Overlooked Escape: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Find adventure at this stunning, yet sparsely visited Colorado park.

With just over 300,000 annual visits, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the least-visited national park in Colorado, and one of the lesser-visited national parks in the country (ranking 43rd out of 63 overall in annual visits). But this often-forgotten gem, frequently overshadowed by the state’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Park, is every bit as grandiose. Though its size only totals 47 square miles, its topography is what adds a considerable dimension, as the Gunnison River drops an average of 43 feet per mile through the canyon (six times more than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon), carving one of the deepest gorges in the country. 

Within that 48-mile-long canyon, the park encompasses the 14 most scenic miles, harboring monoliths like the 2,250-foot Painted Wall (the lower 48’s third tallest cliff), while offering views of some of the steepest cliffs and exposing some of the oldest rock in North America (dated nearly 2 billion years old). The canyon’s name is an outgrowth of the darkness created due to its massive depth and short, relative width—spanning just 40 feet at “The Narrows,” and reaching down 2,722 feet at Warner Point—where some parts of the gorge receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day, even in summer. Proclaimed a national monument in 1933, it only became a national park in 1999, making it the sixth youngest national park in the country.

And while its views are spectacular, there’s plenty more to do here as well, from hiking and camping along the rim to fishing and floating the river below the canyon—and climbing its massive walls. Here are the top activities to target on your next visit.  

Visiting the Park

The park has two entry points, one from the west (South Rim) near Montrose, Colo., and another accessing the east side (North Rim) from Crawford, Colo. To get to the more popular South Rim Visitor Center, head 7 miles north on state Highway 347 from its intersection with U.S. 50. Because there is no bridge over the canyon, most people visiting the park spend a day driving along South Rim Road, with stops at the Visitor Center and such overlooks as Devil’s Lookout, Chasm View and Painted Wall View. Traffic is light, the views incredible, and options for side-hikes abundant. For a bigger driving day, or for Day Two, try the solitude and even more dramatic views of the North Rim (allow about three hours to drive from one rim to the other). 

Camping

RV-driving, patch-collecting national park enthusiasts often leave this destination off the bucket list due to its minimal infrastructure and inaccessibility. Unlike Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, Black Canyon has zero inside-the-boundaries lodges; the most luxurious setups available in the park are 23 reservable, RV-compatible sites with electrical hookups. That can be a turnoff for those accustomed to a more comfortable outdoorsy experience. 

Hiking into the Black Canyon on the SOB trail Photo: Geir Olav Lyngfjell/Shutterstock

Hiking 

You don’t have to hike 2,722 feet down to the canyon floor to enjoy the park. While there are no maintained trails leading to the river at the bottom of the chasm, plenty exist on the rim for exploring its myriad nooks and grannies, all ending in grandiose views. Following are a few favorites. 

South Rim

  • Rim Rock Nature Trail: Serving up great views of the gorge below, this moderate, 2-mile round-trip nature trail follows a flat path on the canyon’s rim, lined with sagebrush, Gambel oak, pinyon pine and Utah juniper. The trailhead is near the entrance to Campground Loop C and ends at the South Rim Visitor Center. 
  • Oak Flat Loop Trail: This more strenuous, 2-mile loop traverses more steep slopes, descending through a grove of aspen and meandering through Gambel oak and a forest of Douglas fir, aspen and chokecherry, all while offering intermittent views of the canyon below.
  • Cedar Point Nature Trail: This easy, 1-mile round-trip loop has two overlooks offering breathtaking views of the river over 2,000 feet below, as well as the Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet.
  • Warner Point Nature Trail: A moderate, 1.5-mile round-trip hike, this trail offers views of the West Elk Mountains to the north, the towering San Juan Mountains to the south, and the Black Canyon and its end, with benches along the way shaded by mountain mahogany, serviceberry, pinyon pine, and juniper. 

