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Oct 08, 2020
COLORADO’S WESTERN SLOPE
-DAY 2- Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Welcome back for the second post of this new blog series! (A word to the wise, this post contains a LOT of photography, so you may want to break it up into more manageable chunks as your time allows!) :>)
This second day marks the first day trip out from Crawford State Park. Today’s destination is the exploration of the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison! And there is more to this area than first meets the eye! I always say that the semi-arid and desert areas of the country don't hit you over the head with their beauty and wildlife, like the high mountains or the ocean. But they have a unique beauty all their own, with amazing plants and animals that are specifically adapted by millions of years to live in these extreme places, and interconnected to each other to make life possible here. It's a place where you have to slow down and take your time to see the beauty that surrounds you. I hope you will enjoy spending some time here today, at one of the United States' newer National Parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison!
The day is beginning cool but sunny, with a few deer outside the camper, moving through the campground. I am headed out Black Canyon Road, a well maintained gravel road that leads to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Canyon became a National Monument back in 1933, but did not become a national park until 1999. Mornings are one of the best times of the day to "bird", so I try to be alert when out and about. Here are a few things I found on the way!
Black-billed Magpie, a fairly common western resident, out looking for some breakfast.
Say’s Phoebe, one of our little western flycatchers, enjoying the morning sun’s warming rays.
Classic Mule Deer doe
Mule Deer doe and fall fawn(s)
Hey! Wait for me!!
I am seeing only a few birds as I approach the canyon rim area- perhaps it is just the time of year. But gravel roads do not allow for stealth, and the birds are off and away before I can even lift my camera for photos or even identify them. (Mountain bluebird taking wing)
Their “safety zone” appears to be about the same distance I noted with the Sandhill Cranes up in Nebraska in March, though the small birds are much faster and more agile than the big birds. However, the sagebrush and grasses allow them to just drop down out of sight in an instant, and you are left to wonder what kind of bird it was! (There IS a Mountain Bluebird in this photo, centered atop a bush!) Except for the easily identified magpies and jays, size and body shape suggests them to be mostly bluebirds and some species of sparrow. Not seeing any deer or other mammals near the Canyon, and found no birds hanging out in the park’s north rim campground on my sweep through. May have to just content myself with physical scenery today, and search for wildlife later in the day…
I remember my mother taking us to see Royal Gorge as a kid, but seeing this amazing canyon, I am pretty sure I would remember if she had taken us here.
On the way into the area near the rim (more gravel road), the first impression is that it will be typical Chaparral scrub of sagebrush, grasses, and scrub.
However, as I soon discover, fall color abounds here.
The silence is all encompassing here, except for the river, which can be heard at quite a distance- even in early fall when the water is generally at its lowest. Must really be something in the spring! This will be the Gunnison River, formed 50 miles to the north near the town of Gunnison, Colorado, where the East River and the Taylor River flow down out of the mountains and merge. The Gunnison will later flow into the Colorado River at Grand Junction (which, by the way, is NOT named for the junction of the rivers that come together there, but because the Colorado River’s original name was “Grand River”!!), and its life-giving moisture with flow on through Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. (Interesting to look at photos from those places, and realize that some of this water is actually there!) And in the end, whatever dribble might be left over after multiple states’ human usage will eventually find its way to the Pacific Ocean.
(I have wondered just what kind of impact our Coronavirus will have for wildlife sightings, both this year and next year. Having far fewer people out and about this year, the animals have gotten used to having more of the planet all to themselves again. For many mammals and birds, frequent encounters with humans brings more familiarity and a greater tolerance level for our presence, so it would make sense if some are reverting back to a greater wariness of us as possible predators. On top of that, a whole generation has been raised this summer with very little exposure to humans, even in places like our national parks where they would usually expect to find us, so what this will mean over the next year or two will be interesting to see. Are you noting any changes this year? I would love to hear of your experiences!)
(Ok, back to life around the Canyon… This is truly an amazing place. The land is undulating hills to fairly flat near the canyon rims, and then…
For a little more "in depth" background information…
I try to imagine what early explorers would have thought, stumbling upon this Canyon. The barrier it creates is stunning, to say the least. I can see them just riding along on their horse, and suddenly (and I mean SUDDENLY) there is nothing! The canyon is 48 miles long, and its depth is 1,750’ to 2,700’ deep! At its narrowest spot in the bottom, the canyon is only 40’ wide. With such steep vertical walls, there are places in the canyon where it is almost impossible for sunlight to reach the bottom. In some spots, only 33 minutes a day! Being in constant shadowed darkness earned it the name “Black Canyon of the Gunnison.” It is definitely not a place for sleep walking! I can only hope that my photos will do some justice to this amazing natural wonder and the area that surrounds it!
