A list of the ten national parks in the US with the smallest number of annual visitors include three in Alaska. Why is kind of obvious. Two are islands (Isle Royale and Dry Tortugas) so require watercraft. The other five are in isolated parts of the country. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy. They are National Parks after-all.
Although we have not yet been to the parks in Alaska or those that are islands, we have visited three of the remaining five least visited parks, one of them recently – Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
In 2014 we visited North Cascades National Park along Highway 20, the northern route across Washington. The area is stunningly beautiful. I wrote about it in the blog post What is that smell?!. (The title had nothing to do with the national park!)
Great Basin National Park is very isolated near the Utah- Nevada border. Again in 2014, we enjoyed the scenic drive within the park and Lehmann Caves. We traveled The Loneliest Road in America to get there and that is the name of the blog.
This week we visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This park isn’t hard to get to (at least in summer) so my guess is that there is just so much else to see in the four corners region. We are actively exploring the area and have much more to go. There are five national parks in southern Utah, two in northern Arizona and another in southwest Colorado. Maybe Black Canyon of the Gunnison just gets lost in the mix.
Like the Grand Canyon, this park is more easily accessed from the south so the south rim has nearly all the services. We entered at the south entrance near the town of Montrose. Also like the Grand Canyon it is not a simple decision to visit the north rim. It takes several hours to drive around to the north side. It took us many years to get to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (The North Rim – Finally!) We hope it won’t take us that long to get to the north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison so we can enjoy “solitude and self-reliant conditions.”
After entering the park, we started down the East Portal road which descends to the Gunnison River. Some reviewers said they had seen bears in the morning so we went there first. Unfortunately, we didn’t see bears.
The East Portal road is closed in winter because of hair-pin turns and a 16% grade. Vehicles over 22 feet are prohibited. Randy never saw the truck tilt more than 9% but apparently there are places of 16%. The road was impressive and I was glad my driver knew how to use low gear and engine braking. Some people were riding their brakes all the way down!
At the bottom we found a beautiful river and canyon. If you look close you can see an ever present fly fisherman.
The road itself seemed quite an accomplishment but at the end we learned that the true engineering marvel was the Gunnison Tunnel.
This picture shows the small town that supported the tunnel workers and families in 1905. It had a power plant, post-office, school, dining hall, hospital and more to support the 24 hour per day work lasting through 1909.
The 5.8 mile long tunnel was one of America’s first Reclamation Projects. A straight line was maintained for 10,000 feet into the canyon wall. It still brings 495,000 gallons per minute of irrigation water to the Umcompahgre Valley.
It was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Other projects honored in this way include the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Durango & Silverton Railroad.
After driving back out to rim level we started the scenic south rim drive. There are twelve overlooks along the seven mile route and we went to eleven of them. (Three overlooks were very close together and we skipped the middle one.) All involve a bit of a walk to the viewpoint, some short, others ranged from 300 – 700 yards. One was as long as 1.5 miles.
Black canyon isn’t the deepest canyon or the longest in the United States. Those distinctions belong to Hell’s Canyon (Idaho and Oregon) and the Grand Canyon respectively. What makes Black Canyon distinct is the combination of depth, vertical drop and narrowness. The canyon is only 1/4 mile wide in the Narrows and some areas see very little daylight.
Randy stands at the edge of the precipice because…of course he does. I do not ask for these photo ops!!!
One of the primary features of the canyon is Painted Wall. The dark sections are Gneiss while the lighter veins are Pegmatite. The wall is twice as high as the Empire State Building.
While all the scenic viewpoints are great, the eighth in our journey was our favorite – Cedar Point.
There was a bit of a hike through Pinon-Juniper to the overlook.
From Cedar Point we had a nice view of the Gunnison River and the Painted Wall.
The last viewpoint involved a “moderate” 1.5 mile hike to Warner Point. After being sick much of July, hiking at 8000 feet, with the smoke and the afternoon heat wasn’t a breeze for me. Randy had plenty of time to take close up shots of this very colorful lizard.
When we got to Warner Point we found our view thwarted by smoke. It had been evident throughout our visit but increased in the afternoon. Oh well, just one more reason to come back and visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – next time from the north rim.