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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.

The thing about roaring rivers is that they often make for lousy fishing. Fritz and I spent the next morning proving as much. We tempted the Black's legendary trout with every hand-tied fly concoction in our boxes–nymphs, waterbugs, mosquitoes, wooly buggers. We got nothing. Over lunch, we decided to do a little exploring. Downstream, the river cliffed out after 20 yards, and getting by it would require harnesses and rope. Upstream, though, the map showed promise.

"It looks like there's a nice streamside bar there, if we can get past this quarter-mile stretch," Fritz said. Quarter of a mile. Just 400 yards. Shouldn't be too tough.

A deer path near the river's edge led around a short bend, then disappeared into the water where the river ripped past a sheer 20-foot cliff. "I bet we can hump around that outcrop," I told Fritz. We scrambled over the cliff's backside–and encountered another, higher cliff. And another beyond that. What looked straightforward from afar revealed itself to be a puzzle made of rotten rock. The farther we pushed upriver, the higher the canyon forced us to climb.

We were scrambling in the footsteps of history. According to legend, the Utes believed that no man could enter the canyon and return alive. In 1874, Ferdinand Hayden's government expedition stumbled upon the rim of the Black. This was the age of heroic exploration in the American West. Hayden had just mapped Yellowstone, and John Wesley Powell had floated the Grand Canyon. At the Black, though, Hayden balked. He lowered one of his men by rope into the dark gorge. Upon his return, the shaken volunteer pronounced the Utes' belief wholly valid. Hayden, peering over the rim, declared the canyon impenetrable, and moved on.

The first successful explorers weren't driven by curiosity. They came to steal the water. In 1900, a party floated the river in search of a likely spot to drill an irrigation tunnel. The river sank their boat and the men barely escaped with their lives. The next year, two hardy engineers, Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence, succeeded on foot, surviving a harrowing trek by crossing and recrossing the river dozens of times. They found a good spot for a tunnel and set the stage for a half-century water war.

Fritz and I kept climbing. Flakes of schist, weakened by the freeze-thaw cycle, peeled off in our hands. We followed what we thought was a deer path. Then I took a closer look at the poop and prints.

"Um, Fritz, I think this is bighorn sheep territory," I said. I glanced at my altimeter. We were 400 feet above the river. Fritz disappeared around a ledge. "I think we can make it down the next gully," he said.

I gave it a look. Peering over the edge, I gained new insight into the relationship between Fritz and myself: He was, I realized while assessing the sketchy downclimb, a much, much better climber than me. "You go ahead," I told him. "This is where my trail ends."

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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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