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Denver Area
Denver to Pueblo
Colorado Springs Area
Royal Gorge Route
Marshall Pass Area
Gunnison River
Uncompahgre River
Tennessee Pass Area
Eagle River
Colorado River
Grand Jct.- Green Riv.
Green Riv.- Provo
Provo- Salt Lake
USGS History



Gunnison River: Gunnison to Montrose

(U.S.G.S. Bulletin 707, 1922)

Gunnison Area

The railroad follows Tomichi Creek to Gunnison, the county seat of Gunnison County, which is at the junction of Tomichi Creek and Gunnison River. The broad tract of level land on which it stands affords an almost ideal site for a town, and Gunnison, which was founded in 1874, has now succeeded in spreading itself over so large a part of this tract that it should be known as the town of " magnificent distances." It is a railroad junction point of considerable activity, for a branch line extends from it to Crested Butte and Baldwin, in the coal fields to the north. Before the slump in the price of silver in 1893 there were two smelters here, and the town was a thriving supply point for a large mining district. Since then its business activities are almost entirely due to the fact that it is the division headquarters of the narrow-gage line and a railroad junction point. The town is the center of one of the best fishing regions of the State and the site of one of the State normal schools, and, according to some of its inhabitants, it has the finest climate and water in the world.

As both the character of a country and its scenery depend entirely upon the kind of rocks in it and upon their relations to one another it is well, perhaps, to outline briefly the essential features of the geology of this region before attempting to describe the valley of the Gunnison. The most striking element of the scenery along both lines of the Denver & Rio Grande Western is the very old granite and gneiss that are exposed in the Royal Gorge, the Eagle River canyon, and the canyon of Colorado River, on the main line, and in the Black Canyon and adjacent parts of the Gunnison Valley. These rocks, which are without true bedding, have been crushed and folded until their structure is generally very complex. After they were crumpled they were planed down by the action of the weather and the streams until their upper surface was fairly even and probably lay near sea level. The land sank somewhat irregularly, and on the smooth slopes of the granite were laid down sand and gravel, which later became sandstone and conglomerate. Upon these rocks other sediments, which became shale and limestone, were afterward deposited. Some of these rocks are of Cambrian age, and some are as late as Upper Cretaceous. These rocks then passed through many changes caused by uplift and erosion and probably during several epochs were planed down by the streams almost to sea level. The latest movement in the earth's crust has been one of elevation, which, lifted the region to its present position, many thousands of feet above the sea, where the streams are vigorously attacking the rocks and cutting broad valleys or deep canyons, the results of their action depending on the kind of rock they encounter. gs170fig45.gif (5479 bytes)A stream may at first cut down through relatively soft limestone and shale and may then encounter the massive granite, so that the top of the canyon may be broad and have gentle slopes (see fig. 45), whereas the bottom may be no wider than the stream that has cut it and may have practically vertical walls. The planing down of the granite has made the surface of the land adjacent to t e tops of most of the narrow canyons flat-in other words, the streams have cut trenches in mesas or plateaus.

In the Gunnison Valley another chapter has been written as an epi in the geologic history of the general region-a chapter receding events of a time, after the sedimentary rocks had been deposited, when the region was covered with lava flows or with material derived from them or from volcanic eruptions.

From the summary of the geologic history of the region just given the scenery below the town of Gunnison, even including that in the Black Canyon, may be more readily interpreted. The country for a few miles below the station at Gunnison must have been at some time long past flooded with lava. The volcanic rocks thus formed are now generally soft, but in places, as on the upland southwest of the station, they rise above the general level in great monuments or spires, making a very rough country. (See Pl. LXX, B.) The character of the volcanic rock-a breccia-which composes much of the surface where the slopes are smooth, may be seen in the cut at milepost 290.

Wherever the granite appears above the level of the streams they have cut into it narrow canyons, above which the slopes may be very gentle up to some horizontal bed of sandstone, which generally stands out as a mesa cap. Where the slopes are gentle and the valley is broad hay fields abound, but where the valley narrows down to a canyon the bottom can not be cultivated.

