Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is a hidden gem in western Colorado. For the last two million years, the Gunnison River has been cutting a deep, steep, and narrow canyon through the hard metamorphic rock. A canyon so deep where the sun barely shines, hence the name Black Canyon.
It is also home to several species of birds living in the cottonwood trees at the riverbanks, sagebrush shrubs along the canyon walls, and in trees such as juniper, Gambel oak, aspen, and Ponderosa pine on the top.
Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in September 2015.
Best time to visit
The general climate of the park is arid and changes drastically between the canyon rim and the floor.
In the summertime, days are hot with a brief afternoon thunderstorm and nights get cold. Most wildlife is active either in the early morning or at dusk. Wildflowers bloom everywhere. Spring and fall are mild during the days. Aspen and oaks add beautiful color to the landscape.
In the winter, the South Rim Road is open only up to Gunnison Point for vehicles. It is open for hiking, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing.
An entrance pass is required for a vehicle for the park entrance. A seven-day pass is $25, and an annual pass for the park is $45. Of course, the National Park Annual Pass is valid for entry in all places managed by National Park Services.
Check the National Park Service website for more details, roads, and trails conditions.
Park Visitor Centers
Park has one visitor center on the south rim, aptly named South Rim Visitor Center. It is located at Gunnison Point and has great exhibits to explain canyon geology, as rangers call it blow-grow-flow. Remember to pick up a junior ranger booklet, when traveling with children.
On the north side of the rim is a ranger station that opens during summers. Bring cash or check to pay the entrance fee at the self-pay station if entering from the north side.
Stay and Eat
Outside of the Park
It is a 5-hour drive to the park visitor center from Denver. Montrose is the nearest town of fewer than 30 minutes from the South Rim Visitor Center. North Rim drive is about 30 minutes drive from Crawford.
Montrose has better and more options for accommodation than Crawford. The diversity of restaurants in this little town will surely surprise you.
Inside the Park
Park has campgrounds on either side of the rim. South Rim campground is open for advance booking, it is closer to the visitor center and night sky telescope site.
North Rim campground is remote and less developed.
In summer months you have an option of camping along the Gunnison River at tent-only East Portal Campground. It is located within the Curecanti National Recreation boundary and accessible only from Black Canyon National Park.
We stayed at South Rim Campground for one night and at North Rim Campground for two nights.
Recommended Days for the Park
We spent three days exploring the park and felt the need for one more day to explore it from down below. Depending on your park exploration style, Black Canyon has something to offer every visitor, whether driving through or staying for a few days.
Things to do
South Rim Road
South Rim Drive is open to vehicles from early April to mid-November. It is a seven-mile drive from Tomichi Point to High Point with several outlooks.
My favorite overlooks from South Rim are Painted Wall and Sunset View. If you have time, don’t miss a short interpretive nature walk to Cedar Point and Warner Point nature trail.
North Rim Road
The North Rim is not accessible through the park; you will have to drive via Crawford State Park and it is completely worth it. The North Rim Road offers the most dramatic views of the Black Canyon. Every overlook on the North Rim is special and gives an opportunity to peek into the deep chasms. I will highly recommend Chasm View Nature Trail to witness the sheer power of water; pick a trail guide to deepen your appreciation for this awe-inspiring landscape.
East Portal Road
If you have a few days to spend in the park and are looking for a different perspective of Black Canyon, head onto the extremely steep East Portal Road. It will take you all the way down to Gunnison River after many hair-raising hairpin curves.
Hike in the early morning for a chance to see the diverse wildlife of Black Canyon. Lucky ones might get to see skunks, badgers, weasels, and ringtail cats. Extra lucky visitors might spot a bobcat or a bear. A few super lucky people might get a rare glimpse of an elusive mountain lion. Look out for yellow-bellied marmots and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep along the rocky outcrops of the canyon. You may spot snakes while hiking, such as the smooth green, great basin gopher, or garter snake. These are all non-venomous snakes. If you are staying in the campground, keep your ears perked for pre-dawn coyotes songs. Black Canyon also has elks which are seen in fall and winter. We were kind of regular lucky and spotted a bobcat and marmots. Feathered wildlife is also in abundance during spring and early summer. Try looking close for the peregrine falcons-the the fastest bird in the world-along the Painted Wall area.
This extremely deep and narrow canyon offers adventurous opportunities to expert climbers only.
Hikes on the south rim are short and mostly easy with the exception of Oak Flat Loop Trail. All the trailheads are either close to the visitor center or off the South Rim Drive.
My favorite trails on the south rim are the interpretive Cedar Point Nature Trail and Warner Point Nature Trail. Both are easy short interpretive trails. Both of the trails end with excellent views of the river and Painted Wall. Warner Point is the deepest point of the Black Canyon at 2,700 feet.
The North rim offers a better choice of hikes with dramatic and sweeping views. Don’t miss Chasm View Nature Trail. from the north side, the views are awe-inspiring, with a chance to spot swallows, raptors, and swifts.
North Vista trail is the best hike in the park going all the way to Green Mountain via Exclamation Point. At Exclamation Point, views of the inner-canyon are unparalleled to any overlook. Panoramic vistas of the San Juan Mountains, the West Elks, Grand Mesa, and Black Canyon from the Green Mountain tops the hike.
If you are planning to start hiking and backpacking with your children, read these useful tips to start hiking with kids.
There are many trails descending to the canyon floor for adventure seekers. Those rugged, challenging, and remote trails demand skill and careful preparation. You will need a backcountry permit to enter inner canyons, that can be picked at either visitor center or ranger station. Read this backpacking gear guide to select the right gear for your backpacking trips.
South Rim Drive is open for cross country skiers. All the rim hikes are open for snowshoeing.
Night Sky Events
Rangers offer talks and astronomy events near South Rim Visitor Center, make sure to check the schedule.
Things to remember while visiting Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park
Use sturdy shoes for hiking, and be careful of steep drop-offs. Though most of the overlooks are fenced, keep a close watch on little children and stay alert while taking photos.
Limited cattle grazing is permitted on the North Rim. Please keep the cattle gates closed if you happen to pass through one.
Black Canyon has black bears, so always keep your backpack with you, don’t leave any food unattended, and keep an eye on your children. On hikes, make some noise to announce your presence to any bears. Never make eye contact with a bear and don’t run.
When hiking into the canyon, be prepared for thunderstorms and lightning. Be aware of the route condition. Dress in layers to protect yourself from hypothermia.
Enjoy your visit to Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. And now test your knowledge with a fun National Parks Quiz.
Happy and safe travels!