Colorado National Monument was established in 1911 during the administration of William Howard Taft to protect over 20,000 acres of the northeastern portion of the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. Erosion has carved this part of the plateau into a series of dramatic redrock canyons overlooking the Grand Valley of the Colorado River. True redrock country, the Uncompahgre Plateau rises above the easternmost portion of the immense Colorado Plateau, home to some of the most storied National Park landscapes, among them Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Grand Canyon. In fact, Arches National Park’s entrance is less than a 90-minute drive from Colorado National Monument’s western entrance.
On Wednesday, September 1 (2021), our plan had been to tour Colorado National Monument for the day as we drove between Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. It turned out, though, that this first day of September was very wet. It was the only rainy day of the trip. Having packed up a wet tent and wet gear that morning, we decided to take the day bit by bit and see what we wanted to do. First off: meeting up with Jimmy in Grand Junction to get some coffee and some food.
Our friend Angela likes to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison has the most metal name of any National Park. Seeing the chasm from the north rim, I’d argue that there’s a lot more that’s metal about Black Canyon than just its name. On Tuesday, August 31 (2021), Sean and I spent the bulk of the day driving around to the north rim to view its dizzying overlooks.
At one point looking down into the canyon on the north rim, even Sean was rattled and remarked, “The north rim is like someone who’s fun to hang out with, but you’re gonna get in trouble.”
Tuesday, August 31, the alarm clocks on our phones woke us a little after dawn. After dozing a bit longer, Sean and I climbed out of the tent to prepare for the day. “We have to go see Painted Rock,” Sean kept saying groggily. Indeed, we wanted to go and see the morning light on the Painted Wall—the highest cliff in Colorado—before going to the Ranger Walk at 9am. Then it would be off to the north rim for the rest of the day.
Beyond the end of the road, Warner Point Trail leads to the highest point on Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s south rim. Named for minister Mark Warner, whose dogged advocacy led to the canyon’s protection as a National Monument in 1933, the trail is a short three quarters of a mile each way. As the afternoon of August 30 continued, we decided to hike out to see the view.
At Black Canyon, the Gunnison River carves through rock that is 1.7 billion years old, some of the oldest rock on the planet. Called basement rock, it forms the foundation of Earth’s crust and is only exposed occasionally, such as at the lower levels of the Grand Canyon. The block of basement rock that Black Canyon is carved through is called the Gunnison Uplift. Once exposed, the upper portions of the uplift had eroded away before the Rocky Mountains formed. Sixty million years ago, the same massive, continental rising that birthed the Rockies also lifted the Gunnison Uplift, priming it for another round of erosion.
Thirty million years ago, the West Elk Mountains to the north of the Gunnison Uplift and the San Juan Mountains to the south of it were volcanic, spewing ash that buried the uplift once again. The rise of the West Elks forced the ancestral Gunnison River to flow to the south of these new mountains. The river cut easily through the volcanic tuff and sedimentary rock between the West Elks and the San Juans.
But farther down, the river hit the much harder basement rock of the Gunnison Uplift. By now it was too late, the river’s course was set and it continued to carve, slowly, through this much harder rock where it was now exposed on the surface for sixty-five miles.
Although the two rims of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison are at times a literal stone’s throw apart, traveling from rim to rim takes a couple hours. There are two routes: west down into the Uncompahgre Valley and around the Gunnison uplift into the foothills of the West Elk Mountains, or east through Cimarron and along the Gunnison Gorge through Curecanti National Recreation Area. Mid-morning of Monday, August 30, we opted for the more scenic eastern route through another National Park unit.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park protects 30,750 acres of western Colorado where the Gunnison River carves one of the most dramatic gorges on the continent. After lobbying by nearby residents, President Herbert Hoover declared it a National Monument just before he left office in 1933. Congress upgraded it to a National Park in 1999.
On the afternoon of Sunday, August 29, Black Canyon was our destination after our final morning and early afternoon at Mesa Verde National Park.
When we woke up on Sunday, August 29, our final morning at Mesa Verde National Park, we still had some adventures waiting for us. These included one of the highlights of our entire National Park travels over a decade: descending with a small group to Square Tower House. After that singular experience, we lingered at Mesa Verde, strolling around the mesa top Far View sites and finally having a look into the Visitor Center, before continuing on to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Our splendid day, Saturday, August 28, continued with an afternoon on Chapin Mesa, where we filled in some of the gaps of the 700 Years Tour we’d been on the day before. The centerpiece of the afternoon was our hike to see the panel of Ancestral Puebloan rock art at Petroglyph Point and making a few trail friends along the way.
Saturday, August 28 was a splendid day in the National Parks. Sean kept saying about Mesa Verde National Park: “I really like this place. I’m having so much fun!” In the morning, we visited Mug House on the best Ranger-led interpretive tour we’d ever been on (which is saying something). In the afternoon, we hiked to Petroglyph Point and made some trail friends along the way.