Black Canyon of the Gunnison
102 Elk Creek
Gunnison, CO 81230
The Gunnison River commences high in the central Rockies of Colorado. For nearly 100 miles, it flows through rolling sage-and-aspen-covered country before entering one of the most spectacular gorges in North America: the Black Canyon. Located about 250 miles southwest of Denver, Black Canyon is one of the newer national parks, created in 1999. President Clinton called it "a true natural treasure" when he signed the bill that designated the 30,000 acres of canyon and desert as national park territory.
Entrance fees: $8/vehicle for seven days or $4/individual for seven days. Persons 16 years old and younger are free.
Visitor center: The South Rim Visitor Center is open year-round, except January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25.
Other services: A digital video theater
- South Rim campground. Open year-round. Reservations recommended. 877-444-6777.
- North Rim campground. Open mid-May to mid-October. First-come, first-served.
Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon is a fitting name for the awesome chasms that plunge 2,700 feet -- almost twice the height of the Sears Tower in Chicago -- to the Gunnison River below. In fact, the depth and relative narrowness of the canyons block sunlight from reaching the bottom, except for about an hour each day. The waters now known as the Gunnison River eroded desert rock for millions of years, slowly chiseling the walls of this spectacular canyon.
The Gunnison River offers "Gold Medal Water" fishing for trophy brown and rainbow trout, according to the Colorado wildlife commission. Other activities for visitors include hiking, camping, rock climbing, and kayaking the Gunnison. On the next page, you'll find sightseeing tips and guidelines.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Facts
Region: Western Colorado
Size: 32,950 acres
Terrain: High desert, pygmy forest, and vast canyonland
Highlights: Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock Overlook, and Chasm View
Wildlife: Coyote, mountain lions, bobcats, porcupines, black bears, mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, beavers, ringtail cats, great horned owls, fish, reptiles and birds
Activities: Ranger-led boat tours, nature walks, geology talks, evening campfire talks, snowshoe walks and moonlight cross-country ski tours; fishing, hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, kayaking, wildlife viewing, cross-country skiing, and backpacking
Sightseeing at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the melted snow of the distant Rocky Mountains cuts through half a mile of dark-colored gneisses and schists. The sheer mineral-striped walls of the Black Canyon are impressive from a geological standpoint as well. These formations are among the oldest rocks on the planet -- some date back more than 1.7 billion years.
Visitors to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can view the steep bluffs from viewpoints on the North Rim, which is accessible from Hotchkiss, or on the South Rim, which is reached via Montrose. Such vista points as Chasm View and Dragon Point offer panoramas every bit as remarkable as anything at the much more crowded Grand Canyon.
The gorge is a favorite among kayakers and hikers, as well as wildlife enthusiasts. It offers excellent habitat for such species as bighorn sheep, mule deer, and elk. Bird-watchers often spot raptors -- golden eagles, bald eagles, and red-tailed hawks, in addition to common upland species -- ravens, pinyon jays, black-billed magpies, and violet-green swallows.
The sheer canyon walls attract seasoned climbers, and the roaring waters of the Gunnison call to rafters. Although sections of the Gunnison River are designated "unraftable," there are other stretches that experienced kayakers can navigate. And for less adventurous travelers, there are beautiful hiking trails and numerous ranger-led activities. The park is particularly beautiful in the autumn when the color of the Gambel oak turns a warm rust red and the aspen are as bright as gold.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Photo Opportunities
The Black Canyon's plunging gorges and abundant wildlife offer ample views for shutterbugs. These stunning panoramas should not be missed:
- Chasm View: Chasm View outlook is accessible from South Rim Drive, which begins at the visitor center and follows the Gunnison River as it snakes north and west. From this vantage point, visitors can peer down to the tumultuous waters of the Gunnison far below. At Chasm View, the marbled pinks and whites of the Painted Wall are displayed to magnificent effect.
- Gunnison Point: Just a short drive or hike from the visitor center, Gunnison Point is often the first overlook travelers experience. Beware of the effects of vertigo -- the sheer walls of the canyon abruptly plunge almost 2,000 feet. Once you've adjusted to the dizzying height, you'll find that the view is amazing.
- North Vista Trail: This seven-mile trail is designated as strenuous, but for less ambitious hikers, the three-mile moderate version, which ends at Exclamation Point, is worth the walk. One of the most scenic hikes in the park, the path begins at the North Rim Visitor Center, passes through sage and oak brush, and then follows the canyon's lip through pinyon and juniper forest. The views of the inner canyon from Exclamation Point are some of the best in the park, and for those who continue on the path, panoramic vistas of the San Juan Mountains await them.
Almost 150,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park each year. There are many natural wonders to explore, and history buffs are eager to see the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit, where remnants of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which once carried passengers through the heart of the park, are on display. To learn about the construction and history of the rail line, continue to the next page.
The History of the Black Canyon
Park travelers are often surprised to learn that narrow gauge rails once traversed miles of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Most of the former railroad is now submerged beneath the waters of Morrow Point Reservoir, although a short section of the railroad bed can be viewed from Pine Creek Trail. Passenger service on the line stopped almost 70 years ago, and freight service ground to a halt shortly thereafter.
General William Jackson Palmer's Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) was the most successful to cross the Rocky Mountains. Palmer and his team first surveyed the area in 1881, and decided to built 15 miles of narrow gauge railroad along the Gunnison River.
Construction of the rail began immediately, with mostly Irish and Italian immigrant workers carving the railroad bed into the hard, steep rock wall, then laying tracks. Completed in summer of 1882, the line's inaugural run took place in August, and thrilled thousands of passengers.
The passage through Black Canyon was hailed by many as unusually scenic, and the D&RG extolled its virtues in their advertisements of the "Scenic Line of the World." However, train engineers were not as enthusiastic about the Black Canyon stretch, as rock falls and avalanches were common.
In 1889, renowned author Rudyard Kipling had this to say about his railroad trek through the Black Canyon: "We entered a gorge, remote from the sun, where the rocks were two thousand feet sheer, and where a rock splintered river roared and howled ten feet below a track which seemed to have been built on the simple principle of dropping miscellaneous dirt into the river and pinning a few rails a-top. There was a glory and a wonder and a mystery about the mad ride, which I felt keenly...until I had to offer prayers for the safety of the train."
The small community of Cimarron was established by railway workers at the far end of the line and continued to flourish even after the railroad extended farther west to Montrose. Cimarron slowly developed into a railroad town with a roundhouse and station facilities, and became known to train riders as a hospitable town.
Eventually, as railroad service declined due to a fall in mining activity and an increase in truck transportation, the town of Cimarron dwindled as well. Today, all evidence of the town that once stood is gone, but visitors can explore the abandoned Locomotive #278. This vestige of rail history stands at the mouth of Cimarron Creek on the last remaining railroad trestle of the Black Canyon route.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park encompasses some of the deepest canyons in the United States in addition to a diverse wildlife population. Although small in terms of acreage, this national park offers up the vastness of the Black Canyon.
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