Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a 30,750-acre national park in Colorado. It’s named the Black Canyon because its walls are so steep that sunlight can rarely penetrate far down into the canyon, and because the gneiss and schist canyon walls that were laid down 1.7 billion years ago are themselves a dark color.
The canyon walls are so sheer that in many places you can lean over the edge of the cliff and peer straight down 1,800 or more feet to the Gunnison River.
We both love heights, but for some reason this canyon gave us a sense of vertigo unlike any other place we’ve been.
“Some are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls as steep,” writes geologist Wallace Hansen. “But no other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness, and somber countenance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.”
On the first day, we hiked along the steeper north rim of Black Canyon. The sun peeked out of the clouds briefly, giving us a nice view upstream into the canyon.
We climbed to the top of the nearby Green Mountain for a higher view of Black Canyon.
The San Juan Mountains rise up in the far distance south of the Black Canyon.
On the drive home we spotted a group of deer grazing in the sunlight, with the Elk Mountains serving as a beautiful backdrop.
On the second day we hiked along the south rim. It was one of the few hikes in any national park that allows dogs. Our dogs love heights and would walk right up to the cliff edge with us.
There are a handful of trails—if you can call them that—from the rim down to the Gunnison River. Most are just steep ravines and washes in which you do your best to avoid tumbling a couple thousand feet to your death. These trails are so dangerous that they are not shown on the park map, and you must secure a permit to hike on them. Which is really just an opportunity for the park ranger to ensure you know what the heck you’re getting yourself into. Not only is the hike down treacherous, but the hike back up is incredibly strenuous, gaining nearly two thousand feet in a mile. For comparison, the steepest hike we’ve ever done was Yosemite Falls that gained about 1,200 feet per mile.
The Gunnison River loses more elevation in just 48 miles through Black Canyon than the Mississippi River does along its entire 1500-mile course from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The Gunnison River drops an average of 96 feet per mile through the national park, compared to the Colorado River, which drops less than 8 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon. But the Black Canyon’s walls are so steep because its volcanic rock is significantly harder than the soft sandstone and other rock in the Grand Canyon.
Before there were dams on the Gunnison River, during flash floods the river would slam through Black Canyon at 12,000 cubic feet per second with 2.75 million horsepower of force. The river has been cutting through the hard canyon this way for 2 million years at the incredibly slow rate of only an inch per century, which gives you an idea just how hard is the canyon rock. At its deepest, Black Canyon is 2,772 feet deep.
The weather was chilly and cloudy for most of our visit… a dark sky to match the dark canyon.
The Painted Wall stands 2,300 feet tall and is the highest cliff in Colorado. If the Empire State Building was sitting on the river, it would reach only about halfway to the top of the cliff. The patterns in the Painted Wall were created more than a billion years ago when molten rock squeezed into fractures and joints in the existing rock, then cooled and hardened. Unlike a real painting, these patterns run deep throughout the cliff. If you were to slice off the surface of the Painted Wall, you would see different patterns underneath.