The first large canyon below Gunnison begins at a siding called Hierro (yay'rro; Denver 294.5 miles), where the top of the granite stands at track level. The top of the granite rises downstream, and within a short distance below the siding the train passes through a pretty little winding canyon, whose granite walls range in height from 100 to 150 feet. The scenery in this canyon is not grand and striking, like that in the Black Canyon, farther down, but many beautiful views may be obtained of the clear, sparkling river, the fringe of Willows and cottonwoods, and the gray canyon walls. The canyon ends at Elkhorn (Denver 297 miles), a resort devoted entirely to the followers of Izaak Walton. Below this place the canyon widens out, the granite decreases in height above the stream, and the slopes above the granite include horizontal beds of sandstone, so that they are made up of a number of mesas or terraces. Hay ranches abound in the broad valley, and opposite the village of Iola even the terrace formed by the granite about 50 feet above the bottom of the valley has been irrigated and yields flourishing crops.

A mile and a half below Iola another granite canyon begins, and in a short distance its walls rise to a height of about 150 feet. From the point of greatest height the walls decrease gradually and finally disappear near the mouth of Elk Creek, a small stream. that joins Gunnison River from the north. The granite, however, does not completely disappear but extends down to milepost 306, or 1 mile above Cebolla (say-bo'yah), where it passes below water level.

Cebolla, which is one of the most noted resorts on the river for, fishermen, is in a wide part of the valley on the north side of the river, at a mesa known as Tenderfoot Hill. The top of this mesa is 1,200 feet above the track at Cebolla. The granite does not remain below river level any great distance, for within a mile of Cebolla, it forms the walls of a narrow canyon, which, however, are not more than 100 feet high. The smoothness and regularity of the upper surface of the granite and the way in which it rises and falls with reference to river level make it comparatively easy for the traveler to understand how the Black Canyon has been cut. It is evident that at the time the river established its course the granite in neither of the small canyons so far described nor in Black Canyon was exposed, for the river was then flowing on the softer sedimentary rocks that overlay the granite. As the river cut deeper into its bed it uncovered the, granite, but it could not shift its course and thereby avoid the hard rock, so it had to keep at work laboriously cutting its way into the granite. Although the granite canyons about Cebolla are now shallow, they will become. deeper and deeper in course of time until the entire route from Gunnison to Cimarron may be one granite canyon as deep and as impressive as the " Black Canyon." It may be well to say that this great canyon will not be seen by the coming generation nor the generation after the next, nor even the one following that; but the geologist knows that unless conditions change such a canyon will be formed, although the time may be thousands or millions of years hence.

Below Cebolla the canyon is much the, same as it is above, that place, except that the slopes above the granite become greater and in places are composed of vast masses of volcanic breccia that weather into fantastic forms. Where the granite is above the level of the river the canyon is more or less rugged but where it is below the surface the valley is wide and the slopes are smooth and gentle.

Sapinero Area

Near milepost 313 the granite passes below the level of the river and remains concealed as far as the village of Sapinero (sah-penay'ro), which is a noted fishing resort and the junction of the branch railroad that runs southward 36 miles to Lake City. From the station at Sapinero the traveler, by looking back, may obtain an excellent view of a great cliff of volcanic breccia (see Pl. LXX, A), and by looking forward he may see the granite rising athwart the pathway of the stream; but even this hard rock has not proved to be an insuperable barrier to the stream, which has trenched it in Black Canyon seemingly as easily as if it had been soft shale.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Lake City branch follows the main line for a mile and then turns to the southeast (left) up Lake Fork. It was nearly to this point that Capt. Gunnison followed the river in 1853, but finding that the canyon below was apparently impassable, he turned to the south, then struck westward across the mesas to the Uncompahgre Valley, at the site of Montrose. The automobile roads also avoid the canyon. The main road divides at Sapinero, one branch following the route of Capt. Gunnison and rejoining the railroad at Cimarron (sim-ah-rrohn'), and the other climbing west of Sapinero to a bench on the slope about 500 feet above the station and then following this bench on the brink of the canyon for an air-line distance of over 6 miles. Next it climbs to the top of the Black Mesa and avoids the lower canyon by a long detour to the north. This road affords one of the most striking and picturesque drives in the State. At the point where it leaves the canyon it is fully 1,000 feet above the roaring stream, and, as shown in Plate LXXI A, the walls appear to be vertical. Gunnison River is still actively engaged in cutting its canyon deeper, as shown by the rapid current (see Pl. LXXI, C) and the roughness of the water as it rushes down the rocky bed.

Black Canyon is noted for its awe-inspiring beauty. Of the canyons which the traveler sees on the lines of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, the Royal Gorge easily holds first place, but the Black Canyon as a scenic feature is a close second. The form of this canyon, like that of the Royal Gorge, depends on the character of the granite or gneiss. Where the rock is massive the walls are unbroken and nearly vertical, but where the rock is banded and composed of layers of different hardness, as it is in most places, the walls may recede gradually and be very jagged and irregular. Some irregular walls are shown in Plate LXXII.

