Travelers who’ve been to the Grand Canyon and think they’ve seen all the Southwest has to offer when it comes to massive gorges have a surprise waiting in south-central Colorado. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a crack in the Colorado Plateau half a mile deep yet astonishingly narrow—just 40 feet across at one point called the “Narrows”—with the raging Gunnison River as its floor. It takes its name from the limited sunlight that penetrates its depths, its eternal shadows evoking a somber, almost religious mood.
The entire canyon stretches for 48 miles, but it’s the 14-mile section from Gunnison to Montrose that was elevated to national park status in 1999. At 30,385 acres, it is one of America’s smallest national parks, and you know what they say about gifts in small packages. The 2,250-foot Painted Wall is the tallest vertical wall in the state, where dark expanses of gneiss and schist plunge headlong to the river’s edge. This is the revered realm of rock climbers as well as peregrine falcons, the fastest birds in the world.
The 7-mile South Rim Drive runs from High Point to Tomichi Point, passing over-looks with signs explaining the canyon’s unique geology. A number of short, easy trails lead through pine, juniper, and oak to over-looks on both rims, but getting to the bottom is a more serious undertaking. The trails to the river aren’t long (none over 3 miles), but they each drop at least 1,600 feet, making routes like the Long Draw the toughest and steepest 3-hour mile you’ve ever hiked. Anglers willing to make the trek will find some of the best brown and rainbow trout fishing in these Gold Medal Waters. For a less strenuous tour, hop aboard a half-day raft trip with Three Rivers Outfitting in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, downstream from the park, and easily accessible. It offers a quiet family- friendly float with Class I and II rapids. While inside the park, beware: This stretch of the wild Gunnison is considered one of North America’s premier kayak challenges and is for experts only.
The Ute Indian Museum & Ouray Memorial Park in Montrose holds exhibits on the culture of western Colorado’s original inhabitants. It’s located on land that belonged to the famous Ute chief Ouray until the government forced him to migrate to Utah in 1881. Besides its comprehensive collection of native rugs, historic photos, and household artifacts, the museum offers classes in traditional crafts such as weaving and beadwork.