Wonders of the Western Slope: Black Canyon
Nearby National Park boasts jaw-dropping vistas
On the Western Slope of Colorado lies one of the least-visited national parks in the country.
Picture yourself standing on the edge of a cliff, staring straight down over two thousand feet into a black abyss, the far off sound of a raging river echoing back up at you. It's enough to make anyone gasp in awe.
That's what has brought visitors to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for years.
I visited with park ranger, Murray Shoemaker as he explained how the Gunnison River managed to carve the seemingly bottomless canyon. He said that it all started with volcanism in nearby mountains.
“As it (the Gunnison River) cut down through the overlying volcanic debris from the volcanoes, it incised the river’s course until it couldn’t break out of that course anymore. It encountered the harder rock of the canyon. The only way it could go was to keep cutting down and it’s been doing that ever since.”
With such extreme terrain, you would think early settlers would just bypass the area, but farmers in Montrose and surrounding areas found that they needed what the canyon held.
“The Uncompahgre River down there is a pretty tiny resource and as more people were trying to farm, they were running out of water," Shoemaker explained. "And here we had the Black Canyon right next door with the Gunnison River-- lots of water and they went, ‘hmm, how can we get that?’”
The answer was a tunnel-- but the forbidden depths of the canyon would have to be explored first.
“First attempt did not work out. They took heavy wooden boats, destroyed one in the first mile of trying to get down through there. After hair-raising adventures and having to carry the boats over rocks in many cases, they abandoned the boat down there and hiked out of this thing.”
On a subsequent attempt, explorers made it through the canyon and scouted a good location for the tunnel: the Gunnison Tunnel.
Locals, especially in the Montrose area, also recognized the canyon's value as a tourist destination.
“It was made a national monument in 1933 and then in 1999, it was given a national park status," Shoemaker said.
Now the area is preserved for its natural splendor and recreational opportunities. Even in the wintertime, Shoemaker explains that there is plenty to see and there are plenty of activities going on.
“We close the road at the visitor’s center, so we don’t plow the road. We turn it into a cross country ski trail and we get lots and lots of local folks coming up to ski. We’ve got lots of snow shoe trails. We get a lot of people coming up to do that. I encourage everybody to come up and give it a try. It’s close, you don’t have to drive real far to get there and it’s all free.”
I joined Shoemaker and several park visitors for a snowshoeing adventure near the visitor's center, taking in the scenery and wildlife along the canyon's south rim.
Most visitors come in the summertime, when the entire park is accessible.
“During the summertime, the rest of the road is open. You’ve got six miles that go down to viewpoints, looking down into the canyon-- spectacular views down into there. And you can’t help but wonder about ‘how’d it get there. Who was that that went through there? How did they manage to do that? What would it be like to hike down into there?’ and the fishing’s pretty darn good too," Shoemaker said.
You can hike to the bottom, but as he explains, it's not easy!
“There’s no maintained trails that go down to the bottom of the canyon. However, there are a number of what we call ‘routes.’ Essentially, you’re sliding down a gully," he laughed. "Once you get there, though-- absolutely spectacular down in the bottom of the canyon. If you’re up for a bit of an adventure and knees and everything are holding out, it’s a great place to go check out.”
I asked Shoemaker if he thought the Black Canyon should be considered one of the Wonders of the Western Slope.
“It’s absolutely one of the Wonders of the Western Slope. It’s really interesting to me. I lived in the area for many, many years, only a few hours away and didn’t really know this was here. And I find that’s a really common thing that people tell me: ‘I’ve lived in Colorado all my live and I’ve never been to Black Canyon,’ and then they come here and are just absolutely in awe and amazed at the place. So, I tell everybody: ‘Come check it out. It’s steep, it’s deep, it’s narrow and you will truly, truly find it a unique encounter on the Western Slope.’”
Other visitors I talked to agreed, including Ally, Dorothy & Alyssa of Montrose.
“It was breathtaking," they said. "Yes, very. It’s so magnificent and powerful.”
It’s easy to see by the looks on peoples’ faces as they gaze down into the depths for the first time why this is one of the Wonders of the Western Slope, if not the world.
The park is located about thirteen miles northeast of Montrose, off of U.S. Highway 50. The South Rim Road to the Visitor Center and the center itself are open and free of charge in winter. The North Rim Road is closed but according to the park's website, usually re-opens for the season in mid-April.
More info can be found on the park's website:
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