Black Canyon of the Gunnison

My quads are a sore, twitchy mess right now.  That can only mean one thing -- a baller weekend!  Jordan and I explored the deep, dark depths of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  I've been to the park once before and done the "windshield tour," but now it was time to do it justice and hike all the way in!

We started off the weekend with Sunday's solar eclipse.  The park Visitor Center handed out eclipse glasses, and about 100 people stood at the main overlook to watch the moon pass across the sun.  Loads of astronomy nerds were lined up with their telescopes -- some showed so much detail that you could see solar flares shining off the edge of the sun.  Epic geek-out! 

That night, we camped on the canyon rim in one of the pretty drive-up sites.  The whole campground was surrounded by fluffy white serviceberry flowers.

don't feed the critters

The next morning, we made our battle plan.  First, we grabbed a backcountry wilderness permit at the Visitor Center.  The permits are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis.  They're required for anyone heading into the canyon for day hikes, backpacking, kayaking, or rock climbing.  Basically, the Park Service wants to know who's in the canyon and that they made it out safely.

We spent a good hunk of the afternoon driving to all the overlooks and sizing up the canyon.  Yup ... it's huge.  The Black Canyon is composed of dark Precambrian rock which existed before multi-celluar life evolved!  Molten rock squeezed into cracks in the black rock, leaving behind giant stripes of pinkish granite.  This rock is also extremely hard and doesn't erode away easily, which explains its steepness.

Warner Point

 lupine

lupine

Finally, it was time to head down in!  There aren't any real trails down to the Gunnison River, but there are six unmaintained, unmarked routes.  These routes are seriously steep, loose, and rocky.  We took the Gunnison Route, which drops 1,800 ft in one mile!  That's steeper than any Colorado fourteen-er.  You start at the Oak Flat Trail near the Visitor Center and hike down the first few switchbacks. You'll come to a sign that says "River Access, Permit Required." From there, the route gets much steeper, including an 80-foot chain about one-third of the way down.  With fully loaded backpacks, it took us about three hours to make it to the bottom -- lots of shaky quads and crumpled toenails.  I wish the photos did it justice.

WHY don't these photos make it look STEEP?!?!

rocks older than multi-cellular life

But the river was worth it.  When we reached level ground, we were surrounded by the sound of the Gunnison River echoing off steep canyon walls.  We had the entire place to ourselves, so we set up camp and wandered around the lush green grass and black sand.  There isn't much hiking to do at the bottom because the cliff walls sock you in and the river runs too fast and cold to cross safely.  But it's a fantastic place to read, take a nap, or fish for trout.  There were a few nice campsites, pulleys for bear bags, and a pit toilet.

made it!

Of course, there was the climb back up the next morning.  But you know ... it wasn't that bad.  It only took us two hours to climb out.  I'd much rather go up something steep than down it.  I think it's better to fight gravity than negotiate a shaky compromise.  By the time we hauled our sweaty asses back to the canyon rim, I felt accomplished and satisfied.  I understand the Black Canyon much better now.  It's not just a pretty postcard -- its depth and steepness are impressive in a physical way.  My legs are definitely sore and I'll be hobbling around for a couple days, but it was definitely worth it.  Great trip.