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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.

In early May, the river started to rise. A big snow year meant that Colorado rivers were running high, and few ran higher than the Gunnison. While state officials, conservationists, farmers, and fishermen argued over how to divvy up the Gunny’s flow, it surged of its own accord, rising to levels not seen since 1995. And it kept rising. A few days before we set out, I spoke with Heather Boothe, a Black Canyon backcountry ranger. "We usually recommend people don’t cross the river at more than 500 cfs [cubic feet per second]," she told me. "Right now it’s running at 6,000."

By the time we reached the trailhead, the river had broken 7,000 cfs and showed no signs of subsiding. Fritz and I had a shot at witnessing history. This was a once-a-decade rager, the kind of scouring flood that created the canyon, nurtured its wildlife, and made enemies out of farmers and fishermen.

Our route–less than four miles from trailhead to river–began on a ranch road. As Fritz and I strolled down the dirt two-track, adjusting our packs and dodging prairie-dog holes, the story of water in the West appeared in the landscape around us. North of the road–public land–was the time before irrigation: a shrubby desert marked by sagebrush and juniper trees. To the south–private land–was life after piped water: a lush green valley, cattle browsing an ocean of long grass. There’s an old saying in the arid West: Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting. "This is why," Fritz said.

At the park boundary, we checked the backcountry logbook. Only two parties had passed this way over the previous five months. "River rose 1 foot in a day," wrote one of our predecessors.

Green pasture gave way to an ever-narrowing gorge. Red Rock Canyon is one of the Black’s few side entries, since its creek maintains enough cutting force to keep up with the Gunnison’s relentless deepening of the main canyon. Fritz and I picked our way down the obscure, little-used trail marked with cairns. Low-hanging scrub oak limbs forced us to frog-step every 30 yards. Loose scree gave each of us a good ***-tumbling, and poison ivy nipped at our legs like yapping dogs. The Red was toughening us up for the Black.

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