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What Makes the Black Canyon, Black

Panoramic photo of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Black Canyon of the Gunnison isn’t the deepest US National Park canyon and it’s certainly not the widest. In fact, the very opposite is true.

However, it’s the combination of those things that makes the canyon such a beautiful site to behold.

Located in western Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the steepest canyons of all the parks measuring 2,722 feet at its deepest point and, at its narrowest, just 1,100 feet wide at the rim and 40 feet wide where the Gunnison River cuts through it at the bottom.

Photo of Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The river drops an average of 34 feet per mile and as much as 240 feet at its steepest point. Compare that to the Grand Canyon where the Colorado River drops a measly average of 7.5 feet per mile.

Here’s a little secret, the canyon isn’t black. It only appears that way because it’s so darn deep the walls block the sunlight from illuminating the entire canyon. The shadows the high walls cast make it only appear to be black.

And, Gunnison River is still carving the canyon deeper. Of course, you probably won't notice it anytime soon. It's depth increases by the whopping width of a human hair, one year at a time.

I heard about Black Canyon during a stop at the top of Monarch Pass, an 11,312 foot high pass through the Colorado Rockies. I’d decided the day before to drive up to the pass, just for fun, and had no plans for what I might do after I got there.

As I was purchasing my bag of raisins and nuts, and a shot glass, (I started buying shot glasses long ago to remember places I’d been - they don’t take up nearly as much room as t-shirts, ball caps or whatever, and are easier to display) I asked the woman at the register where I should go next.

That’s how I ended up at the Black Canyon. (Also following her recommendation, I later made my way to the town of Ouray.) She was right on both accounts. I’m sure I’ll cover Monarch Pass and Ouray in future posts, when I get around to it.

Photo of Black Canyon of the Gunnison with large clouds and rain in the distance

The downside to visiting the park at the end of March, as I was, is that, in case you hadn’t heard, it tends to snow in the mountains.

Sadly for me, a good part of the park is closed to traffic around this time of year. A couple of the hiking paths were open but a sudden turn of warm weather had melted snow and made a lot of the pathways nothing but mud. Safe to say, my hiking was fairly limited.

Having said that, if you’re there during the warmer months of the year there are at least eight different trails around the park, ranging from easy to strenuous.

For the adventurous spirits, there are places along the trail taking you right to the edge of the canyon and yes, it’s a longgggg way to the bottom. If you’re not sure of your personal acrobatic-like balancing abilities, I’d stay a step or two back.

And now a personal secret, as a kid I kind of geeked out about rocks. (Though I’m sure my college geology professor would never believe that.) When my family visited parks I was always interested in the different rocks that could be found there.

My mother probably still has the box of rocks I collected along the way. Or maybe that’s just what’s rattling around inside my head.

Two microscopic views of rock cross sections. Granite on the left, sandstone on the right.
Microscopic views of rock cross sections. Granite on the left, sandstone on the right.

None-the-less, my geek came out again in the park’s visitor center where they have a microscope and cross sections of different minerals. It is so very cool looking at these solid pieces of rock up close and seeing what’s inside them.

The Park Service from Black Canyon also has a fun video talking about the aging of rocks along the canyon walls. Ever heard of the Law of Pancakes? I didn’t think so:

If you’re interested in learning more about Black Canyon, it was once thought to be impenetrable, you can check out this video:


**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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