This is a place steeped in legend. But widely unspoken is the chapter about winter.
“It’s a whole different world,” says Nick Myers, the ranger manning the icicle-gripped log visitor center.
A whole different world that few experience.
On this December afternoon, no names are on the register from the day before. Two signed the day before that. And today, one has: Josh Goetz, whom we met at the overlook on the drive up.
We stood there together, silent. The typical traffic on South Rim Drive was absent. In these barren months, the park finds it economically irresponsible to keep someone in the kiosk collecting fees. No rumbling motors and fumes today. All we hear is a falcon’s call over the Gunnison River nearly 2,000 feet below, still rushing, the ice no match.
There is a song here. “The Song of the Gunnison,” reads the brochure, which encourages you to close your eyes, “mindful of loose rock that could send you sliding into the blackness.” Close your eyes, “and the sound gently envelops you.”
The water. The wind. The birds chirping and their wings fluttering.
The song is best heard in winter, with nothing human to disturb. Open your eyes, and find unmatched beauty: Snow drapes the vertical world, steeper and narrower than the Grand Canyon, the sheer walls and spires hemmed by the blue-green line of the river.
Dusk is thanked for the shadow play that reveals far-reaching dimensions. But by the glistening grace of winter, they are even more clear and remarkable with the sun still high.
“There is nothing in America that equals the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison,” read the Hayden Survey of 1877. And winter is the time to see why.
All national parks are different, says Goetz, who today is visiting his 24th in the van that is his home away from California. The Black Canyon “doesn’t look like any of the other ones,” he says, an understatement paired with the grin that hasn’t left his face — impossible to suppress with such a view.
On his national park tour, he’s learned all about the burdens of record visitation. So he was amazed to learn that Black Canyon hosted maybe, maybe, 30 visitors a day in the winter. That’s compared with a peak of 3,000 in the summer, Myers says.
Heading into its 20th anniversary as a national park, the remote canyon is “becoming,” the ranger says. Myers avoids the “discovered” cliché.
“But we’ve been around for a while now, and people are coming to us,” he says.
The word is out about the rock climbing — guidebooks have emerged with ominous titles such as “The Black” — as well as the Gold Medal fishing and daring adventures by foot or kayak.
Visitation has doubled over the past five years to about 300,000 annually. That’s still a small fraction of the behemoths, including Rocky Mountain National Park, which last year along with five others hosted upwards of 4 million people. The Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon national parks still see the most, with 11.3 million and 6.2 million visitors, respectively.
But 300,000 is a lot at Black Canyon, considering that the infrastructure “wasn’t designed for that kind of visitation,” Myers says.
Along the South Rim, the canyon’s most popular portal, parking spots are increasingly limited, and bathroom lines grow longer. Water is trucked up in the summer. But with supply inaccessible in the winter, “this is our water,” Myers says, pointing to a jug fit for a family’s kitchen. The good news: That’s usually enough.
Indeed, Black Canyon refuses to be controlled and conquered. Still lasting is the ruggedness that struck fear in its first explorers.
“Our surroundings were of the wildest possible description,” Abraham Lincoln Fellows wrote in 1901. That’s when he found himself in the canyon’s jaws, following the roaring river that “reverberated and echoed like demons howling over their prey.”
Black Canyon required a true romantic like Fellows, says his grandson, living today in Denver.
Chuck Haines never met Fellows, regarded as the first to survive the journey from one canyon mouth to the other. But Haines has heard the stories from relatives, and “I’ve read some of what he wrote, and he had this tone of idealism. I don’t know whether his name had anything to do with that.”
Abraham Lincoln Fellows was born in 1864, a year before the president’s assassination. He went on to build and design canals and water tunnels for arid lands. And though this valley’s namesake pioneer, John Gunnison, had deemed Black Canyon impenetrable, Fellows was undeterred.
Tasked with reconnaissance the year before the Reclamation Act, he sought a partner. “First, he must be a good swimmer; strong and athletic,” Fellows wrote, with his other conditions being unmarried and “strictly temperate.” He chose Montrose’s William W. Torrence, who a year prior was part of a failed expedition.
“Their leader had told me that it was impossible for a man to pass through the gorge and live,” Fellows wrote. But on he went, alongside Torrence devising a rope and boat system by which they maneuvered dark, thin corridors and wicked rapids.
His tale inspired others; 2002’s “Deep Black” chronicled author Robb Magley’s harrowing passage covering 33 miles and 76 river crossings. The depths of the canyon are still the ultimate prize.
But they are largely off-limits in winter. One can snowshoe and cross-country ski on the South Rim, entering the sloping woods on short trails.
Most come simply for the view and an unexpected song, soft and sweet.
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