Road Trip: A World of Rocks at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

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All photos courtesy of Josephine Matyas

In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its centenary, and Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones hit the road to explore some of America’s best national parks, thermal hot springs, and regional food and music. Here, they head to Colorado.

By the midpoint of our travels, we’d seen so many amazing geological formations that—together with the road trip angle—we’d started to joke about this trip being a certain kind of “rock and roll.” Colorado continued the trend. Our first days took us through two very different, very dramatic national parks where rock formations take centre stage.

Nothing would be easier than zipping along the I-70, passing the sign for Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction and yawning at the idea of another statue. So glad we did not make that mistake.

In National Park Service nomenclature, a “national monument” is a type of park, not a statue, tower or obelisk. The distinction is a political one: parks have been protected for eternity by an Act of Congress; monuments are created by presidential proclamation. At the Colorado National Monument, the landscape is the monument.

And what a stunner it is. The 40-km long Rim Rock Drive twists and turns, connecting two points only 14-km apart as the crow flies. The snaking roadway is tightly bordered by red rock walls on one side and steep drop-offs on the other, with vistas over deep canyons, soaring rock formations and the expansive Grand Valley carved by the Colorado River. At moments, it’s hard to believe that such a peaceful enclave of nature could be so close to a bustling urban area.

It’s all the “fault” of the Redlands Fault line which cracks right through the parkland. Seventy million years ago this landscape was flat. A series of major earthquakes along the fault line formed basins and uplifts, breaking some flat rock beds and folding layers of sedimentary rock. (Anywhere you see steeply-tilted beds of sedimentary rock, it’s a clue that a major fault line is close by.)

Next: The Redlands Fault line…

In the last 10 million years, the power of erosion has actually exposed the Redlands Fault line—once buried deep below the surface, this “line in the sand” is clearly seen from outlooks along Rim Rock Drive. A highlight for us was actually inside, at the Visitor Center where the excellent short film was a primer on the geology of the entire Colorado Plateau. It’s available on YouTube and shouldn’t be missed if you are interested in the story told by rocks.

The landscape of the Colorado National Monument is “high desert”—low rainfall at a relatively high elevation. The rocky landscape is dotted with prickly pear and rabbitbrush in a pinyon-juniper woodland that receives less than 25cm of precipitation a year. It’s home to desert bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes, peregrine falcon, mountain lion, coyote and the colourful collared lizard.

About 90 minutes south of Grand Junction is a whole other world of rocks at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In a much more remote location (so far away from light pollution, it’s been designated an International Dark Sky Park) Black Gunnison is a showcase of two-billion years of geology; a view into the depths of the Earth’s crust. About 60 million years ago, the Gunnison Uplift of the “basement” of Precambrian rocks formed the base for the (relatively) young, two-million-year-old Black Canyon. The softer rock and the harder rock were carved by the Gunnison River. The deep, dark 80-km long canyon cuts through schist, some of the oldest, hardest rock in North America. And the river is not done yet—every year it carves away the equivalent of the width of a human hair.

Public access to Black Canyon of the Gunnison is on a small scale, with one main road speckled with lookouts over the steep canyon walls, down to the river below. At 2500m in elevation, the thinner air is noticeable and on a clear night the Milky Way is visible and the stars pepper the blackness. It’s also the reason the scrub oaks are so small and there are no tall trees. A bit off the beaten path, it’s a park for those looking for an uncrowded visitor experience…and for snowbirds road tripping to find a certain kind of “rock and roll” experience.

For more information for general state information for planning information

Campsites we can recommend: The squeaky clean Junction West RV in Grand Junction and the beautifully remote park campground at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

An annual National Park Pass that gives unlimited entry to all National Park System sites is $80 USD.