Falling into canyons at Black Canyon National Park

29 Aug
2012
Posted in: Best Of, Colorado, Hikes, Parks
By    2 Comments

I keep having this recurring nightmare: Paul and I are standing on the edge of a canyon. One after the other, we fall in. Paul falls in, then I fall in. I fall in, then Paul falls in. Over and over. Sometimes we fall in because the wind blew a little too strongly or because the rock gave way under our feet or because we couldn’t keep our footing on the slippery gravel. I can feel the tug of gravity, the weightlessness of the fall, the crash at the bottom. I wake up terrified, replaying the feeling even when I’m awake. I try to embrace the dream, pretending that we’re wearing BASE jumping suits and jumping intentionally, gliding to the bottom of the canyon in graceful, controlled arcs. It doesn’t work.

Clearly it’s just an anxiety dream. One big thing in our life is ending and another is beginning. Who would have thought I’d be more stressed about the end of our trip — the part where we settle down to known routines?

Black Canyon National Park is not a comforting place for those who fear falling over the edge of a canyon. Black Canyon was created by the Gunnison River as it flowed very quickly through a deep area of volcanic rock. It’s a brutal place. Even though there are now not one, but two, dams upstream, the river still flows so rapidly through the canyon that rafting is prohibited and kayaking is recommended only for the most experienced boaters. The rapids are rated Class V to unnavigable. UNNAVIGABLE! That means you’re not kayaking through the canyon so much as you’re portaging through the canyon.

Most everything happens along the rim of the canyon. There are no “approved” trails down into the canyon, though there are a handful of routes that are unmaintained and unpublicized. The NPS commentary on these routes is so good that I have to post it verbatim:

There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes.

Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue. While descending, study the route behind, as this will make it easier on the way up when confronted with a choice of routes and drainages. Not all ravines go all the way to the river, and becoming “cliffed out” is a real possibility.

Poison ivy is nearly impossible to avoid, and can be found growing 5 feet tall along the river. Pets are not allowed in the wilderness. Inner canyon routes are not meant for small children.

Also, there are probably man-eating monsters in the bottom of the canyon. Still want to go down there?

The canyon is so narrow and deep that it’s often hard to see the bottom. It’s described as being about as deep as the Yosemite Valley, just with the sides pushed in to be 40′ across at the bottom. When you look over the edge, you quickly see why the river is unnavigable in stretches. The walls are so steep that rocks are constantly tumbling down into the canyon bottom. With no seasonal floods to carry them away, the river is quickly getting choked with large talus piles.

With the forest fire haze clouding the distance and the steep, evil-looking walls, Black Canyon felt like an otherworldly, mystical place. Oh yeah, and we didn’t fall over the edge.

The light playing in the canyon. You can just spot some water in the lower left of this pic.

The light playing in the canyon. You can just spot some water in the lower left of this pic.

It was pretty much impossible to take a landscape shot of this landscape.

It was pretty much impossible to take a landscape shot of this landscape.

Maybe Paul's tendency to stand on the edge of canyons helped contribute to my nightmare.

Maybe Paul’s tendency to stand on the edge of canyons helped contribute to my nightmare.

I love the hazy layers receding into the distance. [pdo]

I love the hazy layers receding into the distance. [pdo]

More hazy layers.

More hazy layers.

Sunset adding extra beauty to the canyon.

Sunset adding extra beauty to the canyon.

Rocks, lichen, trees.

Rocks, lichen, trees.

Always good advice.

Always good advice.

A very hazy view upriver. We walked what felt like hours for this view but got better ones right off the road.

A very hazy view upriver. We walked what felt like hours for this view but got better ones right off the road.

Looking into the narrowest section of canyon.

Looking into the narrowest section of canyon.

I don't think they're underestimating the difficulty of these rapids.

I don’t think they’re underestimating the difficulty of these rapids.

The canyon is about a half mile deep.

The canyon is about a half mile deep.

A calmer stretch of the river.

A calmer stretch of the river.

A look at the Gunnison upriver -- between the first and second dams.

A look at the Gunnison upriver — between the first and second dams.

  • Derick

    So perhaps you’ve thought of this, but when I realized how much I’d love for your posts to be compiled into a travel guide, I realized that you two should look into writing for travel guides like Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, or Moon. Just a thought.

    • http://www.drivinginertia.com/ Lisa M

      Thanks Derick! I think we’re a little too opinionated for the guidebookers — they seem to like to maintain some sense of professionalism and/or lack of bias that usually slips by us :) But we do plan to put something together on our own, and who knows what could happen from there!