BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON
Not all those who wander are lost.J R R Tolkien
About the Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a deep, dark, and narrow canyon in western Colorado carved through the rock by the Gunnison River. There are a dozen amazing and easily accessible viewpoints on the South Rim Drive of the dramatic Painted Wall cliff and other incredible drops. The North Rim views are equally impressive, although a little less accessible. It is one of four wonderful National Parks in Colorado, and by far the least visited, which made our visit even more enjoyable not dealing with big crowds.
Check out the view of the Painted Wall Overlook. It’s a long way down!
Live it up!
Best Things to do in the Park
- Drive the 7-mile South Rim Road and visit each of the overlook areas
- Go stargazing in a designated Dark Sky Park. The best time is during the new moon phase
- Drive down the steep East Portal Road to get to the Gunnison River
- Make the 3-mile round trip hike to Exclamation Point for the best views of the canyon
- Drive around to the North Rim Road to see the canyon from a different viewpoint
- Hike one of the short trails on the South Rim like the Painted Wall Overlook
We enjoyed our day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We drove the South Rim Scenic Drive, and Bev did her magic at each overlook. The Painted Wall Overlook was our favorite. We then went down the steep (use low gear) East Portal Road to the Gunnison River and admired the canyon from below.
Size of Park
The Black Canyon gets its name because some parts of the gorge receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in Colorado and is home to a deep and narrow gorge carved by the Gunnison River. Most tourists come to this park for rock climbing, cross-country skiing, backpacking, hiking, and kayaking, but you can also enjoy it by driving through and stopping at the overlooks.
The park acquired its name, ‘Black Canyon’ because some parts of the canyon receive only 30 minutes of sunlight daily. Even during the day, these parts of the park look black and spooky. The park is also famous for being home to some of the world’s oldest exposed rocks, located at the bottom of the canyon, that date back to the Precambrian era.
The Black Canyon is Colorado’s hidden gem and has a lot to offer for adventure seekers. The park also has an abundance of wildlife, including elk, mule deer, and golden eagles. Unfortunately, the state of Colorado has so much to offer that the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park often gets overlooked. As a result, not many people visit it, and the park usually has a more peaceful environment compared to some of the other national parks.
Best hiking trails
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has some of the best hiking trails in Colorado. However, most of the trails in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park pass by steep drop-offs and are more suitable for adults than young hikers or children.
This is a relatively easy hike that is 1 to 2 hours long. Starting at the Warner Point Nature Trail, Uplands Trail barely has any elevation and is children-friendly. The trail also links the Rim Rock Trail to the Oak Flat Loop Trail.
The best time to hike on Uplands Trail is in the early morning. You will be able to see some of the most impeccable views the park offers from this trail.
The 1.5 miles long Gunnison Route is challenging and can take up to 6 hours to complete. Due to its vertical drop of 1,800 feet, only experienced hikers embark on this journey. It takes two hours to get down to the bottom of the canyon and a bit longer to get back up depending on your skill level. However, at the end of this seemingly impossible hike, you will realize it is worth all the effort. Once at the bottom, you can walk along the river and watch fly-fishermen/women casting as they wade the water.
The best time for hiking on the Gunnison Route is from mid-April to late October. You will need a Wilderness Use Permit to hike this route, so be sure to check in at the visitor’s center.
Rim Rock Nature Trail
The Rim Rock Nature Trail is 2 miles long and is moderate difficult. Passing through the South Rim of the canyon, the trail showcases some of the most epic views in Gunnison National Park, along with unique varieties of plants and trees native to this region.
The lack of elevation on the trail also makes it suitable for older hikers. You may also bring your dog if it is leashed. Finally, the best time to hike on this trail is early morning, so you can watch the sun rising over the canyon’s sheer walls.
Oak Flat Loop Trail
The trail is 2 miles long, and is considered an intermediate-level with switchbacks and dirt trails. The trail has an elevation of 500 vertical feet.
