The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of America’s least known and most inscrutable national parks. Rocky, high-angle landscape both repels casual visitors and conceals the canyon’s secrets. The park, tucked into sage-and-piñon foothills in central Colorado, encompasses the most dramatic 14-mile stretch of a 53-mile gorge carved by the Gunnison River, which delivers snowmelt from the Rockies to the Colorado River.
Most who pay the gate fee come for the South Rim view, which is breathtaking, but not in the way the Grand Canyon wows with mass-market spectacle–CinemaScope wide, flaring off in postcard colors. In comparison, Black Canyon is a study in subtlety, a dark, deeply textured work of art. At its pinch point, the canyon V’s into a notch slimmer than the width of a basketball court. The Black lies almost entirely hidden until you step to the edge, peer over the side, and then–holy crap!–get a taste of what a half-mile drop, straight vertical, really means. Grip that guardrail, grandpa.
For most visitors, the experience ends there: Snap the photo, hit the gift shop, and into the car, everybody! That’s fine. Because it leaves the real treasure–going below the rim–to the rest of us. Rangers recorded less than 1,500 overnight backcountry travelers in all of 2008.
The inner canyon has a reputation for offering its visitors a kind of exquisite punishment. Rock climbers test themselves on the 2,270-foot Painted Wall. World-class kayakers take on the river’s class 5 rapids–and a nasty mile-long portage. Fly-fishermen scramble down loose talus slopes peppered with poison ivy for a chance to wrestle with the Gunnison’s legendary brown and rainbow trout.
I was drawn to the Black Canyon by its mystery, its hard reputation, its legal battles, and its fleeting moments of glory. As a wilderness lover, I was tempted by the Black’s inaccessibility. The inner canyon offers some of the toughest hiking of any national park. The few routes down are short and steep, and so sketchy that the Park Service, by policy, refuses to call them trails. One path contains a pitch so precipitous that hikers pull themselves up with a heavy iron chain–the old-school version of a fixed rope.
As a journalist who’s covered water wars in the West, I was also drawn by the dramatic battle being fought over the water that runs through the Black and sustains its ecosystem. For decades, farmers and fishermen (and other environmentalists) have argued for their crops and their catches–each side demanding control over the Gunny’s flow. Even as we entered the canyon, the power players were back at the table, ordered there by a judge after conservationists brought a successful lawsuit. I was happy to skip that bureaucratic wrangling and report instead from the banks of the river itself–the thing that’s really at stake. All the same, I wanted to understand the underlying tension, so I boned up on Black Canyon history before the trip and invited Fritz Holleman, a leading Colorado water lawyer who also happens to be a good friend, able climber, and fly-fishing fanatic.
We hoped to enter via Red Rock Canyon, a route on the western edge of the park that remains unmarked on most maps. Reaching the trailhead involves crossing private ranchland, and the Park Service has an agreement with the owner to allow limited access from mid-May to early October. The Red Rock route is like a hip underground club: Few know it exists, but it’s so hot and exclusive that there’s always a crowd outside the velvet rope. The park holds a lottery for permits. (One hundred hikers are allowed per month; no reservations are required for the other inner canyon routes.)
We tossed our names into the hat and waited. In March 2008, we got the call. "They pulled our number!" I told Fritz. The dates were in late spring, Memorial Day weekend. On one of the year’s busiest holidays, and near the height of spring runoff, we’d have miles of the Black Canyon to ourselves.
"I’ll keep an eye on the water level," I told Fritz.