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Black Canyon of the Gunnison


Located near Montrose, Colorado                                         Owl Creek Pass



Black Canyon

The Black Canyon, which has been carved by the Gunnison River on the way to join the Colorado River, is 53 miles long, but only the deepest, most spectacular 12 miles of the gorge lie within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. 

The deep and narrow canyon's dark grey walls of schist and gneiss that are shrouded in heavy shadows most of the day - hence, "Black Canyon." East of the park the Gunnison River has been impounded and tamed behind three dams. In the Black Canyon, however, it remains one of the few unspoiled wild rivers in the country.


Archeological evidence indicates that prehistoric man, and later the Utes, used only the canyon rims, never living in the gorge. The first white men to see the great chasm actually were members of the Hayden Expedition in 1873-74. It appears that the Spaniards, including the famed Dominguez-Escalante Expedition in 1776, all missed the canyon as they came over the Uncompahgre Plateau and into the Uncompahgre Valley on various journey's of exploration. Even the group led by Capt. John W. Gunnison, whose name has become permanently attached to the river, bypassed the gorge itself in its search for a river crossing. The Hayden Expedition and later surveying parties for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad all pronounced the Black Canyon "inaccessible".


"Several western canyons exceed the Black Canyon in overall size," Wallace Hansen wrote after studying the geology of the region for several years. "Some are longer, some are deeper, some are narrower, and a few have walls as steep. But no other canyon in North America combines its depth, narrowness, sheerness, and somber countenance of the black canyon of the Gunnison." And it is largely because of this unique combination of geologic features that the Black Canyon has been preserved in its wild state.



 By the last of the 19th century there was much interest in tapping the Gunnison River as a source of water for the Uncompahgre Valley. in 1900 five valley men made a heroic effort to float through the canyon with surveying equipment, but after a month's effort, they had to admit defeat. In 1901 William Torrence and Abraham Lincoln Fellows, learning a lesson from the previous trip, took a rubber mattress for a raft, arranged to be supplied at various points from the rim, and were able to make their way through out the canyon - 33 miles in nine days. From the engineering log the two men kept, it was obvious that an irrigation tunnel was a feasible project. 

In January 1905 construction began on the diversion tunnel. Progress was slow because of the many difficulties that the work crews encountered. Intense heat, violent cascades of water, and unstable rock formations were just a few of the problems the engineers had to deal with. When finished the tunnel measured 5.8 miles long and could carry enough water to irrigate a sizable farming community. 

Eight years after Torrence and Fellow's trip, on September 23, 1909 President William Howard Taft presided over the dedication ceremonies for the Gunnison Diversion Tunnel, a notable engineering achievement of this or any time.




 The Gambel oak and serviceberry that cover most of the Gunnison Uplift provide a good habitat for towees, western tangers, pinion and scrub jays, and black-billed magpies. The cliffs are home to white-throated swifts, violet-green swallows, golden eagles, turkey vultures, and red-tailed hawks, who all take advantage of the updrafts for soaring. The canyon is one of the last shelters in Colorado for the endangered peregrine falcon.

 Through a home to wildlife, the canyon has been . a mighty barrier to human beings.

The narrowest part of Black Canyon at the river is only 40 feet across.




Geologists tell us that nearly two billion years ago, dark hues of gneiss and schist were forming in the earth’s crust. As these dark rocks cracked beneath the surface, pink pegmatite squeezed into the fissures, creating the patterns obvious at Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

For 1.5 billion years, sediments were deposited above these “basement” rocks.  In the Mesozoic era, color was added to the Precambrian rocks in the form of sand dunes turned to sandstone. Later, an inland sea left behind mud, which became Mancos Shale, seen in the “adobes” on the edge of Gunnison Gorge.

The Rocky Mountains formed about 65 million years ago. This event forced upward the black and pink Precambrian rocks and red Mesozoic layers in the Gunnison Uplift. From 18 to 30 million years ago volcanoes in West Elk and San Juan mountains spewed pewter-colored ash over the Gunnison Uplift, which trapped the water and the cutting of the canyon began.

A "non-conformity" exists in the walls of the Black Canyon in that sedimentary rocks rest on igneous and metamorphic rocks with a gap of 1.5 Billion years of no deposits.  This is one of the longest gaps in the historical record of any area and is longer than Glenwood Canyon (1.2 B) or Red Rocks Canyon (1.4 B).



Jumpers from the high cliffs are a constant problem that have been dealt with by high fences and a series of Park Service measures.  They continue to be a plague in the Canyon.


Photographers line up to take pictures of the Jumpers.










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