How to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado? How to prepare for a trip? What are the best hikes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? How to get there? Where to stay? How is the weather in Black Canyon? You will find answers and much more in our Ultimate Guide with Things To Do In Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
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Facts About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in western Colorado. It was established as a national park in 1999. The Black Canyon National Park contains one of the most dramatic canyons in the country, with sheer walls of gray stone rising more than 2,700 feet above the swift and turbulent Gunnison River. It took two million years to carve out the canyon. The canyon’s rim is 8,000 feet above sea level.
The Park contains two parts:
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim. The south rim entrance is located 15 miles (24 km) east of Montrose.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim. The north rim entrance is 11 miles (18 km) south of Crawford and is closed in the winter. It’s open only from mid-April to mid-October.
The park contains 12 miles (19 km) of the 48-mile (77 km) long Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, putting it on the top 10 list for the smallest US national parks. The park’s Painted Wall is the highest cliff in Colorado. From the river to rim it stands 2250 feet (685 meters)
The canyon’s name owes itself to the fact that parts of the gorge only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day. Black Canyon is very steep and narrows, so part of the walls are hidden in the dark and shadows because sunlight cannot penetrate to the bottom of the gorge.
The narrowest point of the Black Canyon is only 40 feet (12 m) wide at the bottom river. On the rim, the distance between the South Rim and the North Rim is only 1,100 feet in the narrowest section. From the rim, the walls of the canyon plunge 2,000 feet almost straight down to the Gunnison River, which makes the scenery breathtaking.
The Black Canyon is home to black bears, mule deer, golden eagles, and peregrine falcon.
What are the best things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Standing on the rim of the Black Canyon gives shivers of emotions. The black abyss stimulates the imagination and makes this place extremely mysterious and stunning at the same time. Black Canyon offers great overlooks, hiking trails, and the ability to descend to the inner of a steep canyon (only for the bravest and experienced hikers). What’s more, you can experience the adrenaline-pumping Gunnison River Gorge Rafting Trip. It makes the Park extremely attractive.
However, the park is often underestimated. In 2019, the Black Canyon only received 430,000 visitors. So, it’s not only is it the least visited park in Colorado, but it is also one of the least visited parks in the entire United States. There are no crowds. So, add it to your Colorado itinerary.
How Long To Spend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
The Black Canyon is not a big park so that you can visit it in one day. But take in mind that the distance between North Rim and South Rim is considerable. North Rim Ranger Station to South Rim Visitor Center is 80 miles and about 2 hours of driving. And you need at least 3-4 hours for each part. You can check how we split the visit for two days in our ready-to-go Colorado Itinerary (check Day 5 and Day 8). Ideally, reserve at least one day to visit each part of the park. However, if you plan on going the inner canyon route or rafting, book an extra day or even two for each of these activities.
What if you only have half a day to visit the park? Choose South Rim. It is more representative, and access to the park is also much easier.
PRO TIP: Don’t forget to buy & pack an Annual America the Beautiful Pass, if you plan to visit more than 3 parks throughout the year. It’s your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all national parks. Pass is valid for 1 year from the month of purchase.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Weather
What is the best time of the year to visit the park? The best time for your trip is from mid-April to mid-October, when both parts of the park are open. If you plan your visit in other months, you will only see the southern part of the park.
The weather will also be the best in late spring and summer. There are the sunniest days, so there is a chance that more light will illuminate the dark bottom of the canyon. Because the canyon is narrow and in shadow, you will have the best light for observing and photographing its walls and bottom from the viewpoints around noon when the sun is at its highest.
Most important is to know, that the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has a large elevation difference between the canyon rim and the Gunnison River below. So, you must be prepared for a large difference in temperatures, especially if you plan some adventure as an inner canyon hike or rafting. At the bottom of the gorge, most of the day is shade, so it can be much colder and humid. At the rim can be windy. Black Canyon remains dry most of the year, with thunderstorms in the summer and occasional snow in the winter. But its north rim is closed from mid-October to mid-April due to snow.
The average high temperature in April is 56.1 °F (13.4 °C), in May 66.4 °F (19.1°C). The hottest month is July, with an average of 82.1 °F (27.8°C). Warm and nice is also September 72.4 °F (22.4°C). The coldest months are December, with an average low of 13.1 °F (−10.5°C) and January with 12.9 °F (−10.6°C).
But it’s best to check road status, current conditions, and weather alerts on the park’s official website before you travel.
How To Get To Black Canyon?
From Denver to Black Canyon of the Gunnison is about 255 miles and 5 hours of driving via I-70 W. The closest major airport and the large city is Grand Junction. From Grand Junction is 84 miles and 1 hour 45 minutes of driving to North Rim and 75 miles and 1 hour and 30 minutes of driving to South Rim.
How To Get To South Rim of Black Canyon?
