The Black Canyon is 2,000 feet deep and carved from water erosion over the last two million years. The gorge depth is between 1,800 and 2,660 feet over the length of 53 miles. The Black Canyon National Park consists of 12 miles of canyon length, and is accesable from Highway 50 on the South and Highway 92 on the north. The Black Canyon National Park started it’s life as the Black Canyon National Monument on March 2, 1933 through a proclamation by President Herbert Hoover.
In exploring the area, Ferdinand Hayden, during his expedition of 1873-74, found that the canyon blocked their travels to the west. The resulting Hayden survey pronounced the region too rugged for a transcontinental rail line. The Gunnison survey on 1853 produced the same conclusion. William Jackson Palmer, owner of the Rio Grande Railroad believed that the Black Canyon could be conquered, and launched a survey in 1881 through the deep gorge. Crews of up to 1,000 men worked on the project, with the first passenger trip being made on August 13, 1882 from Gunnison to Cimarron. The tracks moved up from Cimarron over Cerro Summit and into the Uncompahgre Valley.
The Gunnison Tunnel:
With settlement growth in the 1880’s, it became clear that water was the prime mover of agriculture in the Uncompahgre Valley. The demand for food products to support the mining towns of the San Juan Mountains was the driver for agricultural development in the Valley. Early settlers formed canal companies, with the Loutsenhizer Ditch being dug in 1882. The following year saw the opening of the Montrose and Delta Canal. Early development supported 475 miles of canals, bringing water to both farmers and local communities. It was estimated that the Valley contained 185,000 acres of crop land. The early canals were limited in supplying water to 10,000 acres at high demand in the summer months. The need for additional water fueled discussion to bring increased water resources to the land, resulting in increased crop production and stable water resources for community development.
The original idea of diverting Gunnison River water into the Uncompahgre Valley is credited to F. C. Luzon of Montrose. Through Luzon’s efforts Meade Hammond of the Colorado Legislature secured $25,000 for survey and site work on the tunnel project in 1901. The foal of the Federal Reclamation Act of 1902 was to reclaim land in 16 states from the great plains to the far western regions through irrigation. In 1903 the Uncompahgre Project was authorized with the goal of completing the tunnel to bring Gunnison River water into the Valley.
On September 23, 1909, President William Howard Taft presided over the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel. When completed, the Gunnison Tunnel was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world. Water diverted from the river was eventually flow through 575 miles of canals to irrigate farms and ranches. Domestic water was supplied for the cities of Montrose, Olathe, and Delta. From 1909 to 1932, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association too over the operation of the water system. Revenues from water sales were used to repay the federal government for the costs of original construction and improvements to the water system. Today the water users association continues to provide the agriculture water that supports farming in the Uncompahgre Valley.
The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area:
Below the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. Consisting of 62,000 acres and 22 miles of the Gunnison River, additional protections are provided for plants and animals of the area. Recreational uses include: trout finshing, hiking, mountain biking, camping, horeseback riding, limited off highway vehicle use, whitewater and flat water boating, and hunting for big game, upland birds & water fowl. At the center of the Gunnison Gorge NCA is the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area. The Wilderness Area consists of 14 miles of river. The boundry starts at the border of the Black Canyon National Park and extends down stream to one mile below the confluence of the Smith Fork and the main branch of the Gunnison River. Because of the nature of the Wilderness Area, access by motorized vehicles is prohibited.