Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

National Park Number: 55 of 59

Among the handful of parks we’d never heard of before this trip, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is by far Colorado’s least visited national park and one of the smallest parks in the whole system. The park protects the steepest miles of the gorge carved by the Gunnison River, and the park’s road leads visitors to a string of stunning viewpoints, where they can peer into the incredibly narrow chasm.

Black Canyon’s sheer walls are primarily made of gneiss, formed by sediment and volcanic rock that was buried underground for tens of millions of years, pressing it into its current metamorphic state. A few hundred million years later, the gneiss cracked underground and a granite magma flooded the opened spaces. These hardened into the pink-hued pegmatites that make the canyon marvelously marbled.

Two million years ago, the Gunnison River carved away the softer rock layers and began forcing its way through the gneiss, forming one of North America’s steepest, deepest and most dramatic canyons.

 Black Canyon
Black Canyon’s visitor’s center was off the chain! They had awesome activity bin, including dress-ups (Margie was obviously a big fan), rock samples, and a very disconcerting scat identification game.

Getting down to canyon’s bottom requires a strenuous scramble, extremely steep but also covered in loose rock, so it’s not a straightforward hike. So we opted out of this hike (which made us awfully sad, but also might have saved us from a twisted ankle or two), and instead took in the canyon from the rim, visiting all of the South Rim’s overlooks. We visited on an excessively hot day so in the peak of the afternoon, desperate for some cool, we drove the steep road down to East Portal, the easiest part of the river to access from the park, to dip our feet in the cool Gunnison. There at the bottom of the canyon, we got a good look at the Gunnison Tunnel diversion dam, at 5.8 miles the longest irrigation tunnel in the world when it was built. We also saw a dozen or so people fly fishing in the gold medal waters for trout.

Once the day started cooling off again, we headed back to the rim for a bit of hiking. The Oak Flat Loop took us below the rim through glades of aspen and Douglas fir, and occasionally we’d pop out of the trees for incredible views at the canyon walls downriver. Graham made friends with a fellow hiking kid, so we ended up chatting with her parents while we walked and it was lovely having a conversation with other adults :).

As the light got lower in the sky, we worked our way around the viewpoints of the South Rim. The kids climbed around on the rocks while David and I admired the view, especially from the lookouts at the Chasm and Cedar Point, where the sparkling marbled rock of Painted Wall was on display.

We watched the Sunset from Sunset Point (appropriately), and put the kids to bed while we waited for the stars to come out. Black Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park and though most of the sky was obscured with storm clouds that night, we still loved being outside in the dark, away from the lights of cities.

We meant to spend the following day exploring the less-visited North Rim, where the views are even more dramatic. But on our way, Buster’s power started to drop and we ended up heading instead toward Grand Junction, where Buster died and we were stuck for a few days waiting on an alternator to come in. 

But while our time in Black Canyon was limited, this is really one of the best-looking parks we’ve been in—I’ve never seen a canyon that struck me more and we could have stayed looking at it for weeks. 

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