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Want spectacle minus a crowd? Try the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

When it comes to deep, stunning gorges, that gaping chasm in the state to the west grabs the lion’s share of attention.

But there’s another canyon just a little ways north that is just as spectacular in its own way.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (nps.gov/blca/index.htm) near Montrose, Colo., features steep, rugged, cliffs, gushing waters and outdoor adventure.

“It’s a cool place,” said Paul Zaenger, supervisory park ranger.

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Indeed, it’s a cool place, with far fewer people than at the Grand Canyon ogling the sights. Arizona’s canyon measures its annual visitations in the millions, but in 2016, there were 238,018 visitors to the Black Canyon.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park draws significantly fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon. (SOURCE: Colorado Dept. of Tourism)

There are deeper canyons and narrower canyons and steeper canyons, Zaenger said. But there is no canyon as deep, narrow and steep.

“There is no other place that jolts you out of your routines when you’re at this place, Black Canyon, because it’s so startling,” Zaenger said. “You can be right at the edge of the canyon, right at the edge of the steepness.”

A rim road encircles with numerous overlook viewpoints that can make even the most stout of heart feel aflutter.

“At Chasm View, you can look at your toes and can see the toe, then the river,” Zaenger said. “Toes, river. Toes, river, uh oh. It’s where the canyon walls – the cliff walls – go straight down on both sides of the canyon. It gives you that same heebie view. Your knees quiver and shake. You feel dizzy.”

There are plenty of numbers illustrating the park and the canyon: 2,722 feet deep; 32,950 acres in size; 53 miles long; 40 feet wide at its narrowest at river level.

The Ute Indian Museum reopened last week, featuring all new exhibits and buildings.

The numbers, however, don’t tell the story, Zaenger said.

“Our hearts don’t beat out in terms of numbers,” he said. “When you’re faced with a scene like that, it makes our hearts come alive.”

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In addition to the many overlooks, a steeply graded road heads down to the gushing Gunnison River, where one of several camping areas is located.

“Like everything else in Black Canyon, it’s steep,” Zaegner said. “You have to go in low gear. But it’s beautiful down there. … Down at the river, it’s a different feel. The river changes the pace. It’s a little more dynamic; you feel more drawn in. When you’re down there, there’s a different kind of atmosphere.”

The Mountain West Museum in Montrose has been featured on PBS and the Discovery Channel. (SOURCE: The Mountain West Museum)

Several, unmaintained trails go from the rim to the river, but they are ruggedly challenging and should be attempted only by hikers with experience in route finding.

On the rim, however, 12 miles of trails wander through the trees and out to more remote overlooks, with the sheer, 2,250-foot Painted Wall being a favorite. And Exclamation Point is a good place to experience one of the more unusual aspects of the erosion that created the canyon, Zaegner said.

“You’ll encounter the fjord-like portion of the Black Canyon,” he said. “The Gunnison River, when it floods, is a very powerful force. It can move grit and gravel and rocks and boulders. Because of that, it can carve faster than freezing and thawing does.”

The Painted Wall rises more than 2,000 feet from the river in a nearly vertical cliff.

At the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area, three reservoirs on the river create a destination for water-based recreation, including salmon and trout fishing, as well as boating. Park rangers lead a 1½-hour boat tour on the Morrow Point Reservoir and into Black Canyon of the Gunnison, with lessons on geology, wildlife, early inhabitants, the narrow-gauge railroad, dams and reservoirs along the way.

The nearby city of Montrose has several interesting museums.

The Ute Indian Museum (historycolorado.org/museums/ute-indian-museum) is a state-sanctioned, Smithsonian-style display site that just reopened last week, said Jennifer Loshaw, guest service manager of the Montrose Office of Business Tourism.

It’s a stunning new building and exhibition bringing together the past with contemporary Ute life and culture, with new exhibitions highlighting the Utes’ history of adaptation and persistence under the themes of geography, highlighting significant locations in Ute history and Ute cultural survival, political self-determination, economic opportunity and the celebration of the Bear Dance.

The Museum of the Mountain West (museumofthemountainwest.org), which has been featured on PBS and the Discovery Channel, is a 1½-hour guided tour through a town front that includes a saloon, doctor/mortician, hotel and railroad depot, among other things. The buildings were all going to demolished, Loshaw said, but were turned into the walking museum.

The Montrose Water Sports Park is a 1,000-foot stretch of the Uncompahgre River. Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant, the stretch has a gradient of 11 feet per one-fifth of a mile, making it a leisurely run with natural obstacles. There are spectators’ areas, as well as beach areas for those who just want to wade in.

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