MESA COUNTY, Colo. - “The word ‘Unaweep’ is believed to be a Ute word that translates to ‘canyon with two mouths’," according to Zebulon Miracle, curator for the Museum of Western Colorado.
Unaweep Canyon is rare, if not unique. Unlike a normal canyon, water flows out of both sides with a natural terrain divide in the center. Its formation is a mystery, debated by geologists to this day.
“There are three dominant theories," said Miracle. "One is that the Gunnison River carved through this really thick granite and later sandstone rocks to create Unaweep. The other is that it was a combination of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers that were then captured to their current course. And yet a third idea is that a glacier moved through here and deeply scarred this canyon into the shape that you see today.”
It may also be a hybrid of the theories, he explained.
I set out on a journey through the canyon with my two guides, Miracle and also Kate Graham of the Western Colorado Interpretive Association.
We stopped at several of the wondrous sites along Colorado Highway 141, which travels the length of the canyon from Whitewater to Gateway.
The first site was filled with paleontological wonders, impressions of dinosaur bones left in an enormous boulder beside the road. It was just a small example of the wealth of paleontological resources in the canyon.
“It’s public land. It’s open for visitation. We just ask that when folks do come and visit, they do keep in mind how fragile and how rare things like this are and that we’re still learning so much about this time period," said Miracle.
It's not just dinosaurs that roamed the area, but humans too, especially near the turn of the century when copper was discovered in the area.
A tent city sprung up in the canyon called Pearl City. We stood on the site more than a hundred years later and compared the landscape to a historical photograph (see video).
“What’s really neat today is that you can look and actually trace the contours of this landscape and find the exact positioning of the city, where it was, in its historic context," explained Graham.
Farther down the road, near the infamous and towering Thimble Rock Point, Lawrence Driggs built his namesake mansion.
“Driggs then started construction on this stone hunting lodge, what later became known as Driggs Mansion. Construction started around 1917."
But he didn't live there long. After various owners, the mansion fell into disrepair. It remains on private property today, but we had special permission to inspect the site.
“The Interpretive Association of Western Colorado and the Museum of Western Colorado teamed up and got a number of state historic society grants to come through and do stabilization work on this site. Now, we’re not trying to reconstruct Driggs Mansion. Instead, what we’re trying to do is slow the crumble of this structure," said Miracle.
Today, many enjoy the canyon for recreation, activities like rock climbing...
“The granite walls here in Unaweep Canyon are actually a hugely popular destination for rock climbers, I would say worldwide destination," explained Graham as she told about an special easement that allows rock climbers to between parcels of private land to the canyon's wall.
The canyon is also filled with stunning examples of nature like the Unaweep Seep, where a microclimate of cooler air and plentiful, seeping groundwater create an "outstanding botanical display."
“What you end up finding are a lot of plants and species that are typically found at a much higher elevation are located here at round five thousand feet," said Graham.
The highway is also popular with motorists and motorcyclists and it is one of Colorado's scenic byways. There are several picnic areas on the route and pullouts for travelers to stop and take in the view.
“I definitely think that Unaweep Canyon is a Wonder of the Western Slope," said Graham. "I mean, just thinking about the geologic debate that’s occurring here and the fact that we honestly don’t know the answer and that’s part of the fun.”
“I think it’s one of the wonders of the entire American West," added Miracle. "I think that when you drive down Highway 141, when you come into Unaweep Canyon, you can truly appreciate the history of the American West. You can truly see. We drive by some of the oldest sites as far as human history in the west when you through this canyon. You come across geologic mysteries. You come across paleontological wonders and then the ranching and mining history in this area is something that’s, that’s unique and yet a shared experience that we have with the entire west.”