North Rim

  • Chasm View Nature Trail: Located at the end of the one-way campground loop, this moderate trail leads to an overlook with excellent views of Painted Wall and Serpent Point. Keep a lookout for swifts, swallows and raptors frequently seen from this overlook. The people you can see on the far side are only 1,100 feet away. 
  • North Vista Trail: Start this 3-mile round-trip trail at the North Rim Ranger Station (7 miles to Green Mountain), for some of the best scenic views and birding in the park. Meandering through a pinyon/juniper forest along the rim, several overlooks offer views of S.O.B. Draw and the inner canyon. Those continuing to Green Mountain can expect panoramic vistas, including the San Juan Mountains, West Elks, Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre Plateau. 
  • Deadhorse Trail: This 5-mile round-trip affords great views of Deadhorse Gulch and East Portal, as well as good birding. Park at the Kneeling Camel Overlook and walk a few yards east to a spur road that leads to the old ranger station. After a pond, the trail parallels a stock fence until arriving at the canyon's rim. 
  • The Canyon Bottom: Because the park’s interior is designated wilderness, the National Park Service is prohibited from building trails. But if you really want to get to the canyon bottom, your best bet is S.O.B. Draw, which drops nearly 1,800 feet straight down from the North Rim. Start early and take plenty of water (four liters per person, per day), food, headlamp and a first-aid kit

Paddling 

Just past the national park’s far northwestern boundary, inside the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (NCA), lies one of the West’s premier wilderness canyon paddling experiences. However, there’s a catch: Paddling the Gunnison Gorge section of the Black Canyon (for outfitters and private paddlers alike) requires a mile-long hike down from the Chukar Trailhead to the river, carrying your gear (and craft), where the 14-mile section begins. Bound by walls of black granite and red sandstone, the stretch can be paddled in one long day, but many choose to spend more time—camping at the many beachside sites to take advantage of the standout fishing and stunning scenery. But it’s not for novices; it contains several Class IV rapids bookended by a slew of Class IIIs. Eventually, the gradient slackens near the takeout at the junction of the North Fork of the Gunnison at Pleasure Park. Permits for this stretch are available at a kiosk at the trailhead. Note: If you have a packraft, you can hike it up from the takeout for a few miles. Expert kayakers occasionally brave the Class V-VI upper Black Canyon just upstream of the Gunnison Gorge section, which requires favorable flows from the reservoir farther upstream and usually takes two to three days paddling self-support as well as several mandatory, poison-ivy-riddled portages. 

Fishing

Flowing with cold, clear water year-round, fishing in the Black Canyon is ranked as Gold Medal water and is as world-renowned as it views. The stretch regularly draws anglers from across the country to chase after everything from wild rainbows to German browns. Many float the 14-mile Gunnison Gorge section to spend as much time as possible in the canyon, while others hike in to wade-fish the section or hike up from the takeout at Pleasure Park. Hint: Hit it from mid-June to mid-July to try and catch the river’s coveted salmonfly hatch, which annually sends its trout into a feeding frenzy. Studies show that the river’s brown trout wolf down 70 percent of their annual calories during the month-long hatch. Outfitters abound for the stretch, offering everything from half-day guided floats to multi-day excursions down the Gunnison Gorge. Camping is available at Pleasure Park, which also offers a store, restaurant, river and fishing information, and guided trips. Best yet, try Black Canyon Anglers, the largest fly-fishing outfitter on the river that also operates the only fishing lodge on the Gunnison, which you can raft right up to after your wilderness fishing float through the Gorge.   

Climbing 

Suitable only for experts, climbing in the Black Canyon is truly world-class, featuring towering, multi-pitch walls as high as 2,000 feet. While detailed information on its climbs is hard to come by (a few guidebooks exist and the park service maintains topos and route descriptions), its routes are complex and long. Of the park’s official 145 climbing routes, only eight are rated 5.8; 21 are rated 5.9 (five of which are aid routes, and only six are climbed regularly); and the other 117 rate between 5.10 and 5.13, many also requiring aid. And all the ratings can be deceiving—these climbs are remote, multi-pitch, traditional routes, with rescue extremely difficult (lowering to an ambulance is not an option).  

A few of the more popular climbs include Scenic Cruise (5.10+), Stoned Oven (5.11+), Quailgeist (5.12), Black Sheep (5.13c), and Free Nose (5.12) in the North Chasm View area, as well as Astro Dog (5.11+) in the South Chasm View area and Atlantis (5.11+) in the Long Draw area. Or try your hand on the notorious Painted Wall, at 2,250 feet the tallest cliff in Colorado and the third tallest in the lower 48, after El Capitan and Notch Peak. For the protection of nesting raptors, certain routes are closed from March 15 to July 15. Visit the South Rim Visitor Center or North Rim Ranger Station for more info: nps.gov

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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