Curecanti Area

At the mouth of Lake Fork the canyon walls are about 200 feet high, but their height increases downstream, until at the siding of Curecanti they are 1,000 feet high. Every curve and angle in this distance presents a different aspect, and it is difficult to say which view is the finest. One of the most striking scenes is that of a pinnacle left standing at the mouth of Blue Creek, a small stream that joins the river from the south. This pinnacle has been named Curecanti Needle. It is nearly 1,000 feet high and is a striking object as seen from the railroad siding. (See Pl. LXXIII.)

The appearance of Black Canyon, like that of most features of the kind, depends largely upon the light and the condition of the atmosphere. When seen in bright sunlight, as it generally is, it presents a view that is bright and lively. The rocks of the walls are full of color, and the trees and shrubs add to the beauty of the scene. But in dark and stormy weather the canyon becomes forbidding; it loses its color and becomes terrible to look upon. It is at its best in the evening, when the purple shadows that begin to play behind each projecting buttress present a strong contrast to the yellow sunlight on the westward-facing walls. Later the high points alone are bathed in yellow light, and the canyon slumbers in a mantle of blue light, steely above but denser in the seemingly, unfathomable lower reaches.

Below Curecanti the canyon is even more wonderful. In general the walls are not so nearly vertical, but they increase rapidly in height until at a point 2 miles above the mouth of Cimarron Creek they are fully 2,500 feet high. The river, which is beautifully clear, becomes rougher as it descends, as shown in Plate LXXI, C, until it presents an almost continuous series of cascades.

Cimarron Area

A short distance above the mouth of Cimarron Creek the railroad crosses the river on a high bridge and there turns and runs up Cimarron Canyon, to the south, for this is as far as a railroad can be carried in Black Canyon without going entirely through the worst part of the canyon, and such a. course would entail an expense that no ordinary railroad could meet.

If the traveler were not satiated with canyons he would doubtless think that Cimarron Canyon is wonderful, but after traveling for 14 miles in the rocky depths of Black Canyon he longs for the free air and for the larger view which the hilltops alone can give, and the sight of the station of Cimarron nestling beneath the spreading branches of giant cottonwoods is therefore most welcome. From the station it is impossible to determine why the canyon has come to an end and why one can look out through the trees into open country beyond. This, change, like many others, is due to the geology, and it can be better understood by the traveler when he is at least part way up the long grade to Cerro Summit. At Cimarron the automobile road on the south side of the river joins the railroad, and together they climb to the summit on their way to Uncompahgre Valley.

Immediately after leaving Cimarron the traveler will see that, so far as the surface features are concerned, he is in an entirely different world. He has just passed through a region of the hardest rocks, where he could see little if any soil, but here he can see no rock, at least nothing that resembles the rocks of the canyon, though on closer examination he will see that the rock is the softest kind of shale-the Mancos shale. He may also notice that the contact between the rocks of the canyon and those of the plain is extremely abrupt, and if he could follow that contact be would find that the same beds are not in contact at all places. This variability in contact indicates that the rocks of the plain and those of the canyon are separated by a fault. In other words, the hard rocks of the canyon have been broken away from their fellows down below and lifted until they now stand actually higher than the shale, as shown in the figure. This fault has been traced for a long distance, and in all places the edges of the sedimentary rocks are in contact with the granite.

gs175fig46.gif (4298 bytes)

After leaving Cimarron the train begins its steep climb to the divide which separates the drainage of Cimarron Creek from that of Uncompahgre River. This grade, which is one of the steepest grades on the road, is 4 per cent, or 211 feet to the mile. In making this climb the traveler will notice that the hard rocks through which the Gunnison has cut its canyon form a large, high mesa, on the north (right), considerably higher than the summit over which the railroad passes. The shale was once probably at least as high as the granite, but it is so much softer that it has been worn - 11 ay until it now lies distinctly below the hard rocks. It would thus seem that Gunnison River has gone out of its way to cut its canyon through the, highest land and the hardest rocks in the region. This statement, however, represents merely the conditions as they appear today, but when Gunnison River first assumed this course it must have been flowing on the lowest land or it could not have remained there. At that time all this country probably stood at a much lower level and was nearly a plain, the hard rocks having been worn down as low as the soft rocks. Under such conditions the, river found it as easy to flow over the granite as over the shale, and so its course was not in any sense abnormal.

