THE pinkish ``serpent'' of stone looks out from its canyon perch. A red-tailed hawk circles nearby while swallows swoop beside it in their quest for insects. For some 2 million years, the serpent in the rock has lived above the roar of the Gunnison River, a half mile below, as it wore away granite and schists to carve a dark canyon - a canyon where the sun shines only a few hours a day in the depth of the gorge. Although the Grand Canyon is twice as deep, 10 times as long, and 35 times as wide, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one of North America's deepest and narrowest canyons, has its own charms that lure 285,000 visitors a year.
The Black Canyon gorge stretches for 100 miles along Colorado's western slope of the Rockies, west of Grand Junction and southeast of Denver. But its wildest and most spectacular gorge lies within 12 miles of the Colorado National Monument, another geological formation.
Today when we visit the canyon, we meet the serpent's gaze from viewpoints along the monument's south and north rim drives. From the park brochure, we discover that some of the world's oldest rocks form the salmon-colored serpent that stretches 2,000 feet up the Painted Wall.
The first Indians and later 16th-century Utes and white explorers had no geological explanation for this phenomenon, so they avoided the mysterious gorge, believing no human being could enter the Black Canyon and return alive.
A government railroad surveyor reinforced this myth in the 1880s, when he was lowered by rope a thousand feet into the canyon. Upon being pulled up, he declared, ``No one can go in there and live.''
Not until 1900 did anyone attempt to enter the gorge, and that attempt failed. The four surveyors who ventured there had to inch their way up sheer walls through a 1,500-foot chimney to the canyon rim to escape the impassable river below. In 1901 two surveyors portaged successfully through the gorge and even survived a dive into the river that swept them under a seemingly impassable, 60-foot dam of boulders. Despite their success, few ever raft the gorge, although intrepid fishermen scramble down the few precipitous paths of the canyon in their quest for trout. Experienced rock climbers occasionally spend two days and a night climbing the serpent's wall, the highest cliff in Colorado.
To this day Black Canyon still has much of that wild beauty that repelled so many previously. Each season at the Black Canyon has its own allure, not only for sightseers but also for campers, hikers, or cross-country skiers.
I have camped on the south rim in the late spring when the gambel oak leaves are sprouting and showy daisies carpet the ground. My campsite faced the snowcapped West Elk peaks, part of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, and the red canyon walls, and mesas of the north rim.
During the summer I have camped beneath gnarled junipers or pinon pines at the north rim's more primitive campground. Here mountain chickadees scurry along thousand-year-old juniper trunks, while ground squirrels scold shrilly in their search for pinon nuts. Arrowleaf balsam, ragwort, and groundsel (all pretty yellow flowers despite their names) bloom in the campground meadows, and only an occasional car or transcontinental jet trailing above disturbs the solitude of this less populated rim.
At night the constellation Orion tracks the sky above the serpent's wall, while on the mesas, coyotes, sounding like rowdy teen-agers, hunt for rabbits.
In autumn the rabbit brush blooms in golden splendor while the gambel oaks' leaves turn yellow, red, or burnt orange, only to tarnish brown as the temperatures dip.
In these three seasons I have hiked through the monument's high desert gardens of mountain mahogany, yucca, and prickly pear cactus, while the Gunnison roared dully from the gorge below. This land has changed little since the Utes trapped mule deer on the narrow canyon overlooks, or made juice from the serviceberries for their pemmican.
In winter, human and animal footprints mark the snowy trails to the canyon overlooks, and a few brown leaves still cling to the gambel oaks, limb deep in snow.
On the south rim the Park Service plows only two miles of rim road, leaving the other six miles for cross-country skiers. The north rim's gravel access road is inaccessible from late November until April. A cross-country ski track winds close enough to the canyon rim for a glimpse of river below. Snowy canyons, plains, and peaks serve as the skiers' backdrop.
After skiing the rim to a high viewpoint, I often picnic beneath a pinon near the canyon's edge and munch my sandwich while watching for the golden eagles that winter in the area. Returning toward evening, I have passed mule deer foraging for grass and porcupines chewing juniper bark.
In all seasons the serpent stares from its wall, oblivious to the passage of humans, who once feared but now applaud the spectacular canyon it guards.
If you go
For information contact Supervisor, 2250 Highway 50, Delta, CO 81416, or call (303) 874-7691; or Ranger District Office, 216 N. Colorado, Gunnison, CO 81230, or call (303) 641-0471. Or contact the Gunnison County Chamber of Commerce, 500 E. Tomichi Ave., Box 36, Gunnison, CO; (303) 641-1501.