Descending into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
As the sun began to stretch across the sky, I finalized my preparations for the day. One goal dominated my thoughts: enjoy the challenge. Reaching the Gunnison River from within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park presents two broad options, either a technical climb down 2,000-foot cliffs or a “hike” down one of the draws or ravines.
The evening before, the search and rescue ranger looked me over and asked a few questions before answering my inquiry, “Which is the easiest non-technical route to the river?” His measured look stemmed from experience. What was the probability that I would require rescue?
Sometimes a name means nothing. Other times, something like “SOB Draw” earns its name. I would expand the acronym more than once as I climbed out the next day.
Off to a Great Start
As the sun finished rising, I slipped one copy of my wilderness permit into the ranger station’s bin, tucked the second copy in my backpack, and wrote my name on the board.
No one enters the inner canyon without a permit. The second copy is returned to the ranger station to inform the rangers that you made it out. NPS Search and Rescue Rangers are serious badasses. They accomplish amazing feats in saving lives, and there is a comfort knowing that they are protecting both the park and its visitors.
The first mile or so of the SOB Draw is a gentle slope through sagebrush and piñon-juniper woodland. It’s easy hiking down a “social trail,” as the Park Service does not maintain any official trails into the inner canyon.
Once the views of the canyon open up, the challenge of this “hike” became apparent. The gentle descent becomes a harsh decline. Loose gravel, scrambling cairn to cairn, and poison ivy replaces the well-worn trail, sagebrush, and pine.
After a tedious hour of moving down the draw, I sat down to rest and absorb the stunning magnificence of the canyon. Staring at the walls of the canyon, I thought I saw a bird.
The sheer scale of the Black Canyon is hard to capture. The photo below points out what I saw. Can you tell what it is?
As I decided not to take my DSLR, I was snapping pics with my iPhone. I wish I could have zoomed in on the “bird” which was in actuality a man. He and his crew of two other climbers had quite a long ways to go!
For the next hour, I occasionally thought about throwing in the towel. Trekking down the slope was arduous and exhausting. Plus, I knew that in a few hours that I would have to reverse course. However, even in those moments, I would take a deep breath and realize how much I genuinely was enjoying this challenge. Not another soul was anywhere nearby. I was immersed in nature and could feel my spirit moving toward a more balanced and restful state.
Reaching the River
When I reached the bottom of the canyon, I picked my way through the boulders along the river until I found a comfortable one, perched out into the water. After a few pictures and the video below, I laid back in an indentation in the rock, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the sounds of the river crashing toward me and rushing into the distance.
With walls stretching almost straight up 2,000 feet, the canyon has areas that get little sunlight. As I was preparing to explore, the sunlight burst onto my boulder. The sudden change from dark to light startled me, but all of a sudden the light began to dance through the cascades, revealing even more of this dark chasm’s personality.
I wandered my way down the river, looking for a campsite that I had seen from higher up. Being in the canyon is a unique experience. At once it is both exhilarating to be so isolated and contained, but at the same time slightly foreboding. You can feel the raw, unbridled power of mother nature in places like this.
At the campsite, I met Ed, the other name on the board at the ranger station. He and his son, along with a friend, had spent the night in the canyon. The river was offering up some of its famously large trout to the group, and they seemed to be having an excellent time. After a pleasant chat with these fellow adventurers, I headed back to begin my trek out.
Noticing Small Details on the Way Up
As expected, the journey up was far more taxing than the trip down. A gentle rain began to fall as I reached the halfway point, slowing me further. Many times, I simply stopped and sat down, needing to rest, but also not wanting to leave. I wanted more time to absorb the positive vibes that seem to radiate all around. The truth is that I love being alone in the wild. I feel at home. If I let it, a calmness spreads through my being, making all the hustle and bustle of modern life melt away.
At one point, I sat down on a low rock. Looking over at one of my hands, I realized that in the space of less than a square foot, there were many different types of rocks. I’m no expert, but it was interesting to see so much variation so close together.
As I was checking out the colors and textures of the rocks, something caught my eye. It’s unusual for me to come across snails while I am hiking, but only a few feet away there it was!
I snapped the picture, and when I returned, I posted the picture to a Facebook page called Colorado Snails. They informed me that it was an oreohelix, which is native to that part of the state. I’m sure that I’ll be more conscious of these little creatures, and I hope to find more.
As I neared the top of the draw, satisfaction began to spread throughout my being. I’d done it. Alone. Deep within me, something draws me to these remote places. I love every moment in isolation in the wilderness. It’s something primal that calls to me. And I’ll answer the call again soon.