Established as a National Monument in 1933 and becoming a National Park in 1999, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park lies in Montrose County, western Colorado. It covers some 124.4 km2 (48 sq mi) and has mainly been carved by the Gunnison River that runs through it. The sides are incredibly sheer, allowing little sunlight to filter down to the bottom of the gorge. As a result, the slopes are often in shade, making the gneiss and schist rocks of which they’re formed appear black – hence the canyon’s name.
Cliffs in the canyon reach heights of up to 685 m (2,250 ft), and drop at a rate of 1.4 m/km (7.5 ft/mi) on average making it the fifth steepest drop in North America. The narrowest part of the canyon at river level is just 12 m (40 ft) across.
Due to the combination of the gulley, the river and the plains above, there are a variety of habitats for plant and wildlife. These range from low lying or pygmy forests of Juniper and Pinon pine; to Gambel oak thickets; to the craggy canyon walls in which nestle miniature gardens of wildflowers and small gatherings of Douglas fir and aspen trees.
The most common mammal seen is the mule deer, which handles the canyon’s plummeting sides with apparent ease, but the area is also home to coyotes and elk, among others. Species of birds are plentiful and include the great horned owl, the mountain bluebird, peregrine falcons and white-throated swifts. Many of these live undisturbed, nesting in crevices on the inaccessible canyon walls.
One key attraction of the park is rock climbing, but due to the slopes’ steep gradients many of the routes are suitable only for the more experienced climber. Likewise, rafting and kayaking is only recommended for those with high skills levels, and even then, some routes are impassable.