Thursday, May 19, 2016

Montrose, CO (5/17/2016)

During a stretch of "active" weather, when storm clouds surrounded Montrose almost all of every day and occasional showers and hail storms were occurring, I decided not to complain about the weather but to embrace the conditions by going somewhere the dramatic skies might be beneficial.  Black Canyon of The Gunnison, a national park located just a few miles outside of Montrose, fills that bill nicely.  Due to its remote location and lack of publicity, it is one of the least visited parks in the system.  Still, I have always found the canyon to be extremely interesting, providing spectacular scenery.  In years past, I have driven both the south and north rims, as well as enjoying the boat ride that's available in a small part of the canyon just outside the national park.

Black Canyon is named for its relative lack of sunlight due to its depth and extremely steep walls.  Within the park, the canyon ranges from 1700 feet to 2300 feet deep.  In the 1880s, the Rio Grande & Durango Railroad built a narrow gauge track through part of the canyon, since building a track over the high mesas in this area was considered impractical at that time.  Despite the difficulties associated with such a location, the train operated successfully for many years, not only hauling needed cargoes, but providing passengers with incredible views.  It finally went out of business in 1922, when alternative routes were readily available.

Early communities in the valley west of the Black Canyon were growing, but needed more reliable supplies of water to make their farms successful.  The perpetual flow of the Gunnison River was thought to be a solution, if only there was some way to divert some of it to the valley.  A tunnel through the mountain was planned and started in 1904.  With crews working from both ends, a tunnel 11 feet wide and 12 feet high was completed in 1909 and began delivering water to a system of canals throughout the valley.  That tunnel still provides water to these communities today.

The canyon itself was carved through the Gunnison Uplift, a huge bulge in the earth's crust, by the Gunnison River, which drops quite steeply on its way to the Colorado.  The river might have taken an easier path around the uplift, but volcanic activity was busily creating mountains to the east and south, blocking those alternatives.  The force of the river and all the sediments it carries, along with rain and snow penetrating crevices and freezing, as well as wind and the plants growing on the canyon slopes, all combined to shape the canyon over some two million years.  Several dams now in place upstream have smoothed the river's flow and reduced its power, so change in the canyon now comes much slower.

On arriving at the park, I took a ride to East Portal, where a small town once stood to support the building of the tunnel.  Now there is only a road to a dam, a ranger station and a campground. The road to East Portal is only five miles long, but three miles of it drops some 1800 feet with a 16% grade.  I put the Jeep in 4 Low to keep it in check.  Some young men I met at an overlook halfway down had scorched the brakes of their truck trying to slow its descent.  Although the rim of the canyon is 8300 feet above sea level, I noticed right away that aspens were leafing out with that bright green color, almost yellow.

This photo was taken from the mid-point overlook.  By the way, I've never felt the canyon is overly dark, maybe because I've never seen it when the sun is farther to the south.

At the bottom, a sign talks about the tunnel project.  The road follows the river to a point near one of the dams, known as the Crystal Dam.  Notice the snow poles are about eight feet tall.

At this level, it's easy to get good views of the jagged spires that make up the walls of the canyon.

Driving back to the rim, I took photos of the road ahead and behind.

The south rim road is about seven miles long and has twelve overlooks.  From parking to the overlook ranges from a few feet to a couple miles round trip.  If you did all of them, it would be a full day.  I stopped first at the Visitor Center, although I knew it had already closed.  It has a really good viewpoint.

In 1900, a team of local men set out to explore the canyon in preparation for digging a tunnel.  At a place called "The Narrows" their boat and all supplies on board were lost in the rapids.  The men then had a difficult time climbing out where the canyon is about 2000 feet deep, but all made it back alive.  As a side note, the Ute Indians lived on the rim, but there is no evidence that any humans ever inhabited the rugged canyon itself.  Note the continuous rapids at The Narrows, caused by all the boulders that have fallen into the river.

It was pretty obvious that the rim has gotten lots of moisture  recently, although summers may turn much drier.  Lots of bushes and wildflowers were thriving.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Indian Paintbrush

Desert Mahogany

One of the more popular overlooks is the Painted Wall, the deepest part of the canyon at 2300 feet.  Those patterns that inspired the name are where molten rock under pressure was forced into cracks and crevices in the existing rock and then hardened.

I was hoping to photograph a sunset over the canyon, but it appeared the heavy clouds would block the sunset.  Being so close, I can wait for another opportunity. The drive back to town afforded some good views of the sky, including a rainbow over the Cimmaron Range.

As a prospective resident of Montrose, I would recommend this national park be added to anyone's list of good places to visit.  After all, many people complain about the crowds at some of the more popular parks, but Black Canyon of The Gunnison has only slightly more than 200,000 visitors each year, compared to millions at other parks.  Also, there are many other attractions in the area that aren't national parks.


  1. Stan, we stopped at the Black Canyon Sunday on our way back from my daughter's house in Paonia. We were almost blown off the edge, very cold also. We have been there several time over the years, Denise has lived nearby for 23 years. I never took the road down to the river but may try it some time. Have you found Pleasure Park yet? A county park at the confluence of the North fork of the Gunnison and the Gunnison. Several trails to hike along the river there.
    Ed Massart in Santa Fe

    1. Hi Ed, It has been windy here the past week. I enjoyed a stiff, cool breeze the day I was at the canyon. Haven't tried Pleasure Park, but will put it on the list.