Black Canyon on the Gunnison River qualifies as a hairboater's paradise. It offers Class IV to V whitewater, steep waterfall drops, high canyon walls, mandatory long portages through poison ivy on goat trails, heavy tick infestations and a mandatory backcountry use permit. And finally, a choice between a mile plus climb with boats and gear up a switchback trail after 14.3 miles of gruelling action to the Chukar Trail parking lot, or else paddling an additional 13.4 miles through Gunny Gorge to the Gunnison Forks Campground for a much easier take-out. I mean, what ELSE could a boater want? This is a run for expert kayakers only! Full cover protective clothing and DEET are strongly recommended for the portages. Campfires are NOT allowed in Black Canyon, so bring along a propane stove or eat cold meals. Better yet, just bite the bullet, make as much time as possible getting dowriver, and then hike the 1+ mile uphill climb at the Chukar Trail. You made it this far, so you may as well go ahead and try to finish off yourself. Or, you might opt to camp overnight and paddle to the North Fork confluence at Gunnison Forks Campgrund and take out with a climb of at least 2 or 3 feet. With good planning you could even leave a car at the Chukar Trail parking lot with camping gear, food and supplies so you don't have to carry it all downriver. This description overlaps with the Class II to IV Gunnison Gorge section of about 13.4 miles that follows since both can use the Gunnison Forks Campground as an exit point.
For those who want to rough it in the canyon there are several places starting at Beach Camp about 6.5 miles into the run and continuing toward Gunnison Forks Campground where you can camp overnight. The temperature will drop in the canyon overnight, even in summer, so plan accordingly and be prepared. There is VERY little direct sunlight in the canyon, so expect cool to cold paddling conditions most of the time.
Black Canyon is an E-ticket roller coaster ride with a gradient that changes at least 14 times in less than 15 miles. Its steepest segment drops at about 210 fpm, and its "flattest" segment is the Gunny Gorge at about 21 fpm over the final 13.4 miles of this run. Flow is dependent upon dam-released water from Crystal Reservoir. The scenery in Black Canyon is awesome, showing the power of water where it cuts through solid rock to create an immense canyon with walls towering above the riverbed. It's a lot of work getting into and running Black Canyon, but for kayakers with the skills and nerve the reward is an experience few will ever share. (Note: Gunnison Gorge is a run that many expert kayakers find less than challenging and therefore prefer the climb out at Chukar to the additional distance of "flatwater" paddling. And who could blame them after THAT run?)
The road into the East Portal will almost surely be closed in winter due to snow and ice making the steep, narrow, winding road down to the river and back up very treacherous. The campground launch site is just below Crystal Dam, and the wild ride does not take long to commence considering that the drive down is almost as thrilling as the river itself (well, not really, but it is a hairy ride at times when a car is coming the other way.)
The San Juan National Forest of Hinsdale County, flowing south to north through Lake San Cristobal, past Lake City, by the eastern edge of Uncompahgre National Forest to Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County between Montrose and Gunnison.
Durango 200 miles; Grand Junction 165 miles; Denver 286 miles; Santa Fe 412 miles; Albuquerque 412 miles; Phoenix 654 miles; Oklahoma City 955 miles; Tulsa 1,060 miles; Dallas 1,064 miles; Austin 1,254 miles; San Antonio 1,334 miles; Houston 1,440 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The Gunnison River usually flows clean, clear and cold with a beautiful blue color, though very "white" in many places, but it is not drinkable without purification. Black Canyon is rated Class IV to V at flows of 700 to 3,000 cfs, and at least two difficult portages will be required to survive this run. Drysuits or wetsuits with a base layer, Neoprene gloves and Neoprene hard-soled river boots are recommended to prevent hypothermia if you go swimming.
Black Canyon, because of dam-released water, has a "long" season by Colorado standards, running from May through September. Contact the Black Canyon National Monument Visitor Center (970-249-1915) for water release information.
A free permit is required for all backcountry and wilderness use (both day use and overnight) including hiking the inner canyon or off established trails, rock climbing and all river use. Permits are available at the South Rim Visitor Center, North Rim Ranger Station and East Portal registration board (located west of the campground). The number of permits available daily is limited, and permits are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. If these facilities are closed, there are self registration stations with instructions at each location.
Almost every part of Black Canyon should be considered hazardous. The first 14.3 miles of the trip is the Black Canyon section, but unless you want to hike UP the Gunny Gorge put-in trail with boats and gear you are in for another 13.4 miles of paddling to the take-out at Gunnison Forks. The first third of the run will be a series of Class IV to V steep drops down to The Narrows, where things start to get hairy. (Hey, you ARE a hairboater, aren't you?) At The Narrows there is a Class V rapid immediately above an 18-foot waterfall below which are rocks that can pin and/or destroy boats, and injure or kill paddlers. On river left are three lines into the drop. The middle line is best, but all three are very hazardous. If you survive the drop, then start your first mandatory portage on river right. Thick poison ivy and a dense tick population await you on this portage of about 2/3 mile up the side toward the south canyon wall, along a cliff, then down a talus slope to the river. Ferry across a pool, then continue portaging along the left side where the river disappears under rocks. Ferry a second pool back to river right then take a trail to Beach Camp, a riverside camping spot just downstream from the portage. Just below Beach Camp is the Class IV to V Closet Rapid below which is the second mandatory portage on river right. From here, you have about 6-7 miles of much easier paddling down to the Chukar Trail put-in for Gunnison Gorge.
The dangers of running Black Canyon cannot be over-emphasized. Do NOT attempt this run unless you are an expert kayaker with nerves (and balls) of 316 stainless steel, accompanied by a group of equally qualified paddlers. It is probably best to update your will before beginning this run.
Put-in by passing through the East Portal entrance station on SH 347 on the south side of the canyon at 0.0 miles; Trail at SOB Gully down to Beach Camp from the north chasm wall on river right below Black Canyon at about 6.5 miles; Chukar trail off Peach Valley Road on river left at about 14.3 miles; Gunnison Forks Campground just over a mile south of SH 92, on river right at about 27.7 miles (at the confluence with the North Fork of the Gunnison River.)
East Portal at 0.0 miles; Beach Camp at about 6.5 miles; Any of 5 riverside campsites on river left between Beach Camp and the chukar trail; Gunnison Forks campground at 27.7 miles.
Numerous commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and river information on the Gunnison River.
For those hell bent on testing their skills in extreme conditions Black Canyon offers a true whitewater hairboat experience. This run should ONLY be made by expert kayakers with advanced swiftwater rescue skills when paddling in groups, preferrably including one or more paddlers who have made the run before. This is another Colorado run where the scenery is awesome, but you will have little time to enjoy it. Relaxation is not part of the agenda on the first half of this trip, and then it gets tough! If getting there is half the fun, then this place qualifies in spades. The mandatory portages along goat paths and talus slopes are not easy, and the combination of poison ivy and ticks only adds to the difficulty. The penalty for missing a line on this run is hefty. Looking up from the bottom is definitely more spectacular than looking down from above. This place is the quintessential representation of wild and untamed Colorado. Be aware that outside rescue and emergency services may not be accessible due to the deep, steep, tight terrain. Go lightly, but take everything you might need. And when it is over you will have stories to tell that few can match!