With kayakers battling rapids 2,000 feet below “pygmy forests” and oak flats, Colorado’s Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is one of the more unique natural experiences one can have. Over the weekend, this diverse 14-mile stretch along Gunnison River celebrated its 13th anniversary as a national park. In recognition of Black Canyon’s founding, let’s take a look at what makes this park a special destination.

The slopes of Black Canyon split by Gunnison River
The slopes of Black Canyon split by Gunnison River. Credit: markbyzweski/ Flickr

Carved by the Gunnison River, the canyon is constantly being reshaped. As with most geological change, this process has been gradual, as the river has been influencing the landscape for approximately two million years. Within this actively shifting environment, several species of plants and animals thrive. This is due to the protection and maintenance of three distinct life zones surrounding and within the canyon:

  • The pinyon pine is a trademark feature of the “pygmy forests,” nicknamed for the small trees that populate this area, that surround the park along the Colorado Plateau. Junipers are also often in the mix. These pygmy forests were traditionally an excellent source of food, fuel and medicine for American Indians and still provide us with firewood and pine nuts today.
  • The second distinct life zone in Black Canyon is the oak flats that dominate the space around the canyon rim. Wildflowers, dense thickets and diverse wildlife characterize this part of the park. Oak acorns are plentiful and rich in nutrients, creating a welcome home for common wildlife such as the mule deer and black bear.
  • But the area between the canyon walls is what makes Black Canyon of Gunnison exceptional. Due to differences in erosion, sunlight and vegetation, the southern wall is sparsely vegetated and very steep. The northern wall, however, boasts pockets of Douglas fir and a variety of bird species. Bighorn sheep and mountain lions can also be found roaming the slopes. This scene extends down to the river, where several types of cottonwoods line the banks and large trout flourish.

The canyon’s terrain may seem like a challenge, but the national park is actually quite accessible. Two entrances, the north rim and south rim, give visitors different perspectives. But with its various nature trails and year-round accessibility, the southern rim is more developed. South Rim Road is the featured drive through the national park, but the Chasm View Nature Trail, Rim Rock Trail and Oak Flat Trail are also popular stops. Those looking for a more interactive visit can experience the park in several ways, including whitewater river kayaking, rock climbing, horseback riding and fishing.