For us, this has been a year of experiencing and hiking several mind-blowing canyons. Take for example our train trip to colorful Verde Canyon in Arizona, to the canyon of all canyons – the Grand Canyon in Arizona – and our drive to Hells Canyon on the Oregon/Idaho border, to name a few. These gorges or canyons slowly carved by rivers for millions of years gave us breathtaking views and inspired us to ponder their majestic beauty.
Now here we were at the dramatic and dizzying depths of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Not only did we peer into the gorge at the Gunnison River from several spots, but we also hiked down to the beautiful water for a boat tour.
Our dear friend Sue told us about this NPS boat tour several months ago when we mentioned our plans to visit the area. My hubby the activity planner jumped on it immediately and reserved two seats for us on the Morrow Point boat tour. After following 232 steps down to the river and a 3/4 mile long path along the water we were at the dock.
The tour is run by the National Park Service, and a park ranger was on board to relate fascinating details about the history, geology and ecology of the area. The 1.5 hour tour had us gliding along the upper reaches of Morrow Point Reservoir, the beginning of Black Canyon National Park. We were slightly disappointed that the trip didn’t go further into the park’s deeper canyons, but we later learned that the water isn’t passable for boats there. It was still a relaxing and educational tour that we were glad we took.
After the tour we hiked out of the canyon and drove to that overlook where we gazed down to watch the final boat tour of the day go by.
On another day we visited the top of the canyon at the south rim of the park, which is within the deepest 12 miles of the protected Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The canyon begins upstream in the Curecanti National Recreation Area where we boarded the boat, and continues downstream into Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
The South Rim Drive is seven miles long, and we stopped and walked to every overlook. It was a little scary looking straight down into chasms with narrow openings and across to the north rim with sheer cliff walls rising 1,800′ to 2,250′.
We can see why it’s called the Black Canyon, not only because of the black cliffs but because it’s so deep and narrow that little sunlight penetrates all the way down. Often shrouded in shadow, the rocky walls appear to be almost black.
What made this canyon distinctive from the others we’ve visited is its amazing sheer walls; we stood on cliff edges and peered down over 2,000′. From the overlooks we experienced its depth, 2,500′ at the Painted Wall, 40′ wide at The Narrows and 1,100′ wide between North and South Rim at the Chasm View. This is mind-blowing vertical landscape!
Veins of pink pegmatite run horizontally through the canyon walls, which is very distinct in areas like the Painted Wall below and above photo.
Hiking at the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area
We found a trail that we thought would lead us into the heart of the Gunnison Gorge and down to the river itself. Driving to the trailhead moved us from a lush valley in Montrose onto flat-topped desert mesas and dry high-desert terrain that we had viewed from the Warner Point Overlook in the park.
Our little car wasn’t up to the rocky road that Steve saw ahead, so we walked across open desert the last 1.5 miles to the trailhead. Duncan Trail was easy going with expansive views at first, then we trudged down switchbacks and around twisting juniper trees, scrub brush and prickly cactus as we descended into the canyon.
About a quarter mile from the river things got tough, with loose gravel on very steep hills and no real path in sight. We decided to turn back, but not before having our snack while enjoying the view into the gorge. The Duncan Trail was rated difficult, and we’ve always turned around when the trek ceases to be fun. But it was still a great hike that got the legs burning!
Hiking at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
We went back into the National Park and combined their 3 hiking trails – Uplands, Rim Rock and Oak Flats Loop – which added up to about 4 miles. We went 400′ down into the canyon through Aspen and Douglas Fir, then back up to the rim where we enjoyed wonderful morning views of the canyon.
Fall was in the air as the Scrub Oaks and Gambel Oaks had already turned our trail red-orange. This was what we’d been waiting for!
We had an incredible experience of angles and views from top to bottom at the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. If you haven’t made it there yet, the home of Colorado’s tallest cliff is waiting for your visit!
Next up: Visiting the largest flat top mountain in the world