Motoring east on US-50 from Montrose, I’m enjoying the expansive Rocky Mountain landscape of western Colorado. A left on SR-347 has me quickly gaining altitude until finally arriving at the Visitor Center on the South Rim of the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. At an overlook, I peer down into the dark depths of the over 2,000-foot-deep gorge. At the bottom of the canyon, which is bathed in shadow, a slender blue ribbon of water courses its path through sheer granite walls. From this high perch, it takes me a few minutes to visually survey and fully absorb the raw grandeur of the scene.
Over millions of years, the fast-flowing Gunnison River ripped out this slender chasm as geologic forces uplifted the surrounding landscape. The more rapidly a river flows, the faster it excavates the earth beneath it. The speed of water is the result of a river’s rate of drop and the resulting gravitational forces on the flowing water. By comparison, the rate of drop of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon is around 7.5 feet per mile, but the Gunnison River’s rate of drop through the Black Canyon averages some 34 feet per mile!
Because of the steep narrowness of the canyon’s walls, it receives direct sunlight only briefly during the day. As a result, the interior appears black, hence its name, the “Black Canyon.” The first official written account of the canyon came from Captain John Williams Gunnison in 1853, who discovered it while doing survey work for a future railway. The Captain, however, met an untimely death at the hands of the indigenous Ute people. After his death, the canyon and river were named in his honor.