Ranger Esther Weeks
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison's unique and spectacular landscape was formed slowly by the action of water and sediment scouring down through hard Proterozoic crystalline rock. No other canyon in North America combines the narrow opening, sheer walls, and startling depths offered by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The canyon and its rims are home to black bear, mule deer, golden eagles, and peregrine falcon.
To help you plan an adventure at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we talked to Esther Weeks, Interpretive Ranger at the park, in 2012.
Why did you become a park ranger?
Growing up I spent a lot of time playing, exploring, (and learning) in the north woods of Wisconsin. This sparked a life-long interest in our natural world. Now I share that same excitement of discovery with others. Protecting public lands for all to enjoy is a unique and fabulous idea of our nation and I enjoy being a part of that.
Can't Miss Activities
See the Overlooks
Black Canyon has a lot of variety and every overlook is a bit different. Some offer breathtaking views down to the river while others showcase rock islands or pillars not connected to the canyon walls. On the South Rim, Chasm View is a favorite spot. It is the narrowest point of the canyon from rim to rim as well as where the river drops the most per mile, which makes for dramatic views. Painted Wall on the South Rim is another “don’t miss.” This towering cliff face is streaked with pink pegmatite intrusions that resemble dragons or serpents, whichever your imagination prefers.
The overlooks of the North Rim offer different views than those on the South. The canyon walls on the north side are more vertical than the south. The winter sun melts the snow and ice off the northern walls, thus slowing the erosion. An overlook unique to the north side is the Narrows View. Here you can see the narrowest part of the canyon at the bottom, called The Narrows. The rock walls drop straight into the water and are only 40 feet apart, making it an incredible sight to see. Balanced Rock View is another great spot to witness how narrow Black Canyon is and to see the equally impressive draws on the sides of the canyon.
Hike a Trail
Even a short hike along the rim allows for a different experience of the canyon. Trails on both rims offer unique and spectacular views. Take a camera and keep your eyes open for the park’s wildlife. In addition to the Warner Point Trail, the South Rim also has the Rim Rock and Oak Flat trails. Both are unique and have fabulous but different views. Rim Rock Trail travels between the campground and the visitor center on the rim of the canyon while Oak Flats, by contrast drops 400 feet into the canyon. Along with the North Vista Trail on the North Rim, the Chasm View Nature Trail also offers spectacular views from the top of Chasm View Wall and is a “don’t miss” on the North Rim.
Canyon from Below
The rugged and wild nature of Black Canyon makes getting to the bottom a bit of an adventure. However, if you are able, it is a highlight not to be missed. From the bottom, you may be surprised at how wide and fast the river is, or how large the rocks and trees really are. From 2,000 feet above, they can look rather small. The most common way to see the bottom is to drive down the East Portal Road. This is a paved road accessible for vehicles under 22 feet long, but very steep (16 % grade) so a low gear on your vehicle is a necessity.
For those up for a physical challenge, the second way to get to the river is on a very demanding, unmarked hike to the bottom. Permits are required for these wilderness hikes. Be sure to talk with a ranger and read through the wilderness information so you are prepared for the challenges of the trip. The reward of these hikes is a chance to experience the canyon in more isolated areas.
One of my favorite places in the Black Canyon is at the bottom of Long Draw, a challenging backcountry hike from the North Rim. Once you leave the rim, you are entering a designated wilderness area. Scrambling and sliding your way to the bottom will lead you to a view of the Narrows (the narrowest part of the canyon at the bottom). Here the water rushes past, tumbling and roaring over huge boulders. Looking up with the sheer walls towering above, you can easily see both rims of the canyon at the same time. You can feel that it is wilderness. Not because it is labeled on a map, but because of the nature of the canyon; wild and untouched. To me it shows the essence of both the canyon and the river; rugged, wild, and powerful, both amazing and slightly intimidating at the same time.
Warner Point Trail
On the South Rim of the Black Canyon, Warner Point Trail is often the favorite trail in the park. This trail runs on a ridge line offering views of the San Juan Mountains and the Uncompahgre Valley. Along the trail you’ll see some of the oldest trees in the park. These pinyon and juniper trees are up to 850 years old. The trail ends with a spectacular view of the canyon at Warner Point, one of the deepest points of the canyon.
If you are heading to the North Rim, hiking the North Vista Trail out to Exclamation Point will take you to a stunning view of the canyon. This hike travels through the pinyon and juniper forest and skirts the edge of the canyon. Exclamation Point itself offers a unique and breathtaking view looking down into a straight section of Black Canyon and the Gunnison River, making it also a favorite. It is a perfect hike to see for oneself how dramatic Black Canyon can be.
Wildlife in the Park
Black Canyon has a large diversity of wildlife, as the park contains animals common to both the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau. Commonly seen animals include; mule deer, black bear, dusky grouse, lizards (notably the Collard Lizards), peregrine falcons, numerous small mammals like rabbits and chipmunks, and elk in fall and winter. Less frequently seen but still present are bobcat, bighorn sheep, and mountain lion.
Pictures and descriptions of the Black Canyon simply do not do it justice. There is nothing like experiencing Black Canyon in person and that first view of the canyon will amaze you. While many of the rocks have black in them, from a mineral called hornblende, there are numerous other colors as well; pinks, whites, grays, and purples. Different colors are brought out at different times of the day and in different lighting.
Some of the rock here is black, but that is not the primary reason for the name. Steep and narrow, the walls and floor of Black Canyon are often in shadow, making them look black. In fact, parts of the canyon are narrow enough that the bottom may only get sunlight for a few hours a day. Early explorers trying to traverse the canyon were looking into a dark and shadowy canyon, thus giving it the name Black Canyon.
A few seasons ago there was a dusky grouse hanging around the park offices. It would eat snow off the roof of the cars and pick bugs off the windshields. A couple of times it found its way up the stairs outside of the seasonal housing. She became protective of the parking area and would chase intruders (park rangers) away. She hung around for about a month before moving on. She certainly sparked numerous comical situations and laughs.