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Footprints Needed: Colorado’s Undiscovered Black Canyon

Descend into Colorado's Black Canyon and explore a park that has everything–life-list scenery, challenging terrain, a revitalized river–except hikers.

As we scrambled across a gully of broken schist, surfing the sliding rocks, Fritz paused and said, "Do you hear it?"

I cocked an ear. "Hear what?"

Fritz grinned. "The thunder of the big river," he said.

In the middle of America, where the Rocky Mountains slide into the desert Southwest and ponderosa pines give way to sagebrush, lies a canyon so dizzyingly steep that bighorn sheep, renowned for their cliff-climbing ability, sometimes fall from the sheer rock walls and die. The cut in the earth runs half a mile deep for nearly 15 miles. At the bottom of this knife-gash flows the river that made it–a waterway that, in the days before dams, would firehose through the canyon every spring, dropping at an average rate 10 times steeper than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The Ute Indians called the place Tomichi, land of high cliffs and water. Early white settlers, mindful of the gorge’s dark, shadowy recesses, called it Black Canyon.

They named the river Gunnison after a 19th-century explorer who passed nearby without ever penetrating the inner Black Canyon. Nowadays the Gunny, as local fishermen call it, is chockablock with dams that keep its flow as steady and regular as lawn sprinklers set on a timer. Every once in a great while, though, the water that flows down from the Rockies overwhelms the best-laid concrete of mankind, and the mighty Gunny roars again. That’s what Fritz and I went looking for.

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