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Backpacker Magazine – September 2009

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.

by: Bruce Barcott

Black Canyon's Inner Gorge (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Black Canyon's Inner Gorge (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Fishing for trout near the bottom of the South Rim's Warner Route.
Fishing for trout near the bottom of the South Rim's Warner Route.

America's Undiscovered Trails
19 more new and unknown hikes, from the bottom of a North Carolina gorge to the top of an Alaska volcano.

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 ass-tumbling, and poison ivy nipped at our legs like yapping dogs. The Red was toughening us up for the Black.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Mar 01, 2013

Beautiful scenery minus the crowds means less chance of other hikers finding you if you need help but it can still be a safe and enjoyable hike. Why? Because you read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hit the trail. A MUST READ for hikers who love the secret trails! Learn essential day-hiking skills, including items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Hike smart with this fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make hiking off the beaten path safer and more enjoyable!

Steve C
Oct 08, 2009

The author paid his friend Fritz Holleman one of the best compliments for an outdoorsman I've heared in a long time..."a good friend, able climber, and fly-fishing fanatic."

Steve C,
Oct 08, 2009

Having grown up around western rivers, mountains and gorges, I was transported from my cubicle to the scree slopes, with the river thundering in my ears. Great story.


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