Descent into Black Canyon

Updated: Aug 11


There aren't many three-day weekends when Angie and I don't do our best to get out of town and go exploring. This past weekend, we teamed up with two friends from Denver - Scott and Luke - and set out to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.



We got an early start on Saturday after staying in a hotel in Montrose, a small town tucked away between the Elk Mountains and the San Juans. After driving through pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma), and Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) woodlands, we were astonished when the canyon abruptly dropped into nothingness. Falling off into a vertiginous 2,000 foot chasm, we couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of vertigo peering down over the rim towards the whitewater of the Gunnison River.


We spent the day hiking the trails along the more accessible south rim. We began at the Visitor Center, hiking the two mile loop trail from the oak flat to the rim rock trail. There we saw a variety of birds including green-tailed towhees (Pipilo chlorurus), blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea), yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia), and a stunning western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana).


Male Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)


Everywhere we looked things were still really green and wildflowers were ablaze. Amidst a sea of recently flowered common sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), we marveled at the brilliant blooms of showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus), spearleaf stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum), Hooker's onion (Allium acuminatum), mule-ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis), Nuttall's larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum), starvation prickly-pear cacti (Opuntia polyacantha) and Gunnison's mariposa lily (Calochortus gunnisonii).


Starvation prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha), spearleaf stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum), and showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) in a naturally-occurring rocky garden

Gunnison's mariposa lily (Calochortus gunnisonii) with showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) and Hooker's onion (Allium acuminatum)


Nuttall's larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)


The pink flower of a starvation prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha)


We also noticed a rather carefree desert cottontail (Silvilagus audubonii).


Desert cottontail (Silvilagus audubonii) during mid-day on the canyon south rim

The south rim features a number of pull-offs where short hikes lead the tourist to stunning vistas of the canyon. We stopped off at the cross fissures view, the painted wall view, dragon point, and then hiked the mile trail out to warner point. Black Canyon of the Gunnison gets its name because most of the cliff walls are so steep that they prevent sunlight from entering, leaving the canyon void of light for most of the day. Shadows across the walls of the canyon often make it appear black and foreboding.

In addition to the thrill of viewing some of the most vertical landscapes in America, we were also excited to see many diving white-throated swifts (Aeronautes saxatalis) and violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) along with a family of canyon wrens (Catherpes mexicanus) singing gleefully across from us on the north rim.


The lookout at Cross Fissures Viewpoint


A gnarled Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) on the edge of the south rim


These overlooks provide expansive views of some of the oldest rocks in North America. At the bottom of the canyon, some of the metamorphic rock dates back to 1.8 billion years old! At Painted Wall, Colorado's tallest cliff (2,250 ft), layers of dark gneiss and schist are interspersed by wavy igneous intrusions, giving the cliff the appearance of having been painted. These intrusions are the result of volcanic activity that occurred around the same time, forcing magma up into the cracks between the gneiss and schist. This igneous rock is known as pegmatite.



Before leaving the park, we detoured to the East Portal, the only access to the river without having to hike down into the canyon. This road is steep and windy, with 16 percent grades, but landed us riverside near the crystal dam. This area is close to the Gunnison Tunnel, an irrigation diversion tunnel that was built between 1905 and 1909. Twenty-six men were killed during the tunnel's construction. At 5.8 miles long, it was the world's longest irrigation tunnel at that time.


We soaked our feet in the frigid water and skipped a few rocks before heading back up out of the park and North towards Crawford, where we would enter the park on the north rim.


The Gunnison River at the East Portal near the Crystal Dam

We were lucky enough to find a camp spot at the north rim campground, where we kicked our feet up for the night.


Camping at the north rim campground in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


The next morning we obtained a wilderness permit from the ranger station and set out with our rucksacks on the S.O.B. draw. Too steep and undefined to be considered a trail, the park service refers to this as a draw. It is called S.O.B. for a reason: the average grade is around 45% with several pitches reaching 66%, forcing hikers to navigate 10-15 foot cliffs with loose rock for footing. To add insult to injury, the draw is overflowing with poison ivy and in spots, it is downright hard to avoid. The path plunges nearly 1,800 feet to the riverbed in just 1.75 miles. Needless to say, our legs couldn't stop shaking once we reached the bottom.


Here are two videos of our descent:


Scrambling down the upper sections of the S.O.B Draw. Music by Bonobo.


Scrambling down lower sections of the S.O.B. Draw. Music by Bonobo.


