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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
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Fritz wandered back into camp two hours later, still skunked. "When I climbed down to that bar, it turned out it wasn't all that great," he said. "Flat and barren, nowhere for the fish to hide."

I handed him a cup of coffee, then returned to a book I'd brought along. It was an obscure title called Deep Black, by a young adventurer named Robb Magley. In the 1990s, Magley became intrigued by the Black and set out to thru-hike it with a buddy. They went at low water and still risked their lives crossing the cold, powerful river. They lasted three days. "A trip through Black Canyon," Magley concluded, "is no easier today than it was for Torrence and Fellows." Amen, brother.

Fritz and I spent another day with the river. We drank from it, waded in it, cast in vain into it. We watched 25 million cubic feet of water rush by in an hour, heading west, where it would eventually be spread over Arizona golf courses and California croplands. "It's amazing, isn't it?" said Fritz. "With all that water, you'd think we could take a little of it without harming anything."

He knew, of course, the precise nature of the harm caused by such thinking.

As it happened, the official thinking about the Gunnison was changing even as we watched the river. The decades-long water war ended a few days after Fritz and I hiked out. The federal government, the farmers, the conservationists, and the state of Colorado reached a settlement that ensures a year-round base flow of 300 cfs, plus annual peak flows during runoff season. The base keeps the fish alive, and the peak flows maintain the whole ecosystem–scouring the sediment deposits, clearing woody debris, and cutting the canyon ever deeper. And making a deafening noise. Because the Black Canyon isn't the Black Canyon without the roar of the river.

Bruce Barcott did not get a mean case of poison ivy while reporting this story, but Fritz Holleman did.

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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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