WHAT IS IT? The Black Canyon is deep, narrow canyon formed by the Gunnison River whose schist and gneiss walls give it its dark appearance. The nearby Curecanti NRA consists of three reservoirs created by the downstream damming of the Gunnison.
BEAUTY (9/10) The Black Canyon is unreal. At most, of the overlooks, the opposite rim stands less than a quarter-mile away. Then you look down. The head gets dizzy, the stomach rises, the knees wobble and fear sets in. The drop never stops, falling 2,750 feet at the deepest point. The white water down below roars with same decibels as a jet airplane.
The canyon walls really are black. Streaks and striations of grey and white give the walls and unbending character. The Canyon’s narrow demeanor causes constant optical illusions. The walls blend, the sides become one, the gorge disappears. The Canyon wishes to be unseen. It never beckons, never asks you to hike down. It cherishes its mystery and wants to be left alone.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10) Humans have lived in the area for 10,000 years but no one traversed through the Black Canyon until 1901; it had been too steep and too menacing. A train display at Curecanti NRA’s Cimmaron Visitor Center showcases the area’s role in the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s Scenic Line of the World.
CROWDS (6/10) The moderate-sized crowd did not affect our stay at the Black Canyon, an auto-tour style park.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) These Parks are located in the central portion of western Colorado. They both sit along U.S. Route 50 between the towns of Montrose to the west and Gunnison to the east. The Black Canyon VC is 90 miles to the southeast of Interstate 70 at Grand Junction via Route 50. Route 50 continues eastward meeting up with I-25 at Pueblo, 200 miles east of the Black Canyon.
The circuitous 250 miles northwest from the Black Canyon to Denver travel up, in, through and around the Rocky Mountains. Have fun.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) We had a great time browsing through Black Canyon NP’s huge book selection. Did you know that there are at least 50 books published about Rocky Mountain wild flowers? We did not. Michael’s mother owns most of the children’s books for sale there, including a few classics: Ten Little Rabbits, Owl Moon and The Lorax. Her kindergarten classroom does not include Sunshine on My Shoulder, a children’s book based on John Denver’s touching song. We really should have bought it for her. Darn.
The store sells the actual United States Geological Service maps and surveys of the Gunnison Canyon and gorge. How cool is that. If you are having trouble understanding what is on those maps, the store sells more than a dozen books that explain the Canyon’s geology.
COSTS (2/5) Black Canyon NP entry is $8 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. Curecanti NRA is always free. If you want to launch a boat, its $4 for two days.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) One Ranger and one Electronic Ranger.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) The nearly 30-minute Park introductory film dives head first into the Park’s history. Problem is the pool is awful shallow. The Park’s history could be recounted in much less time. Sometimes the 18-minute pretty picture films are preferable. Nonetheless, the film’s pictures of the canyon are beautiful and done with the help of a brave helicopter. But who needs pictures when the natural wonder is just outside?
We enjoyed meandering through Curecanti NRA’s Cimarron rail yard. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day the Park Service offers two daily $12 guided Boat tours at Curecanti NRA. The boat ride begins at the Pine Creek boat dock, travel through the upper Black Canyon and allows for lake-level views of the Curecanti Needle. Sounds like fun to us.
FUN (7/10) road leads down to the Canyon’s East Portal. Make sure your brakes are in order before you make the 2,000-foot descent with 16 per cent grades and hairpin turns. From the East Portal, you are on your own. Only experienced kayakers should proceed; the River is classified as Class V to unnavigable.
The Black Canyon’s floor remains a mystery to all but the most skilled. There are no hiking trails down, no helicopter flights in and no super elevator rides. You must use your imagination from your distant rim perch. The Curecanti NRA allows for more accessible water-related fun.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is every bit as awesome as Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Michael had traveled to both canyons prior to our journey. In fact, one of the trip’s motivations was to climb down to the bottom of both. He did not realize that you cannot hike down the Black Canyon. He does now.
The Auto Tour allows for terrific views of this magnificent geological wonder but ultimately your brain cannot comprehend the depth and colors of the canyon. You want to be overwhelmed but the scenery looks more like a painting than an actual object of nature. The Black Canyon is stunning but after both visits Michael left wanting more.
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