Dramatic. Sheer. Narrow. Magnificent. Those words describe the grandeur of the 48-mile Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It’s so gorgeous that photographs rarely capture its magnificence. The camera’s abilities are far too limited. But your eyes are in for a delicious scenic feast.
You’ll overlook nearly two billion years of geology as you crane your neck over the canyon’s walls. The gash in the ground is Colorado’s answer to the Grand Canyon.
The Black Canyon’s narrowness is part of its jaw-dropping appeal. At The Narrows, the canyon closes to 40 feet wide, choking the Gunnison. Chasm View is the rim’s narrowest point at 1,100 feet wide. That’s 710 feet narrower than the canyon’s depth at that point. The canyon constricts the Gunnison so much that the sound of its roar reaches the rim. At peak flows, the river’s roar drowns out other sounds.
Colorado’s most bottomless cliff, the Painted Wall, is decorated with rock rivers, streaming down from the rim to meet the Gunnison River 2,250 feet below. By comparison, Colorado’s Royal Gorge is 1,053 feet deep.
The Black Canyon’s strong reputation for hiking, scenic drives, natural wonders, and excellent fishing is well-founded. Expert rock climbers find an exciting challenge here. Spending one day in the park is the bare minimum.
The park’s South Rim is 14 miles from Montrose. The North Rim is 11 miles southwest of Crawford. No bridge connects the rims. Driving from one to the other is a two-hour adventure. Start your visit at the park’s visitor center on the South Rim. The South Rim is open daily, but the park’s roads are seasonal.
The best time to visit is from spring to fall. Most of the park’s road network is closed during the winter. July is the park’s busiest time. “Busiest” in the Black Canyon does not compare to “busiest” in Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2018, four million fewer visitors came to the Black Canyon than to Rocky Mountain. The Black Canyon, five hours from Denver, is the state’s least visited national park.
Pro Tip: The Black Canyon received its name because little sunshine reaches its depths. Some sections of the canyon receive only half an hour of sun per day. The deep shadows make the walls seem black.
1. South Rim Road Scenic Drive
Before touring the South Rim Road, stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about the park. The South Rim has 12 stops scattered over seven miles. Allow two or three hours, especially since many of the overlooks require short hikes to visit. Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Sunset View are the best stops. The others will be less crowded.
The overlooks are just that. They hug the rim’s edge, and the pull of gravity feels extreme at each one. Tearing your eyes away from the shadowed depths is difficult. You want to measure the drop. Your eyes follow the ridges’ tumbling course into the Gunnison.
2. East Portal Road Scenic Drive
The park offers two ways to reach the river. The easiest is to drive it. But be prepared. The five-mile paved road’s grades are steep, 16 percent, and the road twists through numerous hairpin curves. Although it wasn’t necessary, we were grateful for our high-clearance vehicle. Use low gear on the steepest grades. The drive isn’t scary; it’s a fun challenge. As you stroll by the river, enjoy looking up at the walls instead of down.
East Portal was a small settlement at the end of the Gunnison Tunnel. The tunnel workers lived there during its construction, but little of the town remains.
Pro Tip: The park prohibits vehicles over 22 feet on East Portal Road. No trailers are allowed, but the park provides trailer parking at the top of the road.
3. North Rim Road Scenic Drive
It’s easy to feel lost on the over two-hour drive from the South Rim to the North Rim. Follow the park’s directions and keep going. The north side’s views are worth any uneasiness. You’ll enjoy six overlooks. Five of them are right next to the road. Only the Chasm View requires a hike, and it’s short.
From the rim, the canyon’s cliffs fall straight down. Especially watch for the Balanced Rock and Kneeling Camel. The canyon’s extreme narrowness produces a feeling of intimacy that more expansive canyons cannot offer. Travelers visit the North Rim even less than the South Rim, so you’ll enjoy more solitude.
Pro Tip: The last seven miles of the access road and all of the North Rim Road is unpaved gravel. The road is usually passable but always check road conditions with park staff. Rangers only man the northern ranger station intermittently. When rangers aren’t present, pay fees at the self-pay station.
