Hike down and look up at Black Canyon from banks of Gunnison River
Going from overlook to overlook along South Rim Road, a descent down Black Canyon to the Gunnison River — in places, almost two Empire State Buildings below — can seem a ridiculous proposition. But according to that twist of logic native to the west, that ridiculousness only serves to make the descent a burning necessity.
With the exception of the last few overlooks, where the Gunnison can be seen twisting its way out of the canyon, before eventually banking hard left and wending sleepily along U.S. Highway 50, the river can only be seen in glimpses from the South Rim, but such glimpses.
The chasm it cuts is a restless mystery from here — a pasture-green bank tucked away in a bend, a sudden drop followed by a incongruently still pool, shimmering white wave-crested rocks — and one that cannot be approached, intellectually, from this distance.
How wide is that stretch of river, anyway? How big would a person look from this distance? As tall as that boulder or that stunted bush? The fact that you know the cliff facing you would dwarf the Empire State Building only seems to complicate this calculus.
So, of course, you have to go see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from the river’s point of view.
A return to the park’s visitor center yields several options, all deliciously treacherous. Famously abundant poison ivy, temperatures maybe 20 degrees hotter than at the rim, scant potential campsites, tallus, gravel, scree, bears, rapids.
Lead park ranger Paul Zaenger has heard the descents referred to as “a hard 14er” and “seat-of-your-pants” hike, because you might well end up falling on your rump for most of the hike/scramble/slide.
This is the point at which most people would balk, deciding to simply appreciate the views with a more focused intensity. But not you.
You now have a choice between the several draws that channel water, and possibly you, down into the river.
Most of these routes — “trails” is far too generous a term — are used for day or maybe overnight trips, but a few can work for those looking to spend a long weekend exploring the inner canyon.
In the latter category fall Warner Route, S.O.B. Draw and Tomichi Route, which unlike other routes have at their base at least some shoreline on which to hike and camp. These routes are also, however, among the most physically demanding.
The easiest routes? Zaenger prefers to stay far away from the word “easy” because there are simply not any routes that come close to that description.
Gunnison Route is “less demanding,” though. Still plenty strenuous, it features an 80-foot chain part-way down to help adventurers negotiate the descent of 1,800 feet — and 2 billion years’ worth of geologic processes — on their way to the river. Long Draw, a route on the canyon’s North Rim, might also fall into this category, Zaenger said.
A free permit is required for entering the canyon, and are available on a first-come, first-served basis from the South Rim Visitor Center, North Rim Ranger Station and East Portal registration board.
A limited number of permits are issued for each route, so on busy holiday weekends such as Memorial Day or the weekends on either side of the Fourth of July, the more popular routes can fill up. They are also popular with anglers in June or July during the stonefly hatch.
But, Zaenger said, “We’re typically able to accommodate most folks.”
If the route on which you have your heart set has filled up, they should be able to set you up with one of the many others.