You know the old saying, time flies when you're having fun.
Exactly three months and three weeks ago, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Anthropology and Ancient Greek and Roman Studies. The past four years came and went in what seems like the blink of an eye. Since then, I've moved to Colorado, started a new job, and started a new chapter of my life. For the first time since I can remember, there are no assignments looming ominously over my head, I'm living in complete solitude, and seeing years of hard work paying off.
My official title is "Archaeology Technician" in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and I am lucky to both live and work within the park boundary. I spend most of my work days in the field, assessing old sites or surveying for new ones and most of my weekends hiking or exploring the different areas of Colorado. I never in my wildest dreams would have guessed I'd be working for the government, let alone living in a National Park. And yet, here I am, and I'm quite happy with my choices thus far.
Most people have never heard of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, let alone know where it is, but I believe it's one of the National Parks' best kept secrets. With some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, the fifth steepest river gradient mountain descent in the world, and as the deepest, steepest, and narrowest canyon in the United States, the Black Canyon is any archaeologist or geologist's dream. It's somewhat unfathomable to perceive, with your eyes questioning the dimensionality of it when staring into its depths. At it's deepest point, it's about twice the height of the Empire State Building, and it certainly looks it.
About The Canyon
The canyon both terrifies me and intrigues me deeply. I have never visited let alone lived in a place as visibly tumultuous and rugged. There's something awe-inducing and mystifying about the space; it feels magical. I find myself frequently lost in thought while staring into its depths.
With exposed rocks over two billion years old, there is no doubt that the Black Canyon is a special place. The painted wall stands 2,250 feet deep—the tallest vertical cliff in Colorado and only 750 feet shy of El Capitan in Yosemite—and features Pegmatite "dragons" forging their way through the Gneiss and Schist rock wall. Much of the rock formations in the park are metamorphic or igneous, as the area was marked by two super volcanoes directly north and south of where the Canyon stands today, in the San Juan and West Elk mountain ranges. Due to the uplift and volcanism during the Tertiary period, the runoff from these highland areas formed what would become the Gunnison River, which likely formed between 10-15 million years ago. Since the water had nowhere to go but downslope, it slowly cut through the thick, dense, impenetrable volcanic debris and rock formations over time (at about one inch per every hundred years), forming the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. When we look into the Canyon, we're seeing this geologic timescale represented in the rock, with each layer going deeper and deeper into the Earth.
Life in the Canyon
Beyond just the geological magnificence that is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we're also lucky enough to see an interesting timeline of life itself. With Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils scattered throughout the park and into the Curecanti Recreation Area (our partner park), we get a glimpse into the ancient world of dinosaurs, plants, and invertebrates. There's a rich history with Native American tribes living on the land as well, with ancestors of the modern Ute peoples occupying the land for centuries. We often find evidence of occupation in the form of lithics, rock formations like hunting blinds or hearths, and even some rock art. These sites date from 700 years before the present (B.P.) to upwards of 15,000 B.P. (just from what I've seen). The land currently occupied by the National Park was originally utilized, appreciated, and inhabited by American Indian* tribes. In the 1700s, however, Spanish expeditions bypassed the canyon, and in 1853, John Gunnison explored the area. Based on my research, it is unclear when exactly the ancestors of the Ute Indians were pushed off their land, but it is likely around that time period.
About Indigenous Terminology
The terminology used to discuss Native Americans differs based on tribal preference. When discussing Indigenous populations, it's important to consider your local tribe's name and what terms they use (i.e. "Native American," "American Indian," "Indigenous Tribe," etc.). The Ute Indian tribe uses the term "American Indian," so that is the terminology I utilize in this post.
The modern history of the canyon is riddled with exploration, attempts at conquering the land via railroad, and finally monetization of the space. The white man came in and upon realizing that the space was unconquerable, chose to gain profit instead of surrender to the Canyon. It is yet another tale of conquest and conquer. Thankfully for us, the modern space is indeed protected by passionate rangers, dedicated ecologists, hard-working archaeologists, and many others who want the land to be preserved for future generations to see.
As I have alluded to, it is important to recognize the problems with the National Parks, which—while wonderful in their efforts to protect and preserve Native plants, beautiful places, and the natural world as a whole—have a complicated and problematic history with local Indigenous tribes. Although we don't know the exact timeline or reasons for the Ute peoples to leave their settlements in and around the Canyon, many other parks forced Indigenous people out through violence and genocide. These parks denied Indigenous peoples their rights as human beings and created long-term conflict and violence against them, stealing their land and calling them lesser. For example, the establishment of Yosemite in the 1800s involved a bloody war against the Miwok people, evicting them from their land and asserting their lack of rights. This is a common theme in the creation of the National Parks, and modern America continues to ignore the problem, despite meager attempts by the current administration.
As an archaeologist, I have incredibly conflicting feelings about working for such a historically corrupt system, and, honestly, I am not sure if I will be returning to the National Park Service after this season. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has proven to me that, despite the motivated and dedicated people looking to better the system as a whole, the trickle down effect from administrators fails to provide a fresh perspective on an outdated system. I am ashamed at the lack of tribal connections or consultations that occur in the park, and I am saddened to see a general lack of acknowledgement of the Native American history on the land anywhere in the park. A large part of the anthropological and archaeological training I received at UC Berkeley involved working with Indigenous community partners to better the divide between the discipline and their ancestors, and the N.P.S. clearly has not gotten that memo. My dream is to be a part of the change and not a part of the problem, and I fear that it is improbable that the Park Service will improve their system any time soon. Regardless, with more people aware of this reality and motivated to promote partnerships and repair the fraught history, maybe some day the Park Services will do better.
Despite all of the problems with the Parks, it is undeniable that the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a beautiful place and worthwhile to visit. I love working in such a gorgeous location, and I'm lucky to spend most of my day outside learning about the space and appreciating it. Administrative issues aside, I love my job, and I love this park. I highly encourage everyone to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and take in the scenery if you are able. You certainly won't regret it!
Reminders for Visitors
If you plan on visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (as you should!), here are some general tips and tricks to make your experience as amazing as possible:
Leave No Trace: anything you bring into the park should leave with you when you exit the park or be placed in a designated trash bin.
Plan ahead: make sure you have all of your gear, water, and snacks ready ahead of time, as there are limited facilities in the park, and temperatures can be extremely hot
Wear sunscreen: at such a high altitude and with few shaded areas, make sure you are applying and reapplying sunscreen regularly. I recommend wearing a hat and long-sleeved sun shirt to avoid burns.
Be Bear Aware: Black bears are present in the Black Canyon, and if you plan on hiking, be certain not to have any food left out for the bears to access. We have designated bear-proof food lockers, trash cans, and recycling bins. Black bears are more afraid of you than you are of them, but that doesn't mean that you should invade their space. Remember, they were here long before us.
Stay on the trails: ecologists, biologists, and trail crew work hard to keep the park in its natural state, so please be respectful of the space and stay on the trails when you hike. Unless you are doing a wilderness route, it's vital to avoid going off trail and ensure that you do not trample vegetation or disturb wildlife.
Only do an inner canyon route if you are in prime shape: the inner canyon routes are wilderness routes, meaning that there is no designated trail to follow. These routes are difficult and exhausting, with a steep descent bringing you down to the river that you must then ascend in order to return to the park road and leave for Montrose. These routes are not for the faint of heart, and if you are dumb enough to want to do one, make sure you have ample snacks and water to get you down and back.
Talk to a ranger: The rangers here are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the park, and they are here to answer your questions! Just remember to be kind and courteous, as they are just people too :)