We left Utah and went to Colorado on I-70, then took Highway 50 to Montrose to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National State Park. The 53-mile long Black Canyon of the Gunnison has one of the best exposures of the ancient rocks in the world. The black color of the canyon walls is contributed by Precambrian aged rocks such as gneiss and schist that are 1.7 billion years old. The Gunnison Uplift raised this area from deep in the Earth 60 million years ago. The Gunnison River cuts through the soft volcanic deposits and couldn’t change its course. Then it encountered the very hard rocks of gneiss and schist. But when rocks meet water, water won. The water flow through the Black Canyon with a speed of 12,000 cubic feet per second, that is equal to 2.75 million horsepower. Although the Gunnison River can only widen the canyon by the width of a hair a year, that is 1 inch per 100 years, the relentless river carried mud and debris and worked through its way westward.
Standing on the Gunnison Point, we were awed by the sheer black cliffs. The Black Canyon is so narrow and steep that we could only see a small section of the Gunnison River 1,800 feet below. The light colored pegmatite dikes on the cliffs stood out like fins. These igneous rocks are more weather resistant than gneiss. The pegmatite dikes have huge crystals up to 6 feet. The rocks with sparkled crystals we stood on at the Gunnison Point are the same rocks as the pegmatite dikes half a mile across the canyon.
The vista at Painted Wall View was magnificent. The glittering Gunnison River appeared in the canyon like a ribbon. The cliff across the canyon with crisscrossed pegmatite bands is the highest cliff in Colorado with a height of 2,300 feet. Black Canyon of the Gunnison not only is black, it is also dark. It receives only some 30 minutes sunlight a day. According to NPS Geodiversity Atlas (nps.gov), the Gunnison River drops an average of 43 feet per mile, making it one of the steepest mountain descent in the world.
The view of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is spectacular, I am more impressed by the spirits of the explorers. If were not for the daring expedition of Abraham Lincoln Fellows of U.S. Geological Survey and William Torrence of a Montrose native, the Gunnison Tunnel wouldn’t be constructed to bring water to the arid valley. Fellows jumped into the roaring river and Torrence followed. Miraculously, they ended up at the same site of the canyon and survived. After 4 years construction, a loss of 26 men’s life, the 5.3-mile long irrigation tunnel was completed in 1909 and was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world at the time.
Back to Montrose, we stopped at Russell Stover factory store, and Stephen bought his favorite caramel pecan turtle chocolates. The next day, we continued our journey on Highway 50. Blue Mesa Reservoir is a blue lake created by damming the Gunnison River. The layers of curvy grooves on the shore and on the islet shows the sculpting power of the Gunnison River.
After a strenuous steep mountain climb along Highway 50, we reached Monarch Pass at an elevation of 11,312 feet. The Monarch Pass is also a continental divide. We stopped for lunch. When Stephen opened up the seal of the tube of potato chips, it made an exploding sound. That was the result of elevation gains. We camped at a RV campground overnight and then resumed our journey the next day. Arkansas River accompanied us by the road in the Arkansas River Canyon. Then we turned to Highway 69 heading south towards Trinidad.
The imposing Sangre De Cristo Mountains sit on the west of the highway. There are many big ranches on this highland. We saw several elk right by the road in front of a ranch. A huge herd of buffalo roamed on Wolf Springs Ranch. On the other side of the mountains is the Great Sand Dunes. After reaching Walsenburg, instead of taking I-25 to Trinidad, we took the Highway of Legends (Hwy 12). We were on this scenic road in spring and enjoyed the geological features along the road. Snow has disappeared from Spanish Peaks. The stone dikes were surrounded with fall colored bushes. Bright yellow aspens lit up the road. That was the best fall colors we saw in Colorado. The alpine North Lake was clear and blue. Although it was a longer drive, we got a different sight of this scenic highway. At last, we made it to Trinidad Lake Campground, and our journey crossing Colorado was accomplished.