Quality Time at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Above photo: Morning light streams into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Story and photos by Brad Clement
Brad is a photographer and filmmaker specializing in mountaineering and wilderness adventure. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.
A western Colorado gem remains almost hidden until you’re there.
You don’t see it, and you can’t imagine it. You doubt its existence. Then, just when you reach the visitor center at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in western Colorado, a 2,722-foot-deep canyon suddenly reveals itself, and it’s amazing. No, it’s spellbinding.
I grab a map and walk to a nearby overlook. As a photographer, I am immediately entranced by the colors, the light and the depth of the canyon. As a rock climber, I am in awe of the sheer walls and craggy spires sculpted by the Gunnison River over the last 2 million years. And though I have climbed Mount Everest, when I peer over the side of this canyon, I am intimidated — and just a little dizzy.
Through the course of the day, I’ve driven 262 miles from Boulder, cruising over three high mountain passes, alongside several rivers pulsing with spring snowmelt and past many classic views of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. As I drive down Highway 50 just west of Gunnison, I notice that a different personality of the Colorado landscape emerges. Dry sage hills, hayfields and then miles of Gambel oak flats lead to this national park, established in 1999. Inexplicably, it’s one of the least visited, with fewer than 200,000 people stopping in each year.
Three Goals for the Road Trip
I’m making this road trip to see for myself the canyon with the steepest and highest rock walls in Colorado, to photograph the night sky — Black Canyon is a designated International Dark Skies Park — and to do a little fly fishing, my new passion. The stretch of the Gunnison River here is known for huge trout, and the Colorado Wildlife Commission has recognized it as part of the 322 miles of rivers and lakes in Colorado designated as “Gold Medal Waters.” That means the river produces 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 trout per acre that measure 14 inches or longer. I want to catch some of these big fish.
First, though, I drive the park’s South Rim Road. Seven miles long from Tomichi Point to High Point, the drive features 12 overlooks with excellent views of the canyon, each offering a new perspective. The torrential sounds from the fast-moving water below the rugged, towering walls are awe-inspiring, and I know already this trip is well worth my time. But now, I have bigger fish to fry. Pun intended.
The East Portal of the Canyon, where the Curecanti Recreation Area meets the park, offers the easiest access to some of the best fishing, but the East Portal Road is closed for maintenance. Plan B requires that I hike down one of the many trails leading to the canyon floor and camp a night or two along the banks of the Gunnison River. Back at the visitor center, I receive a backcountry permit for the next day and then head for the South Rim campground for the night.
Hiking down early the next morning, I encounter mule deer, turkey and golden eagles. When I reach the river, I have the entire place to myself, an unexpected bonus. After setting up my tent, I walk the riverbank and pick out a few good spots to fish. How do I recognize good places? That’s easy. I can see huge rainbow and brown trout swimming in the clear, cold water.
The River Delivers
Although fly fishing has quickly become a new passion, I confess I’m really not good at it. I grew up in the Midwest, fishing with spinning reels and flashy metal lures, so I’m still learning fly fishing. You’ve heard that saying, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while?” Well, that’s me and fly fishing.
So even though I figure the odds are against me, the Gunnison delivers — big time, providing the best fishing day of my life. Almost every cast ends in a bite, and I land well over a dozen trout during my handful of hours on the river. Not all the fish are big, but most are well above decent. The largest measures nearly 20 inches, and the smallest is larger than the biggest trout I’ve ever caught on previous fishing trips.
At dusk, I prepare to photograph the night sky. With several cameras set up and fresh-caught trout sizzling on the camp stove, I watch in wonder as the Milky Way rises and moves overhead, beautifully framed by the steep canyon walls. At last, I fall asleep after one of the most special days I can remember. The next morning, I pack up and hike out of the canyon. Where am I headed?
To the North Rim Road, to see this magnificent canyon from the other side.
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