Great Basin to Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Today was a day to drive. Sunrise on top of Wheeler Peak found us headed down and out of the Great Basin. The park is essentially on the Utah border, so our drive today is mostly a traverse of the beehive state. HWY 50 takes us halfway across and then we switch to Interstate 70 for the remainder, and on into Colorado.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is just south and east of Grand Junction, CO. The drive into the park on the north rim is unremarkable as rolling pastures of hay give way to higher mesa of scrub oak and pinion. Even the campsite, while private and well situated in the trees, doesn’t indicate any wonder. That of course, is part of the power of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison – for in the midst of this gentle topography there is a gash, rent narrow and deep as if from some great dagger. It is so surprising and so narrowly waged that you can’t see the bottom from the rim in most places. Over 2,700 feet deep at its deepest, the canyon was formed by the fast moving Gunnison river. Before it was dammed, the river flowed at flood stage with a force of almost 3 million horsepower. The early work of the river, geologically speaking, was through soft volcanic ash and soil. Once through that material and into the granite we see in its walls today, the river’s course was set and all that horsepower was directed at cutting ever deeper. Yosemite’s and Great Basin’s glaciers moved with massive power, but slowly and over broader areas – Black Canyon is a story of a geological pressure washer blasting relentlessly through the uplifted rock.


The combination of the steep sides robbing light except when the sun is directly overhead, and the dark granite walls give the canyon its name. It does look black from a distance. Walking to the edge, finding an angle with some light, however, reveals a varied palate of colors. Parts of the walls look as if the hand of the Creator sketched doodles along their width. From select spots you can see the Gunnison river below, frothy and powerful, doing what it does – cutting deeper and deeper. What it will reveal over time we can’t know. What it has already revealed is a jarring and beautiful crack in our country – a hint at that from which the land arose and an example of its impermanence.


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