The mist coming off of the rushing rapids provided welcome relief in the wake of the afternoon heat. We continued down the river, making our way across the rocks, reminding us of our salad days as children playing in tide pools. The feeble feeling in our legs spoke of something much different. That feeling demanded concerted concentration each step of the way. We began to think about how many people have been rescued from the canyon. It was no place to sustain a serious injury.






Half a mile down the river, we came across the first campsite, which was occupied by a solitary fly-fisherman. We left our packs at the camp and ventured onward, hopeful to find some solitude farther down the river. After a grueling mile-long rock scramble in the mid-afternoon sun, we were rewarded by what seemed like the holy grail of beaches. Sitting at the foot of Painted Wall, the gravel beach extended hundreds of yards out into the most pristine bend of the Gunnison river. Towering rock walls surrounded the beach in a display of veritable majesty. We sat for a moment under the shade of a box elder, soaking in the view, attempting to reclaim our energy to forge back toward the first camp and retrieve our bags.


At 2,250 feet, Painted Wall is Colorado's tallest cliff. Almost two Empire State Buildings could fit from the bottom to the top if they were stacked on top of one another


About an hour later (an hour that felt like four hours), we were stumbling into the campsite with our backpacks. The heat of the afternoon had melted us to a point in which there was nothing left to do but strip down and jump in the river. The icy water permitted only an instant of submersion, but we returned to the beach with a newfound energy that carried us onward into the night.


I strung the hammock and Angie filtered river water. Luke napped under the shade of the box elder and Scott assembled his tent. By and by the evening met the afternoon and our moods lifted like the air under the wings of the soaring turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). We were accompanied only by a family of boisterous American dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) who chased one another along the banks of the river; all four of us drank in the solitude. I walked the river casting methodically with my new spinner reel, growing increasingly energized by the steady stream of bites on my lure. Mid-June is the right time to fish on this gold medal river. Giant stoneflies (Pteronarcys californica) were out dancing in a dazzling frenzy and the trout were ravenous.


Giant stoneflies (Pteronarcys californica) are also known as salmon flies or willow flies. They live in the benthic substrate of the river as aquatic larvae for 3-4 years before emerging as winged adults in June to mate and die. They serve as the primary food source for trout in Colorado rivers (Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2019)

We fired up the camp stoves and cooked up some dehydrated meals. I paused to eat and then returned to fishing along the bank. I decided to hike up to the pool forming under the whitewater above our site and was rewarded with several strong hits. And then, finally, a foot-long brown trout hit the lure with an undying flare and vigor, fighting with an indefatigable spirit until I pulled him into the rocks and he succumbed to the hollow air above him.

Brown trout (Salmo trutta) can be easily distinguished from other species by the large black and red spots with blue-gray halos surrounding them on the back and dorsal fin. The caudal fin tends not to have any spots.

My first brown trout! What a feeling of accomplishment. Granted, not catching a fish here at this time of year would be unthinkable. The river is alive with fish. The Gunnison river within National Park boundaries is considered Gold Medal Water and Wild Trout Water. Of the more than 9,000 miles of trout streams in Colorado, only 168 miles are designated as Gold Medal (National Park Service 2019).


Brown trout (Salmo trutta) are originally from Europe but have been introduced to riverine environments worldwide. They are considered an invasive species in Colorado. For this reason, anglers can keep up to 4 brown trout per day, with a bag limit of 8 individuals. Although also not native to Colorado, all rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) must be released upon capture. The only trout species native to Colorado is the cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) which can be found in rivers occurring at over 7,000 feet in elevation

This, along with seeing the Corona Borealis and Hercules in the ether of the night sky were defining moments on this trip. As we watched the shooting stars in the sky above us illuminate the clear waters of the Gunnison, we pondered our insignificance as humans on this landscape we call our home. The world we had created inside of our heads was infinitesimally smaller than the majesty that surrounded us.



As the black rock of the canyon faded into the dark of the night, we were swallowed by a humility we had not felt before. In the morning we would wake, pack our bags, and trek to the rim of the canyon in less than two hours. There, our car would await us linking us to the rest of civilization. But the canyon would sit where it always has, waiting for the next million years to pass like it would in the blink of a human eye.


The sun rises over the canyon walls as we head back towards civilization

References

Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 2019. Investigating the Habitat Use and Hatching Ecology of the Giant Stonefly. Accessed June 24, 2020. [https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/RA-Hatching-Ecology-Stonefly.aspx]


National Park Service. 2019. Fishing. Accessed June 23, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/fishing.htm]

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