Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Snake count 🐍, a perfectly harmless but four-foot long squiggle called a striped whipsnake (I had to ask Dan to look it up, aren’t phobias fun).

I thought I remembered my parents taking our family to the Black Canyon when I was young; the park stuck in my head for some reason. When I asked my dad to confirm, he said we visited in 2000 and happened to be there the first day the canyon opened as a national park, after being elevated from national monument status. I couldn’t find a national park ribbon-cutting date online to fact check, so let’s trust my dad’s memory because really, that’s pretty cool for younger me and my family.

Dan and I got our first glimpse of the Black Canyon as we drove along the scenic drive, after we’d set up the tent amongst the scrub oak of the South Rim campground. We rounded a corner and saw the canyon walls fall away sheerly from the cliff edge, dropping 2000 feet to the Gunnison River crashing below.

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While the Grand Canyon is more vast, I found the Black Canyon more striking. The canyon seems to swallow light; at the narrowest point just over 1000 feet separate the North and South Rims. The canyon walls are crystalline rock, rather than the softer minerals of the Grand Canyon, and the depth of the canyon speaks to the power of the Gunnison River slicing its path over thousands of years.

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We took the scenic drive to High Point, walking the short Warner Point trail to its overlook before watching the sun set over the canyon.

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The next day, we chose a seven mile hike along the North Rim rather than one of the strenuous drops to the river, winding our way in the car along Iron Canyon to reach the Green Mountain trail and its views across to the South Rim. We couldn’t help but laugh at the sign for Exclamation Point, but the views down into the canyon earned !!!s from us!

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The area below the rims is designated for further protection under the Wilderness Act. Trails into the canyon, all unmaintained backcountry routes, involve a minimum vertical drop of 1800 feet over no more than two miles, with obstacles including 8-foot ledges to scramble, poison ivy and stinging nettles to avoid, and threat of wildlife from ticks to black bears. The Gunnison River runs fast and cold, especially this time of year. I like my wild wild, but I also know my limitations.

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Further upstream, above the canyon, swollen well past its banks.

The two sides of the Park Service’s mandate, conservation and recreation, struck me at the Black Canyon. The park seems far more focused on preserving habitat for wildlife and the unique topography of the canyon and educating visitors on its unique landscape, rather than cutting switchbacks into the canyon to make descent more accessible but marring the cliff walls in the process. Nevertheless, people filled the campgrounds both nights we camped, even in the middle of the work week. The park provided different ways for visitors to engage, offering ranger talks almost every night, often multiple talks at various locations along the scenic drive. We were sad to miss the astronomy talk.

I’ve started to appreciate some of the newer parks’ more hands-off approach to visitors. I’m sure part of this is due to funding and resources for the less popular (and accessible) parks, not to mention availability of rangers and volunteers, but often this “be prepared to self-rescue” mentality feels purposeful. We’re entering a wild area, protected to keep it so: maybe we don’t need paved paths, shoveled trails, flush toilets and electric hookups for RVs. In the early days of the Park Service, hunters shot predators like cougars and wolves to protect visitors, which led to overpopulations of prey animals that drove some trees and other flora towards extinction (not to mention these animals starving to death for want of resources).

Outside the Grand Canyon, I overheard two people lamenting a fire that had burned its way through a section of the Kaibab National Forest that surrounds the park, and I had to stop myself from joining their conversation. Wildfires serve a purpose, creating diversity in landscapes and forcing forests to regenerate. Rather than focusing on burned and dead Ponderosa, look at the wildflowers and more delicate trees like aspens that never would’ve grown in the shade created by older, taller trees.

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From the Prescott National Forest, where the Doce fire burned large swathes in 2013.

I’ll get off my soapbox before this turns into a polemic. I have a post brewing inside my head about the importance of public lands and preserving the natural beauty of America from developers, but I need to chew through my thoughts before I put more words to paper. The austerity and severity of the Black Canyon stirred up some feelings that have built as we’ve traveled, about nature as a symbiotic system where we humans are the ones who don’t fit, who disrupt.

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