Our time at Ridgway State Park came to an end after six days but we really could have used another two or three days to see everything. Every afternoon we had a rainstorm which hampered our hiking and exploring. There were trails in Ridgway State Park we never got to experience. But our reservation came to an end and we had another reservation waiting at our next destination.
Next up was Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in southwestern Colorado. Formerly designated a National Monument in 1933, it became a National Park in 1999. The Black Canyon is 48 miles long with astonishingly steep walls that rise more than 2,700 vertical feet from the Gunnison River at the base of the canyon. A combination of hard rocks, uplifting, ancient volcanoes and erosion have all played a part in shaping the canyon. It took about two million years to shape the canyon as it is seen today. Fourteen miles of the deepest part of the Canyon are located in the National Park. The narrowest part of the Canyon is 1,100 feet across the top and only forty feet across at the riverbed bottom.
The Gunnison River drops over 2,000 feet through the 53 mile canyon. During spring runoff the water can fluctuate from 3,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second. Water at just 5,000 cubic feet per second can carry rocks up to two feet across and weighing almost 700 pounds. This erosive energy from the river carves the canyon walls deeper faster than it erodes the sides wider. This is what causes the Black Canyon to be much deeper than it is wide. But even at that level of power the canyon only changes about a hair’s width each year. The erosion has been slowed somewhat by construction of dams upstream.
We went to the Chasm View overlook which has the greatest descent of the Gunnison River in the canyon where it drops 240 feet per mile.
The cliff rock is composed of two billion year old metamorphic rock, some of the oldest rock on Earth. It is so steep some parts of the canyon only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day and the walls are often in shadow making them appear black, hence the name Black Rock Canyon. Gunnison comes from Captain John Gunnison who came to the area in 1853 leading an expedition in search of a route across the Continental Divide for a railroad from St Louis to San Francisco. He was killed by Ute Indians and the river was named in his honor.
The Ute Indians were the first to live in the canyon long before the first Europeans. They referred to the river as “much rocks, big water” and avoided the canyon due to superstition.
We camped on the South Rim where there is a Visitors Center and a seven mile paved road with twelve overlooks of the canyon. Most overlooks had a hike to each viewpoint, some short and some longer. Since we were staying six nights in the Park, we were able to take our time. While not terribly hot, at 8,320 feet the sun was very intense.
We stopped by the Visitors Center with amazing views of the canyon and watched a short movie.
Over the next several days we worked our way along the overlooks. All of the overlooks had dramatic views. From high above we could hear the Gunnison River below, often with whitewater. Definitely not a river you could safely raft in the park.
One overlook was the Painted Wall, which at 2,300 feet is the highest cliff in Colorado. If the Empire State Building stood on the canyon floor, it would reach only slightly halfway to the top of the cliff. The patterns in the wall were created more than a billion years ago when molten rock was squeezed into fractures and joints of the existing rock, then cooled and hardened.
Another day we took a different drive in the park, the East Portal Road, with a 16% grade and hairpin curves. The road took us down over 2,000 feet to the Gunnison River and two dams. This section of the river was much tamer and could be easily navigated by boat.
Our main reason for driving this road was to see the beginning of the Gunnison Tunnel, built from 1905 to 1909 to carry water to the town of Montrose and the Uncompahgre Valley. Back then the area was suffering from a water shortage due to the influx of settlers. Working underground using only candlelight and manual labor, it took the tunneling crew almost a year to bore through 2,000 feet of water filled rock. The work was so physically demanding and dangerous, even though the pay and benefits were good, men only stayed an average of two weeks before quitting. Twenty six men were killed during the four years of construction. The tunnel was completed in 1909, stretched 5.8 miles and cost three million dollars. The dam is used to fill the tunnel when water is low in the river. The tunnel can carry 495,000 gallons every minute. The Gunnison Tunnel was honored as a Civil Engineering Landmark joining others such as the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Further down East Portal Road is the Crystal Dam built in 1978. It is a unique structure because it curves from side to side and from top to bottom which gives it exceptional strength. Unfortunately the road to the Crystal Dam was closed and we couldn’t see it close up.
We often saw deer in the park and campground. Because deer often give birth in the campground and are fiercely protective of their fawn, dogs and other pets are not allowed outside each campsite from June 1 to Aug 10th. This year the pet ban was extended to Aug 26th due to late fawning. You are not allowed to carry your dogs in your arms or walk them in the campground outside of your designated campsite.
On our last day in the park we drove to nearby Cimarron to see a restored train that was part of the railroad built in 1882 to pull trains through western Colorado. Here we saw Locomotive #278, its coal tender, a boxcar, and caboose standing atop the last remaining railroad trestle along the Black Canyon of the Gunnison route. The trestle was constructed in 1895. In 1881 a railroad line was built through the Black Canyon. It took Irish and Italian laborers a year to carve through the tough terrain. It cost $165,000 per mile. In 1882 the first passenger train passed through the canyon. It was said that there were probably not more than a quarter mile of straight track through the canyon. Due to the difficulty in operating and maintaining the track, it was abandoned in the early 1950s.
Not far from the train display was another dam, the Morrow Point Dam, a 468 foot tall concrete double arch dam. It is the first dam of its type built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and was constructed from 1963-1968.
Next up: more time in beautiful Colorado