Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The canyon has been a mighty barrier to humans. Only its rims, never the gorge, show evidence of human occupation — not even by Ute Indians living in the area since written history began.




While the people of the Ute bands knew of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it was an obscure geographic feature to explorers for hundreds of years. The Spanish were the first Europeans to canvas western Colorado with two expeditions, one led by Juan Rivera in 1765, and the other by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776. Both were looking for passage to the California coast, and both passed by the canyon.


Fur trappers of the early 1800s undoubtedly knew of the canyon in their search for beaver pelts. They left no written record of the canyon, though, probably because they couldn't, in fact, read or write.


By the middle of the century, exploration of the American west had captured the nation's attention. In turn expeditions came to the Black Canyon searching for railroad passageways, mineral wealth, or in a quest for water. Eventually explorers came to see the canyon, not for commercial wealth, but for the renewal and recreation that it offered.


Today, you can walk in the footsteps of some of these hardy and inquisitive forebearers. The canyon still offers a rugged and demanding experience, even as it did more than a hundred of years ago.




As the mining boom declined, ranching took on greater significance in Cimarron history. Both sheep and cattle were run in the open lands of the Cimarron Valley and surrounding hills. Cimarron became a major livestock shipping center, with corrals covering over 7500 square feet adjacent to the railroad siding. Local ranchers would typically drive their stock to Cimarron and timed their arrival to allow immediate loading of animals; there were no feeding facilities at the corrals here. Shipment of livestock was concentrated in the spring and fall, with animals being moved either to market (usually Kansas City), a winter range in the desert areas around Grand Junction, Colorado, or into Utah.




As technology quickly changed, the narrow gauge railroad became a thing of the past. Improved highways and large trucks gradually replaced the railroad, and the corrals and rail yards of Cimarron grew empty. In 1949, a scenic excursion train ran from Gunnison to Cimarron. This was the last train to travel the tracks through the Black Canyon, and shortly thereafter the rails, ties, and corrals were removed. The depot, roundhouse, saloons, ice plant, and individual homes have also disappeared from the old Cimarron townsite.


Today, the National Park Service maintains a visitor center, campground and picnic area where the railroad town of Cimarron once existed. An outdoor exhibit with loading corrals and stock cars helps visitors understand the importance of the railroad history to Cimarron's ranching community and the entire western slope.