A Winter's Tale

Man is only ever a visitor to the icy wilderness of Gunnison, Colorado

The stunning Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado, became the USA's 55th national park less than a year ago.

The stunning Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado, became the USA's 55th national park less than a year ago.

The entire canyon, which spreads beyond park boundaries, carves through 53 miles of protozoic crystalline rock, tapering from 2,000ft wide at the top to 38ft at the river.

Winter is an ideal time to visit this high, raw land. At the exposed top of the canyon, you can feel the wind and weather of the wild west blasting at you 1,000 miles inland from the Pacific. The solitude is total (as with most of the country's parks, that isn't the case in summer).

The snowbound months hardly restrict you in terms of activities: so steep are the canyon walls that there are no official hiking trails, you simply gawp from lookout points at the chasm, which in one spot is deeper than it is wide. And with the access road ploughed only as far as the visitor centre at Gunnison Point, onward travel by cross-country ski or snowshoe along the southern edge of the rim gives a unique feel for the land which America's most forbidding canyon divides.

From the top, it's easy to believe that a stream trickles along the bottom, but it's really a roaring torrent. White-water rafting here would be a grade six - unraftable to you, me and even those who specialise in riding rapids elsewhere along the Gunnison river. But not, apparently, to a 1901 engineering reconnaissance which bumbled down the river on a rubber mattress.

The irrigation tunnel which was then bored, nearly six miles through the rock, is the sum total of man's intrusion into this haven for black bear, eagles, bobcat and cougar.

But it was political will in the 1920s, not just invincible geology, that helped preserve the area. Legislation states that wilderness areas are "where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain". As welcomes go, it's right up there with passport control at JFK.

* The park's nearest towns are Montrose and Gunnison, which are within easy reach of Crested Butte and other ski resorts. Park amenities are closed in winter, as is the road to the north rim, through Grizzly Gulch. For more information, contact Wilderness Ways (01426 933530; www.wildernessways.com)

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