BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON: The Hardest 5 Miles of my Life
In 1901 there was an expedition to survey the unknown, unexplored 48-mile length of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. A 5-man crew set out in 2 wooden boats. On the first day one of the boats was smashed to pieces on the raging rapids that created by the Gunnison River dropping an incredible average of 45 feet per mile. With half their supplies lost, the men clawed their way through another week of constant peril before becoming so desperate they abandoned the mission and scaled the canyon walls to escape with their remaining instruments, half-drawn maps and their lives. They realized the early explorers of the area were talking quite literally when they looked into the canyon and deemed it impenetrable.
In 2015 the Black Canyon remains just as wild and imposing. The Class V rapids are only for world-class kayakers. As far as hiking, there are no trails leading down into the canyon, only a handful of primitive routes. All routes are unmarked “social trails” that drop at least 1,500 feet per mile. National Park literature calls these routes into the inner canyon wilderness “rugged and remote” and advises they are only for “well-prepared, expert hikers.” So of course hiking to the bottom of the canyon was just the type of #SwitchbackStyle challenge that wet our appetite when we were researching the park. After all, our goal is to become truly immersed in each park we visit.
When we rolled into the Visitor Center at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park we got the down-lo from the ranger about the options for hiking into the canyon. Since it was threatening rain the next few days, we decided that afternoon would be our best shot for the hike and to combine it with the night of backcountry camping that we try to fit in at each park when possible. Since we could split up the hike down and back up with a night of camping we opted for the longest route that was recommended only for overnights. We had wrapped up our backcountry permit before even looking into the canyon.
The selected Warner Route (named for the Presbyterian pastor who lobbied relentlessly, and eventually successfully, to have the land canyon turned into a park), even though it’s the longest to the canyon bottom, is just 2.75 miles. The kicker is that in those 2.75 miles it drops from the highest point on the canyon rim 2,700 feet to the lowest point of river access. And as we found out, that 2,700 foot drop is nicely condensed into a 1.5ish mile section in the middle. But being “well-prepared” and (arguably) “expert” hikers we weren’t too intimidated. What’s a hike of less than 3 miles when compared to our 55-mile trek in the Grand Canyon?!
After getting our permits we made our way to the route access point at the very end of the park road. Along the way we stopped at overlooks and even did a few short rim trails as the afternoon wore on. We weren’t too concerned with time since the park brochure estimated 2 hours to go down and our pace was consistently under those park estimates, especially for only 2.75 miles. We ended up packing our backpacks for the overnight and starting down the route with just under 2 hours a sunset that has continuously crept forward on us all fall (funny how that works).
The first half mile or so was a well worn path switchbacking steeply from the high point down to a saddle in the ridge. Then the fun really began. We turned sharply from the saddle to face the into the canyon with the roaring of the unseen water far below. The worn path became a bit fainter as it plunged straight towards the canyon floor. No more switchbacks, those are for babies. Instead we got a nice, loose dirt/gravel combo that seemed to take the contact of our footsteps as an invitation to race is to the bottom. It wasn’t exactly the rocky gulley I had imagined from the brochure description. But it was the extremely challenging, seemingly 45% slope I’d imagined.
As we picked our way slowly down the steepest path I’d ever navigated, we managed to only eat it about a half dozen times. Luckily, there was no one there to see us on the way down (or during our whole two days for that matter). But near the end, the worry turned from keeping our footing to the fading light. We staggered into the campground beside the river with our headlamps on after just about 2 hours on the surprisingly late and unexpectedly tired.
After a quick one-pot meal of sausage and potatoes (classic camp life), we were ready to pull our packs up the tree – hopefully out of reach of bears – and take a few seconds to stare up at thousands of sparkling stars that we have started to take for granted. As we slid into our sleeping bags we didn’t anticipate the climb up the canyon would be an even bigger test.
Morning broke peacefully as the white noise of the rapids welcomed us to wakefulness. We explored the river bank a bit and eventually got started on our reverse trip up the canyon wall. It was quickly clear that while we didn’t have to worry as much about skidding into the river, we did have to worry about finding the right path. Walking with your eyes down on the rocks limited your vision a lot more going up. Plus the path up seemed to just branch off repeatedly. And with no signs or markers all the branches looked the same. It wasn’t immediately clear, but after about a mile of climbing we knew somewhere along the way we had gotten off track. We could see our path trajectory getting farther and farther from the saddle we needed to hit. Unfortunately a huge gulley of rocks and trees kept of us from correcting our course.
It’s hard to articulate the mild, but growing, sense of frustration and helplessness of seeing our slow upward progress take us farther and farther from where we knew we should be. Our path kept growing fainter and eventually left us all together. We had no way to move lateral and refused to go down, so up we went. We pushed our way through dense scrub oak climb from solid root to rock to anything that wouldn’t run out from under us. At one point we opted for climbing up a large section of scree (a section of rock fall of medium to large rocks). Finally, after an abysmal pace of 3 miles in almost 4 hours, we were up at the ridge. Unfortunately our hope of moving quickly along the top was squashed as we ran into one tower of rocks/cliff after another. Usually we managed to either climb around the side or dip down to push through the scrub oak again. Luckily the south side of the ridge (leading to the Montrose Valley instead of the canyon) was just as steep, but a bit less dense. One thing was abundantly clear, the only ones who had traveled this way before may have been a few lost bighorn sheep.
Progress was slow but steady. Until we finally reached an area where the vegetation was clearer and no more towers loomed on the ridge in front of us. It was the saddle. We now easily found the old route and with a great since of relief we could hike freely once again.
At no point did we feel at serious risk, but at almost every point we felt on edge and alert. It took about 2 anxious miles to slide down and about 3 nerve-wracking miles to slog up. Yet, the sheer beauty and power of the canyon accompanied us the whole way. And reaching the source of it all, the roaring Gunnison River, was the type of challenge and adventure that keeps us going. It was not impenetrable after all, as the Gunnison River surveyors discovered when they staged a successful second expedition in 1902 (this time they used rubber mattresses instead of breakable wooden boats). Personally, if I had the choice, I’d do it all over again. But this time I’d make sure we follow the right path.