There’s a certain uneasiness you feel looking out over the walls lining the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It’s not unlike the feeling you get when you put you head against the glass of a skyscraper and look down at the street below. Except instead of a street and people there’s rock, a river, and an ecosystem below your feet. Instead of other buildings stretching outward from your vantage point, it’s cliffs, weathered towers, and geologic implausibilities.
Something to marvel at while living in Colorado is the sheer power of nature over time. Indeed it’s always around us no matter where we are, but in a place like the Black Canyon, the concepts learned about in Geology classes are so obviously on display: water running through the same channel for thousands of years carries sediment downstream, erodes banks, and carves canyons. Winds hammer those features, smoothing their gradients; precipitation and temperature exploit fractures causing them to fail, rocks to slide.
The tallest of these cliffs are higher than nearly every man made structure on the planet. They dwarf the skyscrapers that tower over downtown Denver some 150 miles away and were carved entirely by water freezing, melting, flooding, receding, drying, flowing endlessly for thousands of years.
Canyons are as diverse as they are impressive. Boulder Canyon or Left Hand Canyon offer convenient grades to access valleys and alpine resources above. Glenwood Canyon’s towering rock walls somehow still facilitate an interstate highway cutting through one side while a freight railroad line follows the other. The Grand Canyon: an epic gash splitting Northern Arizona into two, yet wide enough at the base to support communities to this day.
The Black Canyon is concise. It’s a narrow span flanked by two thousand foot walls four times steeper (on average) than the Grand Canyon. The river roars, resonating up to the trails and roads along the rim. Though it’s almost a half mile down, the aural and visual experience of the river is wild and demonstrable of the forces shearing the rock beneath your feet.
Crawford and the North Fork Valley
We came to the park from via Crawford, some 11 miles from the North Rim. The road is closed during the winter and we were among the first park visitors to drive the North Rim Road on opening day this year. Like many parts of Colorado, the North Fork Valley is a beautiful region and in spring was dazzling in the high waters of the rivers and verdant landscape. We started our drive home with a hike around Needle Rock, Crawford’s landmark feature.
The trailhead of Needle Rock is about 10 minutes outside of town. Shortly into the hike around it, we were immediately rewarded with ever-changing views of the rock and the valley beyond it.
The Western Slope can feel remote living in Denver. It can seem hard to access, hard to know what to do. The North Fork Valley certainly isn’t the most famous part of Colorado — unless you’re a High Country News devotee — and consequently exploring it for the first time felt like discovering a hidden gem. There’s a part of me that hopes it stays that way. Black Canyon is one of the last remaining parts of Colorado where you can experience nature in solitude. It doesn’t come with the overpopulation problems Rocky Mountain experiences. There are no massive parking lots or shuttle buses at Black Canyon. No paved trails for visitors who can’t or don’t want to put in much effort but still want to see the famous vistas.
A bigger part of me wishes everybody in this country could spend just one afternoon here and witness the splendor of the wilderness and awesomeness of water, wind, and time at work. The truth of it is that for how crowded Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, and other famous parks are, those accommodations make them more accessible. Black Canyon will probably always remain inaccessible to anybody without the means to get to Denver and drive the four hours it takes to cross Vail and McClure passes. With nothing but dirt roads, the North Rim will remain inaccessible to anybody who can’t traverse them, or who can’t navigate the rough terrain once they get there.
I truly would love if the outdoors were accessible to all. Perhaps we’d have a greater collective appreciation for nature, for the soil, and the ecosystems dependent on it. Perhaps we’d think twice before throwing more money toward mining coal and fracking oil out of the last remaining reserves our planet has, and instead learn how to harness the resources that don’t deplete our land to power our modern economy.
That is all to say, living in Colorado gives us access to wonderful places like the North Fork Valley. We try not to take that for granted, and we hope our land is here for generations to come.