Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: The Complete Guide

Sunsets over a deep canyon with a river running through it
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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Address
Colorado, USA
Phone +1 970-641-2337

The diversity of landscapes in the state of Colorado never ceases to amaze. From wide-open plains and awe-inspiring sand dunes to the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains, there is always new terrain to be explored. But few places are as dramatic and foreboding as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a geological wonder that should be on every traveler's bucket list.

Carved by the Gunnison River over a period of 2 million years, the canyon is among the deepest, narrowest, and darkest gorges found anywhere in the American West. In fact, it was dubbed the "Black Canyon" because its lowest sections see just 33 minutes of sunlight on any given day. This gave early explorers a deep sense of dread when first making their way upriver.

First designated as a national monument in 1933, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was elevated to full national park status in 1999. Today, the park sees roughly 300,000 visitors on an annual basis. From things to do to where to camp, here's how to plan your visit.

A hiker walks a trail down into a dark canyon
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Things to Do

Most visitors to the park come to drive its short—but very scenic—roads and take in the views from strategically placed overlooks along the way. Of those, the South Rim Road is the most accessible and busiest, while the South Rim Road features six impressive overlooks with some of the best views of the canyon.

Hiking is another popular activity for visitors to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, although the Park Service advises that travelers take extreme caution before embarking on a trek. Most of the trails that lead down into the gorge itself are narrow, steep, and unmaintained. Because of this, a full descent into the canyon is recommended for experienced hikers only.

Other popular activities include fishing in the Gunnison River and watching wildlife throughout the park. The river has been designated as both Gold Medal Water and Wild Trout Water, making it an exceptional place for anglers, both in terms of the fish that are found there and the setting through which the river passes. Those looking to catch a glimpse of non-aquatic creatures may spot mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, coyotes, black bears, marmots, mountain lions, and dozens of other animals.

In the winter, the park is also an excellent destination for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There are even options for winter backcountry camping for those who enjoy a cold-weather adventure. Weather conditions can change rapidly during those months, so be sure to dress appropriately, bring emergency survival supplies, and let friends and family know where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Note: A permit is required for all backcountry activities, including hiking, in the Black Canyon.

Shadows fall across a deep canyon
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Best Hikes & Trails

While the routes descending into the gorge are strenuous and require a great deal of effort to get up and down, there are a few trails worth walking for more casual visitors. For instance, the Rim Rock Nature Trail is a mostly flat, 2-mile walk along the South Rim, while the aptly-named Chasm View Nature Trail offers a similar—but much shorter—trek on the North Rim. The Oak Flat Loop Trail is another two-miler that is moderately challenging, but it takes hikers down into the gorge itself without dropping all the way to the narrow floor below. Meanwhile, the North Vista Trail is a challenging hike that can stretch up to 7 miles, providing breathtaking views of the canyon while en route.

Scenic Drives

Along South Rim Road, amazing views can be found at the Gunnison Point, Chasm View, and Sunset View overlooks. The National Park Service advises that visitors should expect to spend two to three hours driving this route; note that it is closed to motor vehicles during the winter.

The North Rim is accessed via a gravel road inside Crawford State Park. The steep, narrow walls are on prominent display throughout this two- to three-hour drive, with excellent opportunities for photos along the way.

Visitors to the Curecanti National Recreation Area can also spot the Black Canyon along the East Portal Road. The route is narrow and includes incredibly sharp hairpin turns, which can make it difficult to truly take in the sights. If you're heading in that direction for hiking, camping, or fishing, however, it is worth a stop while en route.

Where to Camp

Both tent and RV camping are allowed in the park, giving travelers the opportunity to spend the night in this unique and wild setting. The South Rim Campground has a total of 88 sites—including 23 with electric hookups—with reservations required from May through September. Plan to reserve a spot at recreation.gov well in advance of your visit. At all other times of the year, the campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The North Rim and East Portal Campgrounds have just 13 and 15 campsites respectively and are more limited when it comes to amenities. Both are available on a first-come, first-served basis all year long. RVs are welcome in both locations, although East Portal has 10 campsites that are tent only.

Camping in the backcountry is also an option for experienced backpackers. Those options extend into the inner canyon itself, although anyone choosing this option should be fully prepared for the remote conditions found there. That includes the potential for encountering black bears, which can wander into camp looking for food. Be sure to bring proper storage for securing your snacks and meals. As you would expect, a permit is required for backcountry camping.

A woman stands on a cliff overlooking the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Zachary Joing/Getty

How to Get There

The national park is located in the southwest corner of Colorado with fairly easy access to both the North and South Rims. There is no public transportation to the Black Canyon, so most visitors arrive in their own vehicles. The South Rim entrance is located 7 miles north of the intersection of CO Highway 347 and Interstate 50, heading east out of the town of Montrose. To reach the North Rim, drive southwest out of Crawford on CO Highway 93 for 3 miles, turning west onto Black Canyon Road. From there, follow the road signs to reach the park, but be aware that the last 7 miles are unpaved.

Accessibility

As you would expect, the interior of the Black Canyon itself offers no accessibility option for wheelchairs. But the National Park Service has made sure that other areas of the park are available and accessible to all visitors.

For instance, the South Rim Visitor Center, as well as restrooms on the North and South Rims, are fully accessible. The South Rim Campground also has two sites that are designated specifically for handicapped visitors. Additionally, the Tomichi Point, Chasm View, and Sunset View overlooks on the South Rim, as well as the Balanced Rock Overlook on the North Rim, are also wheelchair accessible.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison stretches into the distance
Jamie Stamey/Getty

Park Hours and Fees

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That said, the North Rim Road and East Portal Road are closed to vehicles in the winter, as are portions of the South Rim Road. The South Rim Visitor Center is open year-round, however, with access to that point available.

A 7-day pass for the park costs $30 for a car, truck, or SUV. Motorcycle permits are $25, while pedestrians on foot can enter for $15. The Black Canyon Annual Pass is $55, with all options available at the entry station.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Keep in mind that there are no bridges that cross over the Black Canyon. If you're driving from the North Rim to the South Rim (or vice versa), be sure to allow for two to three hours of drive time.
  • The canyon is designated as an International Dark Sky Park, which means it is a great place to go stargazing. Stay after dark to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way and more stars than you can possibly count.
  • Crowds are generally manageable inside the park, even during its busiest season. Those driving the North or South Rim Roads should expect to spend two to four hours exploring the sights.
  • The park is almost always quiet and deserted during the winter, so if you enjoy outdoor winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, there is a good chance you'll have the trail all to yourself.
  • The park is situated between 7,500 and 8,500 feet in altitude. If you're not accustomed to the thinner air, it can catch you off guard. Take your time when hiking, as it is easy to become winded.
  • Poison ivy is prevalent throughout the park. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the three-leafed plant and avoid it at all costs.
  • There are no lodges or restaurants to be found inside the park. While there is a limited supply of snacks and beverages in the South Rim Visitor Center, travelers are advised to bring their own food and drinks for the length of their stay. The nearest hotels, restaurants, and stores are located in Montrose, CO (about 15 miles away) and Gunnison, CO (a 63-mile drive), so plan accordingly.
  • Visitors will find picnic tables scattered throughout the park, although most are found along the South Rim. Because they make a good place to stop for lunch, the picnic tables can fill up quickly—especially during the busy summer season. Still, enjoying a leisurely meal with the park's dramatic landscape as a backdrop is a great way to spend some time while there.
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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: The Complete Guide