USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 1191
Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Today and Yesterday


Most visitors to the Black Canyon, either from choice or necessity, confine their observations to the maintained trails and overlooks of the national monument. These facilities afford safe and convenient access to the more outstanding and informative segments of canyon scenery. Not surprisingly, they also afford outstanding glimpses of canyon geology, for the scenery of the canyon is a direct consequence of the interplay of geologic processes. Each canyon overlook and its approaches differ both in general and in detail from every other one, and the viewer with the time and inclination would enjoy a visit to all, for only in this manner can he fully appreciate the grandeur of the canyon. Viewers obliged to move on a little more rapidly can obtain a representative sampling of canyon geology and scenery by visiting Gunnison Point, Chasm View, and Sunset View, while also driving out to High Point on South Rim Drive. These overlooks provide outstanding views of geologically and topographically unlike segments of the canyon, each within a minimum of trail distance from the rim highway.

Individuals of unusual fortitude may occasionally want to hike to the canyon floor. Though arduous, such a trip is highly rewarding if properly planned and executed, and it provides an insight into canyon geology unobtainable from the rims. Below the rims, the canyon is very scenic, wild, and primitive, but to the uninitiated it is potentially dangerous.

Trips to the canyon bottom should be attempted only by those in excellent physical condition. There are no established trails, but safe descents are possible from several points on both rims. Expensive mountaineering equipment is unnecessary, but suitable foot gear is imperative. Most descents are planned for at least a one-night stay at the bottom.

Descents can be made at any time from early spring to late autumn. Trips along the canyon bottom, however, are best planned for late summer after the river level has fallen, for passage is impossible without great risk during high water. Even during low water, river crossings are necessary where passage along either bank is blocked by cliffs at the water's edge (fig. 3). Depending on the level of the river, crossings may be made by wading the riffles or by floating a rubber raft.

FIGURE 3.—The Narrows of the Black Canyon. About 40 feet wide at this point, the river impinges on nearly vertical walls of resistant gneiss. Canyon here is about 1,750 feet deep and is about 1,100 feet wide from rim to rim.

Float trips, as such, are feasible for experienced runners during low water between the mouth of Cimarron Creek and East Portal, between East Portal and The Narrows, and below Chasm View, but not between The Narrows and Chasm View. The stretch between The Narrows (fig. 3) and Chasm View is the wildest and most scenic in the entire canyon, but it is also the most arduous and potentially the most hazardous; it is too treacherous for good floating. Cimarron Creek to River Portal offers 8 miles of exciting adventure—scores of white-water rapids in a setting of primitive splendor; outstanding geologic features exposed in this segment of canyon include large overturned folds, thick masses of black amphibolite, myriads of pegmatite dikes, and broad fault zones.

For about 15 miles below Red Rock Canyon the river flows past many impressive geologic features which are dramatically exposed. But floating in this stretch is impeded by dangerous rapids—particularly between Crystal Creek and Smith Fork—and should be attempted only after all due precautions have been taken.

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006