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.
As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.