Great Hike: Gunnison Trail (caveat: this is only for experienced hikers)
Nature created conditions where a powerful river cut a deep and narrow slice out of a hard granite terrain. The result is a canyon whose walls are very steep and access to the river below is very difficult. One consequence for visitors wanting to hike in the park is that there are few trails of any length. Almost all the trails are short and lead to overlook points along the rim road. One of the few exceptions is the Gunnison Trail which descends 1,800 feet in just one mile. Along this trail you actually hike from the rim to the Gunnison River’s shore. There was little doubt that this would be my pick!
From having toured the rim and looked into the canyon I knew this was going to be a steep hike. This became crystal clear while I received my required briefing from the ranger as part of being issued a permit. He showed pictures of sections so steep that a chain had been installed to facilitate repelling. He told stories of long stretches of loose rock, of the many places where gaining footing was near impossible, and of the need to be aware of possible rock slides from above. This was a serious hike with lots of risk. The NPS really wants to give you every opportunity to back out!
Well, I can report that every warning had merit, every bit of guidance was useful, and I’m glad they forced me through the orientation. Going down was treacherous as the combination of steep inclines covered in loose rock made the descent unsteady and risky. I slid downhill many, many times but only landed on my rump once. While it was much more of a physical effort going back up at least during the ascent your center of gravity was uphill so slipping was more controlled.
While at the bottom I walked along the few hundred feet of accessible shoreline. The sun was shining, the river was churning, and it was a perfect cool for aggressive exertion. As I stood there at the bottom of 1,800 foot walls looking up in amazement, a sense of awe filled me. Yet again the NPS had preserved a gem of nature and made it accessible to me, an everyday American. We are so lucky!
Originally, when I arrived at Black Canyon NP, I had been disappointed to learn there were only short hikes available. As I discussed this with a ranger I learned of back-country permits that would allow me to hike special unpromoted trails such as Gunnison (though even in that first conversation I was warned of the difficulty and risks).
With this as backdrop you can imagine how I felt when I went back to the Visitors Center after my hike to report my return and the Ranger said, with a surprised look on his face, “Back already!?” I had made good time on a difficult trail. Guess all my recent hikes have served me well!