Sunday Classic / Be Prepared For Colorado’s Black Canyon

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Colorado’s Black Canyon doesn’t play.

My buddy John is getting even more fidgety than usual. He’s whipped himself into a froth as I go over the pack-list. Sleeping bag, pad, headlamp, tecnu…” “Water?”, he asked. “No, I told you, filter bottle.” “Cliff Bars, peanut butter, whisky…” “So this trail”, he starts again, “eight hundred and some vertical feet and the road, the guy said four wheel drive, I don’t think the Subaru has a skid plate. “What’s your deal?”, I ask. “No, well, ok, it just sounds like a lot, we are fifty you know, my back’s not good.” He knows it’s pointless, there’s no talking me out of it. “You’re right”, I answer, “let’s wait until we’re sixty, it’ll be much easier then.”

All this noise isn’t for nothing. Colorado’s Black Canyon doesn’t play. You’re not exactly taking your life in your hands fishing down there but bad things can happen. You need a plan because the canyon is not forgiving of mistakes. On the other hand, there are few places in the lower forty-eight that offer the scenery, the quality fishing and the natural experience of the Black Canyon and the Gunnison river. It’s not for everybody and it does get more traffic than you would expect. I’m not trying to add to the pressure but if you are going to go, you should be prepared. Here’s what I learned on my trip.

What to expect

For the record, fifty is not too old. You need to be in good shape for hiking but if your health is good and you don’t have breathing or heart issues don’t let age stop you. I live at sea level and I did fine with a pack, tent, food and fishing gear.

Most folks do it as a day trip but it’s a great trip to camp. You expend a lot of time and energy getting into and out of the canyon. It’s nice to stay at least one night. The extra weight of the camping gear makes it a tough call but I’m glad we did it. Just go light. Seriously light! Eat cold food before you carry a stove and fuel. If you have an ultralite tent that’s great, otherwise you might sleep under the stars. Camp sites are first come first serve. Get an early start.

John Fishing the Canyon

The elements are brutal. It’s dry and sun baked and you will be too if you’re not careful. You have to be serious about hydration. My buddy Andrew Grillos who has guided the canyon for years told me has drunk two and a half gallons of water in a day and still been dehydrated. A filter pump and a gallon jug is a good idea. Filter bottles work great but you will need plenty of water for the hike in and out when you’re away from the river. An extra filter bottle is a good idea anyway. I fell and broke the filter in mine. We got by ok sharing on the river but the hike out with one bottle was rough. Sun screen and a buff are a must. It’s hot as hell and the black rock heats up like a wood stove. Leave the waders at home.

The flora is out to kill you. I have seriously never seen so much poison ivy in my life. It’s literally everywhere. From ground cover to four foot high bushes. You can not avoid it, you have to prepare for it. Long pants and sleeves are a start but not enough. Tecnu is a life saver. You can get it from Walgreen. If your not familiar with it, it’s a powerful soap made to clean poison ivy oils. It works wonders. Scrub yourself and your clothes at least once a day.

The fauna isn’t that friendly either. There are lots of snakes, pygmy rattlers among them and bark scorpions too. Both enjoy a nice sleeping bag or a comfy pair of wading boots. Leave your bag rolled up until you’re ready for it and check your boots.

Some of the terrain is fairly tough. Hiking boots are important, if you’re carrying a pack. Clip you wading boots to your pack and wear something with good tread and ankle support.

Access is something you need to spend some time thinking about. There are a lot of trails into the canyon but they are not created equal. Some are short but steep. Some are clearly marked and others less so. Some are just plain crazy, especially the ones that lead to the National Park area, the first fourteen miles below the dam. Warner is about 5 miles long and drops 3000 feet. SOB is 2 miles and drops about 2000 feet. The roads that access the trail heads vary in condition. We made it down the jeep trail in the Subaru but it was sketchy and I’m really good at rock crawling. For the record, everyone looked at us like we were crazy and a few laughed to our faces. When it rains the roads are mud pits and even lifted four wheel drive vehicles struggle. The roads dry quickly but if it rains you may spend an extra day. Do your homework and choose the trail that’s right for you.

The canyon can be a tough place to get around and the wading can be down right dangerous in spots. I’ve heard of folks getting hurt pretty bad down there. Your best bet is to be really careful but it’s a good idea to have a plan B for when things go wrong. A few simple first aid supplies are a good idea. And remember, don’t crack your head and drown. It looks like a wild and totally natural free stone but this section of the Gunny is a tail water. It’s generally not too hard to find a tail out where you can cross the river but higher flows can make some sections tricky. Don’t get caught off guard by unexpected water release.

A lot of folks float the canyon and I hear it’s awesome but I haven’t done it. I do know that there is some challenging white water and I would only do it with folks who know the river. In a lot of ways, I understand, it’s easier than a foot trip. You can hire pack mules to carry the gear down and float out, which means you can take as much beer as you like and that would be pretty nice. I’d like to try it next time.

Whether you’re wading or floating the most important thing to remember is that you are using a precious resource that we all share. Treat it with respect! The Black Canyon is the place to bring your best “leave no trace” ethic. If you pack it in you pack it out and that includes your poo. Take some Wag Bags. Check the current regulations and take burn bans seriously. Leave your camp site more natural than you found it. We only have one Black Canyon, let’s keep it nice.

Local Knowledge

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of local knowledge. I have often said that the secret to my success as an angler is my incredibly knowledgable group of friends. When you’re traveling to fish, a friendly local is an ace in the hole. With that in mind here are some friendly folks in the area who can help you out.

Potamoi Anglers in Montrose is a great fly shop and Devan, who runs it is a great guy who knows the river and will give you good info. The number is 970-249-8868

If you want someone to put together a trip for you, no one knows more about the Gunny than Mort at Gunnison River Pro. He’s been floating the river since 1990 and runs a great logistics company. For soup to nuts talk to Mort at 970-318-2509 or check out

If you just need pack animals you’d be hard pressed to find a more solid dude than Larry Franks. Larry is an honest to God Colorado cowboy and a great guy. He helped me out of a jam once out of the goodness of his heart. That’s the best thing I can say about a fellow. His number is 970-323-0115

I got a lot of great info for this trip from my good friend Andrew Grillos Andrew is a man of many talents and in addition to being an awesome fishing guide and Idylwild Tyer he’s an expert lizard wrangler. If the fishing is slow, try this!

With a good plan there’s no reason you can’t have a great trip to the Black Canyon. Just do your homework and plan the trip that’s right for you. Get a little help along the way, drink plenty of water and wash with Tecnu and wear out some trout!

Here’s a helpful site with info on rules and regulations.

Mi Casa

My Personal Pack List

Yours may be different but here are a few things I consider essential for a trip like this.


Sleeping pad
I have the thickest inflatable thermarest they make. I would carry it if it were twice as heavy.

A light weight down sleeping bag

Hiking boots

Head lamp or flash light

Stocking hat
to sleep in.

Wag Bags.
It’s a pack out your poo situation.

Buff and sun screen

Rain coat

First aid kit

5 hour energy
For the hike out.

Caffeinated cliff bars

Coffee and Whisky
The 2 items I don’t go anywhere without. If we hadn’t named the site Gink and Gasoline it would have been called Coffee and Whisky.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Be Prepared For Colorado’s Black Canyon

  1. One of my top 5 favorite places to fish and probably more like #2 or #3. Next time try some of those more remote trails, especially those in the National Park section. They are pretty rough but the scenery and solitude at the end is worth it. Thanks for a post reminding me of some great past trips.

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