Journey to the Black Canyon

Joshua Hardin

Captain John Gunnison probably was too courageous to say the words out loud, but he may well have asked himself the same question our grandchildren asked us as we approached the Black Canyon.

“Are we there yet?”

Of course, our journey was far different from the expedition Gunnison led in 1853. He traveled by horseback to find a transcontinental railroad route, and he didn’t know the Black Canyon was there until he came upon it. More than 150 years later, my friend Renae and I traveled by automobile, and we were coming specifically to see the canyon with our granddaughters, then 8 and 11.

Alas, Captain Gunnison actually saw very little of the Black Canyon, as he was forced to detour around it, deeming the country the “roughest, most hilly and most cut-up” he had ever seen. He never truly saw the Black Canyon in all its astonishing verticality, never felt its dramatic and emotional impact, never reflected on nature’s super-size proportions, never viewed the river as it begins its passage from the rim of the canyon and rushes on its downward journey. 

We drove to an area overlooking the vastness of the divided north and south rims of the canyon. From here we could see the Gunnison River far below – a river that has patiently carved its way thousands of feet to the bottom. Our grandchildren lay on the ground (we held tightly to their shirts to keep them from leaning too far) to peer over the edge. At first sight our mouths dropped open. It was as if each of us had lost the power of language to speak aloud in the presence of this otherworldly, geomorphological wonder. It was enough to be able to look across at the multihued, yet almost gloomy canyon walls as the sun began its descent.

When our grandchildren finally found their voices, they were full of questions.

“Did the river really do this? How long did it take?” asked one.

“Did anyone ever live here?” asked the other.

“Can we walk all the way to the bottom and then you can pick us up in the car?”

Renae and I looked at each other and realized we needed a geologist, a library or a park ranger. We settled on the latter and drove to the South Rim Visitor Center, where a U.S. Park Service ranger was able to answer all of the children’s questions. 

The river started on its course several million years ago, the ranger told us, but the canyon rocks date back more than a billion years. To the children’s delight he drew the nine zeroes it takes to show 1 billion. The river’s enormous energy has worn down the rocks over those millions of years, aided by rocks that fall naturally and ice and frost that melt in spring, seeping into the rocks to weaken them. 

He took us outside to have a closer look through his binoculars. Across the canyon were brilliant colors that seemed to be painted on the walls: purples, reds, pinks, oranges and large silvery swaths. 

I pointed to his map to show him where we had first parked. The river from our vantage point was 2,250 feet below us, he said. He showed us how, at 1,250 feet, the Empire State Building would be dwarfed if it were placed at the bottom of the canyon. Even I was astounded – and I am originally from New York.

And yes, he said, people have been here for a long time. The Utes lived near the canyon, and some of their trails still exist. 

Captain Gunnison decided that a railroad through the gorge would not be feasible, and he ventured westward. A month after Gunnison explored the Black Canyon, he and most of his party were killed in a Ute ambush. Had he lived longer, he would have seen that the river he followed into the canyon, which he called the Grand River, now bears his name. And he’d be surprised to discover that less than 30 years after he judged the canyon unfit for locomotives, a narrow-gauge railroad was built, though it was later abandoned. 

Rudyard Kipling rode this train in 1889 and described the trip in his diary: “We entered a gorge, remote from the sun, where the rocks were two thousand feet sheer, where a rock-splintered river roared and howled ten feet below. We seemed to be running into the bowels of the earth at the invitation of an irresponsible stream.”

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison sings different songs to those who listen. Composer Frank Erickson wrote a symphonic suite in its honor, but there’s also music in the canyon walls as the wind rushes through them, music in the whoosh of an eagle’s wings and music in the roar and splash of an eons-old rock that suddenly tumbles into the river.

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