Saturday, October 6, 2012

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Gunnison is a river and the Black Canyon is the gorge in which the river flows.  This is a national park, but also along the river are the Curecanti National Recreation Area and the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.  The canyon is the best in the national park and so we camp here for a few nights.  This area is totally different from the orange sandstone formations just one hour northwest in the Colorado National Monument.  Here we can see the Rocky Mountains - the West Elk Range perhaps 50 to 100 miles northeast - and there is snow at the top of the jagged peaks.  Or maybe they are glaciers.  At any rate, the peaks are white!  It is cooler here too partly because we have climbed over 2,000 from the valley below and are now at over 8,000 feet.  I can feel the thinness of the air as I try to breathe, sometimes having to gasp for air and take several deep breaths.  Brad says he feels the same, so I stop worrying that I'm having a heart attack!

View of the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon
At the Visitors Center, we learn that this 48 mile canyon is one of the most rugged in North America based on depth, steepness and narrowness.  The river drops an average of 43 feet per mile in the canyon, but within the National Park an average of 96 feet per mile!  In one 2-mile stretch, it drops a staggering 480 feet!  Even the Colorado River averages only 7 feet per mile in the Grand Canyon, but yet the 217-mile long Grand Canyon gets all the hype!  At its narrowest, the Black Canyon is only 1/4 mile across; the Grand Canyon is between 4 to 18 miles wide.  And because the rock is so hard in this canyon, only 1 inch is eroded each CENTURY!  It is estimated that the Gunnison River has been carving this canyon for over 2 million years!

There are three dams on the Gunnison, with a 5.8 mile tunnel diverting water from the river to the town of Montrose nearby.  The water is used for irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes as well as power generation.  The tunnel was built between 1905 and 1909 - a truly remarkable feat for the technology of that time.

We spend one afternoon driving down to the river some 2,000 feet below us where we see one of the three dams and the intake for the Diversion Tunnel.  The road (thank God it's paved!) is steep - a 16% grade!  The most we've done on these trips is 9% through mountain passes - with the trailer.  No trailers allowed on this road; there are so many hairpin turns that in two places peribolic mirrors are mounted on the rock face so you can see around the corner going up or down.  Unfortunately, it is a windy and cloudy day so the photos are not great.  This is the cold front coming in, so daytime temperatures will be in the upper 60s (mid to high teens Celcius) and at night it will drop to just below freezing.  We have lots of blankets, a propane heater and a propane furnace.  No problem!

Rain Virga - raining only in the clouds
The clouds are getting thicker and over the mountains near us are black as we return to our trailer.  We can see the rain falling from the clouds, but not reaching the ground; this is called "virga" and happens only in the summer (and apparently early fall) when the air is dry enough to evaporate the rain as it falls.  It's a very strange sight.  After the sun sets, we see lightning and hear very distant thunder.  We get a few drops of rain and gusts of wind, but nothing more.

The rock of these canyon walls is like none we've seen before.  It is almost black and extremely jagged, with white and sometimes orange horizontal stripes that look like ribbons blowing in the wind.  These stripes are "Pegmatite Dykes" and are very hard, harder than the black "gneiss" (pronounced nice) so they erode more slowly.  There is also a silver mica mixed in with the rock which gives it a beautiful sparkle when the sun shines.  The turbulent river below (which is always audible) is unnavigable by rafts or kayaks in many parts of the canyon.  The scene is one of great power and natural beauty, a bit fearsome.

Brad overlooking the Painted Wall
The South Rim Drive takes us through the park along the top of the - you guessed it - south rim.  There are several pullouts overlooking this frightening, dramatic canyon.  One formation along the route is "Painted Wall" which is 2,300 feet high - almost twice as high as the Empire State Building.  It is the highest cliff in Colorado and features many ribbons of coloured rock giving it an artistic appearance.  At the end of the 8-mile drive, we hike a 1-1/2 mile trail to a peak that overlooks the Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon.  It's called Warner Point, named for the man who frequented this natural wonder and was instrumental in its first becoming a National Monument in 1933 and then a National Park in 1999.  It is 2,772 feet to the bottom of the gorge at this point with magnificent views.

Brad at Warner Point, the river 2,772 feet below!

From Warner Point looking up the canyon

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