So, why has the river cut such a gorge in this place?
Never underestimate the relentless power of water. The Gunnison River drops an average of 95’ per mile through this canyon. At the area of its greatest drop (Chasm View), this river drops 240’ per mile! According to Wikipedia, that makes it the 5th steepest mountain descent in North America. (To compare, the Colorado River cuts its way through the Grand Canyon with only an average drop of 7.5’ per mile!) Add to that, the rock cutting power from annual spring snow melt plus 2 million years of time (geologists’ estimation of when the Gunnison River began cutting the gorge), and you get the canyon that lies before you!
It’s a LONG way down!
And this is with a 300mm Canon long lens looking straight down!
Time for a wee bit of Science…
“Time” is truly a hard concept for us humans to grasp. Geologic history says that 1.7 BILLION years ago (our lifespan averages only 1 MILLIONTH of that time!), the rock you see was all molten. Magma was squeezed up into the existing rock, melting it. As it slowly cooled, igneous rock with large crystals formed. That is the rock that now lines the gorge. Geologists believe that millions of years later, a more liquid magma containing a small amount of water, was squeezed upward again, forcing its way into the cracks around the crystals. As this again slowly cooled, it formed the lighter colored stripes, called pegmatite, that you now see on the walls of the canyon. Looking at these striations that Nature left in rock surfaces made me think that maybe that could have been the first inspiration for early petroglyphs!
Vertical dark streaking down the canyon walls is caused by bacterial conditions from water dripping down over iron and manganese oxides.
Sometimes the only way you can see what the rock is doing- what sticks out, and what recesses back in- is by studying at the shadows. Sometimes I was looking a canyon wall, only to suddenly realize a large wall was jutting out in front of another face, as in the photo above. There is a sheet of rock that juts out from the right, and forces the river to flow behind it! Color of the rock does not always help you see the perspective.
Now, a little more info about the struggle for life at the top…
Life in this environment is not easy. Surface water is scarce, so plants have a different ways of coping with scarcity. And the native plants found there are often how animals cope with water needs for survival.
Where Sagebrush meets the tree line.
Sagebrush is laden with a plant oil that makes it inedible for cattle (undoubtedly the reason so much of it has been removed from its habitat). This oil creates the interesting smell when you crush a few leaves between your fingers. For those species that can digest it, it is as nutritious as alfalfa, with 12 times as much fat! Many native species depend and thrive on it. It is a very important food source, especially in winter, for large mammals such as mule deer, and is the ecological foundation for semi-arid grassland environments. Loss of sagebrush country means a loss of biodiversity and the death of many animal species who have evolved over millions of years to specifically depend on this particular plant habitat.
Tree Life on the edge…
The north edge of the Canyon is rimmed with Utah juniper and pinyon pines. Most grow fairly low to the ground, but some can reach 30’ high.
I had to back up quite a ways to get this whole tree in the shot!
Both species of Utah juniper and pinyon pine are long lived, despite (or because of?) their tough environment. Junipers, once up and growing, cling tenaciously to life along the canyon rim. Despite harsh weather, competition from other plants, and hungry wildlife, it can tolerate punishing heat, bitter winds, and prolonged drought. It has the unique ability when conditions are bad enough, to cut off all nutrients to certain limbs, effectively killing part of itself, so that other parts can continue to live on with what meager nutrients and water are available. I find this an amazing survival strategy!
This cutting off growth to certain areas gives many of these trees an almost bonsai-quality.
These two Junipers ended up bending over to meet each other, making a natural bower on the edge of the world.
A juniper “berry” is actually the female seed cone for the junipers. Though seed bearing begins when the bush is 10-20 years old, significant seed cone production does not start until the bush/tree is 50-70 years old! And they can continue to produce these berries when over 1,000 years old! So when you see a juniper laden with berries, pause for just a moment to consider just how old this plant is (And whether you will be just coming to true maturity when you are their age!)
These “berries” are eaten by a wide variety of wildlife, including a large range of bird species, as well as various mammals such as rabbits, foxes, coyotes - providing an important winter food source. (And let’s not forget the ripple effect for the diurnal and nocturnal raptors [hawks, eagles, and owls] that hunt the rabbits and rodents of the rim country!) And even more species use the juniper trees for nesting and cover. Bighorn sheep will shelter in their shade during the blazing heat of summer, and deer and elk will use their dense canopies for shelter during severe winter weather. Even pronghorns, who usually prefer the open sagebrush country will occasionally pass through. Plus, let’s not forget the various rodents and small mammals, as well as reptiles and amphibians, that also utilize the understory and cavities of these trees. Native Americans used juniper berries in both food dishes and for their medicinal properties.