Cerro Summit Area

In making the climb to Cerro Summit the traveler will see on the south (left) the great mass of Tongue Mesa, which owes its preservation to a protecting cap of hard rock that was originally lava which came down from some of the numerous volcanoes in the San Juan Mountain , to the south, which are visible from the open valley near Montrose. The traveler is now approaching one of the most arid parts of Colorado, where water is the most valuable natural resource. In order to irrigate, a part of the great Uncompahgre Valley, which lies ahead, a long ditch has been dug to take water from far up on Cimarron Creek, carry it across Cerro Summit at a higher point than the railroad, and distribute it on the slopes to the west. Where this ditch crosses the summit it forks, and the right-hand branch, known as the Montrose and Cimarron ditch, passes under the railroad at the summit and is carried a long distance to the northwest to irrigate the broad terrace which the traveler will see later.

From Cerro Summit and the slopes beyond an extended view to the west may be obtained across the broad Uncompahgre Valley to the great Uncompahgre Plateau beyond. The ride down the slope is not particularly interesting, except as the traveler unfamiliar with the semiarid regions may see what it means to get water onto the land. The effect of irrigation is well illustrated by the verdant terrace which the traveler may see on the right at an altitude of at least 1,000 feet above the middle of the valley at Montrose. Where water is not available the surface is a desert, but where the land is supplied with all the water it needs, it will support a luxuriant vegetation.

For a long time private enterprise was engaged in irrigating small parts of the Uncompahgre Valley from such streams as Cimarron Creek and Uncompahgre River, but these were found to be entirely inadequate for the irrigation of the entire valley. It was then decided to tunnel through Vernal Mesa (the granite mesa on the right) and bring the waters of Gunnison River to the region. The attempt was made, but funds could not be obtained to complete the project. The Reclamation Service then took up the problem and a tunnel was started a mile below Cedar Creek and continued to the river in the almost inaccessible depths of Black Canyon, a distance of 6 miles. Work was begun in 1905, and the tunnel was formally opened by President Taft in 1909.  By this tunnel sufficient water to irrigate 150,000 acres was obtained.

From the west end of Gunnison tunnel the water is carried to Uncompahgre River by a canal 11 miles long. It is turned into the channel of the Uncompahgre at a point 9 miles above Montrose and is diverted lower down for projects on both the east and the west side of the valley.

At the end of 1920 water from the Gunnison tunnel was used in irrigating 65,000 acres of land which, before the completion of the tunnel, was a barren desert waste. The principal crops are alfalfa, oats, wheat, potatoes, apples, and sugar beets, listed in decreasing' order of the acreage cultivated. Small fruits, onions, sugar beets, apples, garden products, and potatoes, in the order named, gave, the largest returns per acre.

Montrose Area

After passing the Gunnison tunnel, which, unfortunately, is not visible, the train descends the sloping side of the, broad valley in a barren ravine, but at a siding called Fairview, half a mile beyond milepost 346, irrigated farms are spread out on both sides of the railroad. The crops that are growing here will, of course, depend upon the time of year in which the journey is made. If the traveler passes this place in midsummer he will see fine fields of oats and wheat, some corn, and plenty of potatoes, sugar beets, onions, and alfalfa. He will also see a few orchards, but this particular area is not largely devoted to fruit raising. The valley has been transformed, from a wilderness to a region of prosperous farms, and the secret of the change is only water.

In the journey down the long tangent to the middle, of the valley the most striking features of the landscape are the rugged peaks of the San Juan Mountains, which are visible to the south (left). These, mountains are the most rugged in the State. Most of the peaks are over 13,000 feet high, and many of them rise above 14,000 feet. The highest point in the range is Uncompahgre Peak, which has an altitude of 14,419 feet. The sawtooth top of this range is well shown in the profile visible from the train.

After passing through miles of the finest farms in the West the train reaches Ouray Junction, which is the point where this line joins the one from Ouray, Telluride, and Durango. Here the railroad turns at a right angle and proceeds a mile northward to the station in the growing young city of Montrose. This city is the distributing center and shipping point for a large district that is under high cultivation. Cereals, fruits, and vegetables, together with forage plants, grow here in abundance. Two miles south of Montrose was the home of Chief Ouray, for whom the peak north of Marshall Pass and the mining town in the San Juan Mountains were named. The main line and the branches of the railroad north of Montrose were changed to standard gage in the summer of 1906.

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