The way we quantify grandeur can sometimes be amusing. Take for instance, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in southwest Colorado. “There are deeper canyons in North America, and there are narrower canyons in North America,” states the National Park Service. “But no other canyon combines the depths and narrowness of the Black Canyon.”
So its the most dramatic dimension ratio of any canyon? … in North America?
We were having a good laugh at this silliness as we set up our tent at the South Rim Campground a few weeks ago. It had been 14 years since I last stared down into the canyon (God, had it been that long?), and I was eager for my 5-year-old daughter and our friends, the Lambertons, to see it as well. Because — Most Dramatic Dimension Ratio aside — it truly is among Colorado’s greatest works. If Rocky Mountain National Park is Macbeth, and the Maroon Bells are Romeo and Juliet, then the Black Canyon would be King Lear — less discussed, rarely acted upon, dark and miserable to get through, yet respected just as much by those in the know.
Getting into the canyon requires significant skill and an almost unhealthy amount of moxie. Several “trails” plummet down a select few draws which are covered in loose talus rock and poison ivy. Get to the bottom, and you can either climb back the way you came or navigate the Class V rapids of the Gunnison. Several stretches are unrunnable, requiring portage.
I can only imagine the rewards though. Canyons are always better from below than from the rim. The last time I visited the canyon, I was in my final year of college and my brother and I — along with our friend, Andy — drove down the East Portal Road to reach the canyon’s only easy access. We set up camp and floated across a calm stretch of river in belly boats so we could hike in over crumbled boulders as far as we could. We went perhaps a quarter mile before being stymied (kind of like reading King Lear on your own). Lacking the audacity to go further, the core of the canyon would remain a mystery to me.
Fast-forward to 2015, and our ambitions for experiencing the canyon were about as easy-going as possible. At 7pm, we emptied our car and piled everyone in for a quick tour of the South Rim Road. Dinner would have to wait.
It had been a long day for our kids, ages 5 and 18 months. We hit the road at 8am and had been slowly chipping away at mile-markers all day, with necessary pitstops in Fairplay, Salida and Gunnison. The Lambertons were driving an RV, so the girls at least got to enjoy a bit of play-time while we crossed the state, but it was nonetheless taxing.
At the Painted Wall Overlook, we filed out of the car and gazed at its namesake as the sun began to set. At 2,250 feet, the Painted Wall is the tallest cliff in Colorado. In spring and early summer, it is closed for rock climbing to protect nesting peregrine falcons. Streaked with pegmatite — an off-white crystalline volcanic rock — the wall looks like a marbled cut of ribeye. Or maybe that was just me hallucinating without any dinner. Either way, the kids seemed too tired to be moved by its grandeur. We returned to camp to stuff them with hot dogs before stuffing them into their sleeping bags.
As the sunset, we discovered an alternate meaning to black in the canyon’s moniker. Without a moon, the night sky is surely as dark as it gets in Colorado. For a time, we were confused by what appeared to be camera flashes from an adjacent camp site. But when we climbed onto the RV’s roof for stargazing, we discovered it was lightning flashes from a storm 100 miles to the north. In between us and the thunderhead: zero city lights of any kind.
Our timing was perfect in another way, too: it was the height of the annual Perseid meteor shower. We saw shooting stars at a rate of 2 or 3 per minute at times. One meteor was so large and bright, that as it burned up over the San Juan Mountains to the south — crossing most of the horizon on its way — I could point it out to Hailey who was looking the other way. A chorus of “whoas” came from half a dozen other campsites until it faded away.
In the morning, I took a short pre-breakfast walk along the Rim Rock Trail. Watching the sun breach the canyon’s depths was a moment of tranquility and perspective that I’d try to hold onto for the duration of the day. But its not easy when you are camping with young kids. One moment you are brokering peace in a squabble, the next you are hurrying to keep your 18-month-old from putting fire-pit ash in her mouth.
After breakfast, we rounded the kids up again and piled into our SUV for a longer look into the canyon. We stopped at Pulpit Rock for a dose of vertigo (“kids, stay on the trail…”), and lingered at easily my favorite view into the canyon, at the aptly named Chasm. Here, at the canyon’s narrowest point, the North Rim lies only 1,100 feet away. In between us and the lonely scrub oak atop the adjacent cliffs: an 1,800-foot-deep crack filled only with air, whirling swallows and the roar of the Gunnison River below.
Squint just right from The Chasm, and the canyon appears to be a tear in the fabric of the earth. Thread a needle back and forth along its course and you can simply stitch the two rims back together. Or maybe not.
Just downstream of The Chasm, the river passes underneath Painted Wall, rounds a bend, and “leaves” the Black Canyon as it enters an area known as the Gunnison Gorge. Here, the canyon is clearly much wider as the river runs unfettered by man for another 14 miles.
Beyond, it rolls into farm country and bleak desert, exhausted of its canyon-making abilities. Eventually, the Gunnison winds its way north to Grand Junction and flows into the Colorado River, a watercourse that never loses its canyon-carving ways.
Still, what the Gunnison has left behind at the Black Canyon really is one of America’s greatest landscapes.