The Black Canyon of the Gunnison: A Natural Wonder of the World!

Miles Driven Today:  155         Total Miles Driven: 4877

I had never heard of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison until I started to research this trip!  How is that possible?  How is it that this place is not far more famous?  This National Park should be a must-visit on everyone’s list and photos of this astonishing place should be known all over the world.

We enjoyed our complimentary breakfast in the Salida Palace Hotel.  It comes delivered to your room by the Gourmet Chef, a smiling but fairly camp figure in French Style Chef’s whites.  No matter, his breakfast of a warm banana muffin, fresh fruit granola and yoghurt parfait, orange juice and coffee was delicious.  Once we’d gobbled that down, we were on our way.

Our first stop was Walmart on the outskirts of town.  Somehow or other, yesterday, I’d lost my mobile phone charger – yes, as well as my hat!!!  That wasn’t lost… that blew away.  Anyway, Walmart to the rescue and $7 later my phone was usable again.  We then took CO50 all the way from Salida, west to our overnight in Montrose.

What a fantastic road!  The scenery along the way is just gorgeous especially in this golden autumn.  Not only the trees, the fields where the hay has been cut and stacked, the shrubs and bushes…. everything is turning shades of gold.  We crossed the Continental Divide again (yes… AGAIN!!!), this time at 11,250 feet.  Stunning as usual.  I was driving this first part of the day, and it was easy to keep to a steady 50 mph to enjoy the scenery and make progress.  There’s plenty of overtaking lane sections so faster traffic could get by.

Have I mentioned the speed limits here before?  It’s another thing that’s a bit odd to the average Brit.  Not as odd in Colorado as it is in Wyoming and definitely Montana (where there hardly seems to be a speed limit at all).  Anyway, some “rural highways” (2 lane roads not interstates) have a speed limit of up to 75mph.  To be fair, this is only straight, flat ones where there aren’t a lot of intersections.  Even so, it seems very fast to us, well… me.   I suppose, other than motorways, the UK doesn’t have very many long straight roads.  However, 70 just seems too fast on a road where cars are coming straight at you in the next door lane.

Where was I?  Yes CO50….. a beautiful road.   We passed through the spectacular San Isobel National Forest, The Curecanti Recreational Area (massive, massive park area with lakes, campsites, trails…..   Gorgeousness wherever you turned.  And we’d been following the River Gunnison for a while…..

Eventually we came to the turnoff for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, about 10 miles before Montrose.  I just wasn’t prepared for this place.  It’s absolutely jaw breakingly stupendous.  We can try and make sense of it by studying the dimensions.  The river has carved this canyon for 48 miles in length.  At its deepest, its 2,722 feet deep (that’s twice as tall as the Empire State Building), At its narrowest, its 40 feet wide.  So, now imagine something THAT tall and THAT narrow.   Read more here website

I am not a geologist, so I cannot better what the NP website says about the geology of this place:  ” Precambrian accounts for the history of the Earth from its very beginning up until about 540 million years ago. If we condensed all of Earth’s history into a 1000 page book, the Precambrian would fill pages 1 through 880 — most of the book! The story would reveal a time of harsh and drastic changes in the Earth and show very little to no sign of life. Because most of Colorado’s Precambrain-age rocks have been highly altered by extreme heat and pressures, it is difficult for geologists to interpret what this region may have looked like during this time. So we usually find ways to describe the types of Precambrian rocks, and note where and how they may have been formed.
Precambrian rocks are often called basement rocks since they are usually buried deep beneath the surface. They only become exposed under special circumstances where the overlying younger rocks have been stripped away. Most exposures of these ancient rocks are found in the cores of mountain ranges or in deeply eroded canyons like the Black Canyon. In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the Gunnison River cuts through Precambrian rock nearly 2 billion years old! Most of these rocks are metamorphic and show evidence of exposure to extreme pressures and temperatures. Some of the rocks are igneous and formed from magma that pushed its way up into cracks in the Earth’s crust, where it cooled and crystallized.

The metamorphic rock that dominates the walls of the Black Canyon is called gneiss (pronounced “nice”), and is blended with schist, another rock that normally has flat or elongated crystals. You might spot the intense folding of the alternating light and dark bands in this adjacent photo. These rocks were once buried deep below the Earth’s surface where they encountered extreme heat and pressure.

Pink streamers of pegmatite animate the towering cliffs of the canyon at Painted Wall overlook. This granite-like igneous rock formed as hot magma forced its way into cracks. It cooled slowly, allowing large crystals to form. The pegmatite is loaded with shiny muscovite (mus’-ko-vite) mica and large crystals of a pinkish mineral called potassium feldspar.”

So…. basically, all the rock you see is billions of years old and exposed by the river’s carving!

We drove along the South Rim of the canyon, calling in at all the viewpoints.  Some of them are right beside the road, some of them you have to walk to, up to about 1/2 mile.  All of them are staggering.  Staggering.  Most have absolutely no guard rail at all.  Truly, if you want to consign yourself to a BIG JUMP ENDING this is the place to come.  Dizzimaking drops abound, just inches from your feet.  Looking down is very strange, very uneasy-making.  And yet….. stunning…..  This is not a place to bring your unruly child or dog.  That would be terrifying.

We had our habitual picnic beside one of the lookovers.  Being the wonderful NPS, there were proper tables and benches, and shades and bear-proof bins, all tastefully painted to blend seamlessly into the surroundings.

Anyway, we loved the Canyon and would love to visit the entire surroundings and even take the drive down to the river (which… did I mention… is jade green).  In the summer, you can take a boat ride on the river.  Sadly it finished about 10 days ago.  That would have been exceptional.  To look up at those canyon walls!!!

I always wonder about the people who stumbled across it… obviously the Indians knew about it for a very long time.  The trappers in the early 1800s must have known about it from them… I just like to imagine some hapless explorer coming across it… because, like the Grand Canyon, the surroundings don’t give you a clue that it’s there.  There’s attractive brushland, but mainly flat…. and then…. THERE IT IS!!!  Like a great gash in the Earth….

Still marvelling….. we drove on towards our overnight in Montrose.  This time at the Staywise Inn, a budget motel just off CO 50.  Our room is big, clean, a/c, with fridge, microwave, flatscreen tv and wifi.   What more can we ask for!??  It is not at all charming and it costs less than half of what we paid last night.  Oh, and tomorrow,  our free breakfast includes fresh made omelettes! But not delivered by the chef….. Bob says that’s a good thing!


  1. There’s a lot of treasures in the West that aren’t well known. Like Devil’s Canyon on the Snake River on the Idaho/Oregon border. It’s a canyon a thousand feet deeper than the grand canyon, but few people ever heard of it. Glad you’re enjoying your trip.

  2. Yes we are very much. I had read about the Hells/Devils Canyon on the Snake river, I think from when I read the Francis Parkman diaries, The Oregon Trail… Not sure… one of the books I read in preparation for this trip, and I looked them up and realised we weren’t going to be near. Next time. Whichever book, it covered the chap who stumbled across it, seeking a route down the river and then had a heck of a job getting out and back again….. But… yes…. without doing all this pre reading I’d never heard of it!!! So many wonders to discover.