The pinyon pine has a large range, growing westward from Texas to the Pacific Ocean, and southward from Montana to Mexico.
Getting a tough start!
You will find the pinyon pine at elevations between 5,000’ – 9,000’. There are pinyons here that are almost 800 years old, some of the oldest in the U.S.! Pines are ancient tree forms, with fossil evidence from the Mesozoic Era, 180 MILLION years ago. And pinyon pines split off to evolve approximately 30 million years ago.
Both the Williamson’s and the Red-naped Sapsuckers are found in this area, so one or the other is probably responsible for this sticky situation!
(For those of you who don't know, Sapsucker woodpeckers drill into the tree, and in response, the tree begins to ooze sweet sap which the woodpeckers then drink.)
Like the bristlecone pine, trees in this area tend to grow twisted due to living conditions. When the tree dies, the snags left behind make for some truly beautiful natural sculptures (while still providing homes, food, and perches, and human enjoyment long after death. Nature wastes nothing!)
I like the way the trunk's bark striations match the rock striation lines.
This made me think of a dragon's head!
I see a Triceratops head. What do you see?
I just love these twisted sentinels!
Giant from the side. This was one great tree!
Reaching toward this sky like a dancer, and in gratitude...
Someone recently asked me what the difference is between a cedar and a juniper. In doing a little research, I discovered that true cedars are originally a tree of the old world, ie the Lebanon, Atlas, and Cyprus cedars. (Any true cedars we have here are planted from those species as ornamentals.) In North America, we tend to use the words interchangeably, however even the trees we call cedars, like the Eastern Red Cedar, are actually junipers. It is more involved than that, but that is basically it.
Though I did not see any raptors near the Canyon’s edges this time, peregrine falcons do nest within the canyon.
Lunch was a perch on some rocks overlooking the canyon, under a cloudy sky that actually spat a few drops of rain. After that, it cleared up and continued into a sunny afternoon.
So, that was my day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison! I will end this narrative here, and just finish up with some other miscellaneous photos from the Canyon and some critters seen on the way back to the campground.
Please let me know if you are enjoying these blog postings. They take quite a bit of time to put together, so I would like to know that it is adding something special to your day!
And if you ARE enjoying these posts, please do remember to share with YOUR social media people through the links at the top! This will help me grow my readership!
Next time: A Day's Trip to Aspen and Marble, Colorado! (Spoiler alert- You'll need sunglasses to protect yourself from all the fall beauty of the high mountains!)
PS- If you would still like some more views, here are some miscellaneous photos from various spots along the rim, plus wildlife photos from along the way back to the camper!
A "Few" Rock Shots
This is called the "Three Islands" formation
Love the pegmatite walls!
Steep and Craggy! And you can follow the flow of the Pegmatite up each level.
Canyon View Shots
Just a little more fall color...
Some views of the river in autumn...
Remember, the depth of the Canyon is over 2,000 feet, so some of these boulders are probably as big as your house!
Late day Wildlife on the way back to the camper...
Mule Deer doe getting much deserved rest from raising the twins to their first winter!
Well done, Mom!
One fall twin...
The second twin...
Perched Red-tailed Hawk
Distant Golden Eagle
Bald Eagle (not elegant, but all I could get!)
Finally! The Mountain Bluebirds are beginning to cooperate!
Truly, I don't even remember taking this shot, but I love the perch!
Mountain Bluebird, perched on farm fence.
Black-billed Magpies in the farm yard...
Wild Turkey hide-and-seek?
Misc Funny Odds-and-Ends to finish the day!
Loved the play of light from the clouds across the mountains.
Always on the run!
The purpose of this move was...?
"I'm ready for my closeup..."
Several times this summer, I have seen these enormous "anvil" shaped clouds.
Stopped on the roadside to listen for birds, and what I heard was all this bellowing and grunting. 5 black bulls were all trudging across the field, making all this racket! Not being aggressive with each other in any way, but behaving very strangely. Bringing up the rear was this very interesting looking bull, so naturally I took a few pictures! :>)
Irrigation wheel, head-on
How the west was really won. Water to irrigate is what keeps the western states alive and producing in a place not designed by natural forces. Irrigation wheel from the side.
Another strange sight while driving! How (and why) they got this caboose way up on this mountain, with no train tracks for many miles, remains a mystery!
WHAT will people think of next?? (This appears to be a real airplane propeller.)
And, last, but not least....
A beautiful sunset to end a beautiful day! Sunset over the Crawford State Park Reservoir.
Don't forget, next up: A Day's Trip to Aspen and Marble, Colorado! (Spoiler alert- You'll need sunglasses to protect yourself from all the glorious fall beauty of the high mountains!)
Stay Safe, Everyone!
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