This trail is perfect for those who want to get a taste of what it is like right before the rim without hiking all the way down. Starting at the visitor center on the South Rim, you can admire the landscape below the canyon’s edge and the various trees scattered throughout the gorge.
Warner Point Nature Trail
This is a 1.5-mile out and back trail that is considered easy to manage. It provides a direct view of the Gunnison River. It is a popular trail for birding and nature lovers. Dogs are not allowed on this trail.
Camping in the Park
Camping in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is only allowed in the designated campsites, where you must make reservations in advance. The park has one campground at the bottom of the canyon, while two campsites are located on each rim. Make sure to check the details of the campsites before you book them, as many sites have limits on RV length, and only Loop B of the South Rim Campground offers electric sites.
South Rim Campground
In the South Rim Campground, you see the highest cliff in Colorado! The campground needs to be reserved between May and September. For the rest of the year, you can acquire a slot on a first-come, first-served basis. In summer, drinking water is available, but there are no dish-cleaning stations or showers. There is also no cell phone reception or internet connectivity in this area.
North Rim Campground
North Rim Campground comprises various shady spots among pinyon and juniper trees from where you can comfortably enjoy the views. The campground provides minimal services where the maximum length of a car, RV, or trailer is 22 feet.
East Portal Campground is located along the Gunnison River at an elevation of 6,526 feet and is shaded by box elder trees. Once the Bureau of Reclamation closes the East Portal Road in winter, the entrance to the campground is also blocked, so the campsite is only available during the warm seasons.
There have been sightings of black bears in the campgrounds who come here for the food. Seeing black bears may be an exciting experience, but at the end of the day, they are wild animals and should not be approached or fed. Keep your food secure in locked vehicles or a bear-proof storage locker instead of your tents. After eating, immediately clean your table, as that can attract bears.
Camping options near the park
If you cannot find a spot at the campsites inside the park, you can always camp at the base of the inner canyon wilderness routes. However, this option is only recommended for experienced and well-prepared people. There are plenty of camping sites near Montrose, just 13 miles from the Black Canyon South Rim Entrance Station.
The Montrose KOA offers spaces for bigger rigs, a dog park, six tent sites, 71 RV sites, water, and restrooms. The town of Cimarron is 20 minutes from Black Canyon’s South Rim, where you can also reserve a campsite. Another option is the Cedar Creek RV Park, located a mile away from Montrose and open throughout the year. There are 45 RV sites here, along with water and restrooms.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has some fantastic rock formations visible from various points and trails. People especially fond of outdoor activities will find plenty of opportunities to explore these areas. Here are some viewpoints from where you can admire the grandeur of the Black Canyon.
Cross Fissures View
While you cannot see the extensive sweeping views of the river or the canyon from the Cross Fissure View, you will be able to admire the steep ridges and crevasses that overlap at different angles. In addition, this viewpoint provides a more detailed look at the jagged rocks that make up the Black canyon. This point is also less crowded than the other viewpoints, so there is a chance that you will have it all to yourself!
The Warner Point is the farthest overlook on the South Rim and provides a clear view of the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon. To get to this point, start from a flat woodland that gradually steps down to a saddle where you can look at the green fields lying 1,000 feet below you. After getting to Warner Point, you will have a 270-degree view of the river and the lower canyon.
This spectacular overlook is located above the steepest area in the entire park. A short trail descends to the Chasm View, where the cliffs fall 1,800 feet over a horizontal distance of 400 feet. On the opposite side, you can see a wall crossed by branched, thin volcanic dykes, while on the northern side, two ravines cut at either side of the canyon.
Located behind the Visitor Center, Gunnison Point is accessible after a downhill walk and offers a panoramic view of the canyon. On this point, the main view is northwards, where you can look across the canyon at a much more dramatic scene. In the south, you can witness two steep gullies along with a narrow ravine.
Getting to the Park
The best way to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is on a road trip through beautiful Colorado. The closest major airport is Grand Junction, Colorado, which is about an hour away by car. Montrose, Colorado, is the best place to stay and is easily accessible to the South Rim of the park.
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