Hike the canyon’s rim on seven trails rated easy to strenuous. Four trails are on the South Rim. The North Rim features three. Download the park’s hiking route maps (PDF).
Beware of steep drop-offs beside the trails. The park allows limited cattle grazing on the North Rim. Please close cattle gates behind you. Because bears love snacks, never leave your backpack out of your reach.
For those who are physically fit, the park offers unmarked trails to the river. Obtain a free wilderness permit before you leave. Inner-canyon hikers must be prepared to rescue themselves. First-timers should try the Gunnison Route from the South Visitor Center. It’s the only one with a guiding chain. The Gunnison Route is the most traversed, so get your permits early.
Pro Tip: Beware of poison ivy. The poisonous plants may reach five feet tall. The river is cold, and the current is fast, so avoid getting into it. Use bear-resistant packages.
5. Horseback Riding
The ironically named Deadhorse Trail is the only equestrian trail. Its trailhead is on the North Rim’s east end. The five-mile course is rated easy to moderate. Park your trailers at Kneeling Camel Overlook. Bring water for both yourself and your horse.
6. Gold Medal Fishing
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) named the Gunnison River as a Gold Medal fishing area for rainbow and brown trout. Gold Medal status means the river provides at least a dozen 14-inch trout (or bigger) per acre.
Pro Tip: CPW offers a PDF guide to fishing success in the Gunnison River. Buy a fishing license.
7. Rock Climbing And Ice Climbing
The canyon’s walls present expert rock climbers with a steep challenge. All the routes are classified at 5.8 and higher. DO NOT underestimate the difficulty. The park service does not guarantee rescue.
Gandalf’s Beard and Shadowfax are the most well-known ice climbing routes.
Pro Tip: Mountain Project offers detailed rock route information. Obtain wilderness permits at the visitor centers.
The Black Canyon is an internationally recognized Dark Sky Park. Bring your telescope and marvel at the wonders of the night sky. The darkest skies are rated 23, while the sky above the canyon is rated 21.5. The South Rim’s best viewing sites are Chasm View, Dragon Point, and Sunset View. On the North Rim, find the stars at Chasm View Nature Trail or Kneeling Camel View. The Black Canyon Astronomical Society and the rangers hold weekly astronomy programs in the summer.
Pro Tip: The Milky Way shines brightest during the summer because the earth faces the Milky Way’s center. In the fall, the galaxy appears directly overhead earlier than it does in summertime.
9. Winter In The Black Canyon
With only the access road open, winter turns the park into a paradise for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The park keeps the road open to the South Rim Visitor Center. After the center, the road becomes a Nordic skiing trail. Snowshoers also may use the path, but should not trample the ski tracks. The park checks out snowshoes for free.
The rim road is a good beginner’s route. Experienced winter trekkers should try the Oak Flat Trail. Use trekking poles.
Pro Tips: Winter offers particular challenges. Be prepared with these suggestions.
Where To Eat
High Point, Sunset View, and Pulpit Rock on South Rim Road all offer picnic facilities, and all are accessible.
Camp Robber took its name from the annoying, food-stealing bird. They offer vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Try the Portabella Mushroom Salad and the Elk Burger.
Where To Stay
Riverbend RV Park and Cabins offers walk-in fly fishing, kayaking, and canoeing right on the Gunnison River. Bring boats. Let your dogs run in their dog park.
Stay in a luxurious, historic bungalow at Canyon Creek Bed and Breakfast in Montrose. Hang out in the garden hot tub, book an in-house massage, and even attend a comedy show. If you prefer a house to yourself, Canyon Creek also offers several vacation houses. Three of them are dog-friendly.
Altitude sickness is preventable. Bring drinking water for yourself and your pets. Wear sunscreen. Even in the summer, bring a jacket. Check the park’s map (PDF) for accessible options. Leashed pets are allowed on roads, in campgrounds, at overlooks, and on some trails. The park has no cell phone service; use a printed map.