First Glimpses of Black Canyon

June 15, 2015

Visiting Mesa Verde gave me a peak at the human history of this land that provided all the raw materials for the lives of the people who called the cliffs and mesa tops their home for centuries. I wish we could have spent more time here, but I reassured myself that someday I would be back–in the off season.

last view from Mesa Verde

The countryside out the window was stunning. Snow-capped mountains stand frosty and haughty above plains bursting with bright green leaves of aspen and grass marbled with dark evergreen conifers. Each time we peeked through a mountain pass and began to descend we were greeted by another cluster of mountains across the valley from us.

Mountains out the window

Colorado Countryside

I even noticed teepees set up in a field, and wondered if they were actually being used as living space or if they were on display for tourists. Some jaded part of me wants to say that because only 1% of the US population is native ( and only a small percentage of the live in teepees), and a far greater percentage of the 318 million Americans travel to Colorado in the summer, it is statistically more likely that these teepees are being used commercially. But, with a countryside so full of natural wonders flowing past the window, I quickly distracted myself with the patterns of the rock formations and the rainbows of dirt and minerals, often with rusty red, tawny yellow and blue-grey next to each other, in the exposed bluffs beside the highway. I wonder if the splendor of these commonplace roadside blushes of earthy color is lost on the people who live here and see it everyday or if they hold it in sacred awe as they bustle by.


Compared to the Black Canyon of the Gunninson, the tiny roadside cliffs do seem paltry. Morgan and I stepped out of the car after a long day of driving and drank in the views from the overlooks. Looking across the narrow canyon, then down into it’s depths where the Gunnison River crashes with incredible intensity and velocity, we were both awe struck. Before the river was dammed it could rage through the canyon with 2.75 million horsepower! The gneiss and schist, two types of  hard, metamorphic rock, brindled the canyon walls. I tried to imagine the amount of time it took the water to carve this enormous hollow (at a rate of one centimeter per year!), while I listened to the mingled sound of the wind and water moving through the crags. The time that this river has been sculpting this canyon makes all human history look like the blink of an eye.

First Glimpse of Black Canyon 2

Yellow, blue and purple flowers added dashes of color along the short trails and roadsides at the top of the canyon. I recognized lupines like the ones we saw at Mancos State Park, and later learned that they play a crucial role for the plant community. Actually, more accurately, it is the bacteria that live on the roots of the lupine that transforms nitrogen from the atmosphere into the type of nitrogen plants can use. Not only are the lupines beautiful garden color, but they also help improve the soil! There’s just one downside: lupines are toxic to livestock.


Before we headed back to camp for the evening, we stopped at the Painted Wall Overlook and stared across at the lightning bolt formation crystallized into the stones when they hardened under the intense heat and pressure below the surface of the earth, and then slowly exposed by the water forcefully eroding the stone with fluid agitation. Standing here, I fully appreciated my inability to wrap my head all the way around geological time’s vast proportions, and that realization deepened my reverence for this incredible ground.

First Glimpses of Black Canyon

With the sun sinking, we hurried to set up camp and change from shorts and tank tops into pants and sweaters for the evening. Even in the summer, the elevation and the dryness of the air cause the temperature to plummet at night. But the cold is worth enduring for the innumerable stars, so bright and abundant, that they seem to flow together.


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