-perfect. With so many amazing places to visit nearby, no one has any excuse for boredom on the Western slope of Colorado. For more information on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, visit www.nps.gov/blca

A gusty, cloudy, beautiful night for a campfire at Hartman's. 

A gusty, cloudy, beautiful night for a campfire at Hartman's.