The Ute Indians were accurate when they described the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument in Gunnison, Colo., with the word "tomichi," which means "land of high cliffs and plentiful water."
The cliffs are indeed high -- 2,900 feet -- and the Gunnison River now supplies the Uncompahgre Valley with plenty of water for irrigation. Hiking the north rim of the Black Gunnison Canyon is a surprising treat that unfolds as you ascend.
Jerry Kroninger leads a group of Pennsylvania hikers from the Chester County Trail Club through the wilder territories of Colorado. Tanned and weathered, sporting a western-style felt hat -- the band stuffed with a collection of feathers -- Kroninger points the way with his knurled wooden hiking stick. We are aiming for the top of Green Mountain by lunchtime of this balmy September morn.
The Quest: Green Mountain
Green Mountain is accessed via the North Vista Trail, which starts at the North Rim Ranger Station. You can pick up a detailed map and use the latrine before embarking on your hike.
The trail begins in a desert ecosystem just beyond a cattle gate. Cows roam free on the north rim, so always close the gates behind you. The landscape is a bit barren, averaging only 15 inches to 25 inches of snow or rain annually -- that is until you reach the pinion-juniper forest.
The North Vista Trail may seem a bit mundane until you get beyond Exclamation Point where the trail becomes more strenuous. It's not until you go to the edge and look down that you realize the awesomeness of the Black Canyon. The trail follows the rim and provides numerous views of the 12 miles of black gneiss that enclose the once raging Gunnison River.
A Narrow, Deep Canyon
Because the canyon is so narrow -- 1,150 feet from north rim to south at the narrows -- sunlight can barely penetrate the depths providing an eerie dark quality to this chasm.
One of our hikers crawled out on a flat ledge then flattened to his belly to experience the drop from a safe position. There are no guardrails on this trail so while hiking near the borders, be careful not to kick stones over the edge, which could be dangerous to hikers and climbers below.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is narrower and deeper than any canyon in the United States, including Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. One particularly beautiful section is named Painted Wall and is the highest cliff in Colorado. You could stack two Empire State Buildings on top of each other and not reach the top. No wonder this is a favorite of very experienced climbers. Let me emphasize experienced. Just getting to the bottom of the canyon will do in a rugged hiker. Climbing the entire wall requires sleeping on the face.
The very robust ranger we met at the North Rim Station told us his day was spent attending to visitors until 4 p.m. after which he went climbing for three hours in the canyon to stay in shape for rescuing climbers attempting the ominous walls of the Black Canyon.
Scenic End Of Trail
This hike is seven miles round trip and will take about 3-1/2 hours depending on how often you stop at the lookouts and how much time you spend at the top. After you scramble over some very large boulders there is a short loop trail at the top, which provides 360-degree views of the San Juan mountains, the largest range in the Rockies, the West Elks, Grand Mesa, and the Uncompahgre Plateau.
Making The Hike
The North Rim Ranger Station is 11 miles south of Crawford via Colorado route 92 and North Rim Road. This first half of this road is paved; the last half gravel and is closed in winter.
For more information on the hike, contact:
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument
102 Elk Creek
Gunnison, CO 81230
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