I’m standing thigh-deep in the translucent green waters of Colorado’s Gunnison River. Precambrian cliffs tower a thousand feet overhead, where the daily cycle of light and shadow plays out in a Crayola-like display of ochre, umber, sienna, rust, and slate. Here, at the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, my companions and I have miles and miles of postcard-worthy river wilderness all to ourselves.
My friends, Mike and Tim, lounge on the riverbank, fly rods dismantled. It’s unlikely these two former professional fly-fishing guides could ever be all fished out, but we’re past our predetermined departure time. A three-hour hike out of this oasis awaits us, not to mention a five-hour drive home to the Front Range. I know all this. But at the moment, I’m lost in this spectacular chasm, awash in the warmth of the sun and the cool of the flow. All that matters is: One. More. Fish.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the least-visited of Colorado’s four national parks. Park rangers attribute the low crowds to its distance from large metro areas and interstate highways. It’s a shame that the park’s bucket-list scenery attracted only 193,000 visitors in 2012—Rocky Mountain National Park hosted 3 million—because most people who do make the drive, taking a turn at the park sign just outside of Montrose, marvel at the dizzying rim views. The sheer 2,000-foot cliff faces are taller than many of those of the Grand Canyon. Such depths, along with the raging fire hose of the Gunnison River before it was dammed in the 1960s and ’70s, are the reason early pioneers and the native Utes long considered this gorge impenetrable. Even today, the vast majority of park visitors never venture beyond the rim.
For the few who take the road less traveled, it becomes obvious the inner canyon reveals the true heart of the Black. Experienced climbers test themselves on granite faces. Intrepid kayakers take on Class V white water. Hardy hikers plunge down chutes so steep they must, at times, use the permanently bolted chains to secure their handholds. Anglers are drawn to the 14 miles of legendary water. It is, without question, the ideal location for a backcountry fly-fishing expedition.
After spending a night in the South Rim Campground, we start our Black Canyon exploration by peering over the vertiginous rim. The view of Painted Wall, Colorado’s tallest face at 2,250 feet, leaves us grasping for a sturdy post. You could hide the Empire State Building in this section of the canyon—and still have nearly a thousand feet to spare. It’s impressive, but the sight of the river snaking below beckons us.
It’s a 10-mile drive outside the park, through sweeping ranchland, to reach our trailhead. We’ve chosen the intersecting Red Rock Canyon as our access route into the Black—or, more accurately, it has chosen us. Because this trail into the canyon crosses private land, the park service uses an annual lottery system to limit daily visitors to eight. And with the trail only being open from May through October, getting a permit is like winning a golden ticket.
The route through Red Rock Canyon is the longest, but most gradual, way into the Black Canyon, dropping 1,330 feet over 3.4 miles. We are carrying sleeping bags, sleeping pads, one tent for three people, single-burner stoves, food, and, of course, our fly rods and plenty of flies. A sixer of beer each pushes our pack weights to more than 50 pounds each—but at least the cans will be empty on the way back. We warm up on the first mile of level ranch double track. The sage and piñon landscape narrows as we get closer to the canyon, and then the earth morphs into talus stairsteps as we skirt the canyon sides beneath jutting boulders.
We expected the intense heat of July, but the high humidity is a surprise. It’s as if the babbling, boxed-in Red Rock Creek creates its own microclimate. To cross the creek we push aside seven-foot-tall grasses, which makes us feel as if we’ve stepped through some prehistoric portal. Halfway down Red Rock Canyon, we begin dodging the notorious poison ivy that grows five feet high.
Suddenly the horizon opens, and we step onto a scrubby bluff. The Gunnison River rounds a broad, riffling bend and swiftly undercuts an ancient rock shelf on the far bank. It’s taken a little less than the expected two hours to go from the Red to the Black.
We’re relieved to drop our packs. We quickly pitch our tent on a soft, sandy shelf and hit the river. Mike pulls out a 16-inch brown trout on his first cast. He grins as if to say: Looks like the legends are true.
We spend the next two days fishing up and down a mile or more of river. We cast from grassy banks, half-submerged boulders, and the middle of the current. I’d been warned that narrow canyons can be a nightmare for fly fishermen; their hooks get snagged along the banks and the navigation can be brutally difficult. But the Black isn’t claustrophobic through this stretch. With the water flow low, even a novice can find plenty of wide-open spaces for epic casts. The summer heat and cool water blend so perfectly that none of us wear waders. Instead, we’re comfortable in shorts and river sandals, in touch with the riffles and eddies.
My limited experience with fishing had led me to believe the pastime was boring. I had always been drawn to activities with more action: Give me the motion of a trail beneath my boots, bike, or board and I was happy. But now I find that I’m cheerfully losing myself in casting, mending line, retrieving, and repeating the rhythmic process. I concentrate on the tips coming from Mike and Tim, experimenting with the art of dry fly casting but having more luck with submerged wet flies and nymphs. I’m surprised by how much I can see beneath the surface—but I guess I shouldn’t be. This water flows clean and clear from the high Rockies along the Continental Divide and around Delta, Almont, and Cimarron. And thanks to water rights won after nearly 40 years of legal wrangling, billions of gallons are released each spring, imitating the river’s natural free-flowing cycle that scours and cleanses the inner canyon.
The fish are plentiful, but we don’t encounter another human after entering the canyon. We do spot a golden eagle, a playful family of mink, and a few garter and green snakes. We also have an encounter with a coyote—at least, our stringer of fish does.
“Our fish are gone,” Mike says late on day two, not long before chow time. “Stringer, fish, dinner—all gone.” Most of our angling is catch and release, but there’s a healthy population here, so our dinner menus include fresh-caught trout. Rather, our menus had included fresh-caught trout. The coyote prints in the mud make it easy to tell what happened to the missing stringer of fish.
As the late-day shadows deepen, our casting takes on a more primal edge: We tell ourselves we’re hunting for survival now—even though we know it’s more for culinary luxury. Within an hour, Mike and Tim land two stout browns. We fillet them on the bank, marveling at the bright orange meat. I’ve never tasted better trout, which we complement with river-chilled PBR—worth every extra ounce of pack-in weight.
On our final morning, I’m getting skunked after several hours of casting. I’m the only one left in the water. I know we’ve got to move on; it’s time to drift home. I’m about to call last cast. Instead, I send my fly toward the far current and let it drift 25 feet downstream. Eat it, eat it, I think to myself. Then the force of resistance tugs at the line. I jerk the rod upward to set the hook. There’s a leap and a splash and more fight on my line than I’ve ever experienced. I try to keep tension and reel slowly. I’m not about to lose this one.
The 16-inch brown is beautiful, with a golden belly and brilliant red spots. It’s my biggest catch ever. After a snapshot, I lower this gift beneath the surface and watch it flip its tail toward deeper water. I think I know what it feels like to be hooked.
We savor our final river views before turning toward home. “We never even explored downstream,” Tim says wistfully. With our packs lighter—and our spirits, too—we hit the trail and begin to plan
IF YOU GO
A trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison requires advanced planning.
Get A Permit: Applications for the Red Rock Canyon permit lottery must be postmarked from January 1 to March 13. Unused permits may be available on short notice. Forms and info are available at nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/redrockinfo. Or call the National Park Service office at 970-641-2337, ext. 205. Group size limit is four.
Associated Fees: An entrance fee of $7 per person is charged at the trailhead.