The Black Canyon: Colorado's Deepest Gorge

One of my favorite places is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado. It's a forbidding, elemental place of raw nature, a place that makes you feel small and insignificant.


Here are the first few paragraphs of an article called The Black is Beautiful that I wrote in 1984 about the Black Canyon and an ascent I did there. I'll transcribe the meat of the article about the climb later, but this gives a sense of the Black, The BC, the Devil's Ditch...


The Black is Beautiful


From Hotchkiss and Paonia, the dusty backroad passes green fields and cattle pastures, stunted forests of piñon, juniper, and scrub oak, and low, flat-topped mesas topped with sandy rimrock. There is no indication in the gentle upswelling landscape of the rising tide of ancient rock underlying the bucolic surface.


Here the land remains western—unchanging, ravishingly pure, untouched. The rarity of western Colorado is in this: the dry, clear air; the long sweep of land like the sweep of strings in some symphony; the solitude that this land engenders by making the human touch but a distant pallor in a distant vista; and the lack of historic memories. Here, there is only the long elemental land, the basement rock, and the vault of sky.


Looking down the lower Black Canyon of the Gunnison from the South Rim. Photograph © Stewart M. Green


Driving south from Hotchkiss toward the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, that’s how it is. Nothing prepares the traveler for the inaccessibility and oldness of the canyon. Along the North Rim of the Black Canyon: sudden airy space falls away to nothingness, the buoyancy of empty air. Below lies precipices of rock, rock, and more rock. Dark menacing granitic walls that soar, unbroken except by vertical cracks, occasional rubble gullies, and sloping ledges stalked with tall pine trees.


The strength of the Gunnison River far below the rim is ever-present. This canyon is its masterpiece. Most of the narrow canyon was excavated during the past 30 million years after regional uplifts gave the snowmelt-laden river a steep cutting gradient and the coarse runoff from past Ice Ages filled the river with sand and boulders as primitive cutting tools, rock on rock.


The sound of the Black Canyon is silence. The quiet of the depths. Below is only space and the river’s roar, its musical tones muted, absorbed, and deadened by rock walls. As brilliant sunlight fills the rim, deep shadows blacken the gullies and under summer’s noonday sun, the south-facing canyon cliffs bake like hot ovens. Sunlight drapes the sharp edges of long arêtes and whitens the dragon-striped pegmatite bands that crisscross the walls.

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