The closest town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim is Montrose. From Montrose, take US-50 E and CO-347. It’s only 15 miles and 25 minutes of driving to the South Rim Visitor Center. This part is open year-round but always check currents alerts on the park’s website. The South Rim Road is closed beyond the Visitor Center in the winter months. But you can still enjoy this part of the park on foot, on snowshoeing or ski.
How To Get To North Rim of Black Canyon?
The closest town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim is Hotchkiss. From Hotchkiss via Crawford is only 24 miles to the North Rim. Driving time is about 40 minutes. Take CO-92 E and then Black Canyon Rd. There is no paved road in the North Rim. It is only a gravel road, but the regular car is enough for it. You don’t need a 4×4. Please, remember that this road and part of the park are closed for winter. From Hotchkiss is also possible to take a whitewater rafting adventure down the Gunnison River.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Map
If you plan a short visit to the park and several hiking trails available at the rim, you don’t need a detailed map. The brochure map from the visitor center and our tips should be enough.
But if you like extreme and more difficult hikes and you want to go down to the bottom of the gorge, be sure to take a good paper map with you.
There is no marked trail on the inner canyon route, is a wilderness area. There is no phone coverage at the park as well. These inner canyon routes are technically difficult descents on steep walls. Therefore, get a Black Canyon of the Gunnison map to have an accurate reconnaissance of the area. It’s also worth reading the Essential Guide To Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park by Colorado Mountain Club Jewels of the Rockies. You will find detailed route descriptions for hikers and climbers with photos, maps, and elevation profiles.
|Top||National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, 245 Black Canyon of the Gunnison||$||Check on Amazon|
|Top||The Essential Guide To Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park (Colorado Mountain Club Jewels of the Rockies)||$$||Check on Amazon|
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Where to Stay When Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
Camping near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
They are two campings in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and one near the Black Canyon (at the bottom of the abyss), but you must drive through the park to get there. All are in remote areas, so prepare yourself for no electricity, no phone coverage, no services. Pack yourself carefully, because the weather in the park can change rapidly. Remember to pack enough food and water. There are no shops or restaurants in the park. Our Day Hiking Packing List and Car Camping Checklist can be helpful in your preparations.
North Rim Campground
The North Rim is a more remote area. There is no cell phone reception or internet connection. It’s important to know that this campground is at 8,000 feet in elevation. The weather is unpredictable, so prepare yourself for 3-season camping, even in summer. The campground is simple and has13 sites. So, it fills quickly during the summer, especially on weekends. No electricity or showers. Only vault toilet. It is first-come, first-served all season from mid-April to mid-October. The sites are spacious and spread out among pinyon and juniper trees. The maximum combined length of RV, car, and/or trailer is 22 feet. The nightly camping fee at the North Rim is $16.00. For more information and operating hours check on the website.
South Rim Campground
The South Rim Campground is located one mile from the South Rim Visitor Center. It’s much bigger. It offers a total of 88 sites (23 with electric hookups). From mid-May to mid-September, you must have a reservation. So, book your stay in advance. Other months it is first-come, first-served. Sites are fairly close together. Water is shut off during the cold months. Special restrictions are in place in the summer months to prevent deer/dog conflicts. So, check the rules before your visit. Also, prepare yourself for 3-season camping, even in summer. The campground is often windy.
East Portal Campground
The East Portal Campground is located at the bottom of the canyon, along the Gunnison River. It is located within Curecanti National Recreation Area but is only accessible from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. So, you must pay for the campground ($16.00 per night ) and for the entrance to the park (the entrance fee to the park is $30). So, it’s worth having an Annual Pass. It is a small campground with 15 sites, first-come, first-served. East Portal is closed in winter. Vehicles exceeding 22 feet in length (including trailers) are not permitted on the East Portal Road.
Hotels near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
If you plan to visit North Rim, stay in Hotchkiss or Delta. For sure, in Delta, you will find better prices and standards of accommodation. If you plan to visit the South Rim of Black Canyon, stay in Montrose. It’s a charming town with a good selection of loading and restaurants as well.
Best Things To Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim
We start with the North Rim, a less known, more remote, wilder, and highly underrated part of the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. There are few tourists here, but the views are breathtaking. And it’s really worth seeing this part of the park.
Drive North Rim Drive Road
It is a gravel road but suitable for any vehicle. It’s only 4,5 miles long. There are only five overlooks to visit on the North Rim Drive Road. What’s more, it’s is a short and easy walk from the parking spots to each overlook. So, 1-1,5 hours should be enough to do this scenic drive with stops for photos.
Take Pictures of Black Canyon
You have 5 overlooks, so it’s worth stopping on each to take some pictures. It takes you 1-3 minutes easy walk to each viewpoint from the parking spot. The five overlooks are:
- The Narrows. This spot offers great views along the Black Canyon at one of its narrowest points as its name point.
- Balanced Rock. From this overlook, you will see a huge, balanced boulder above the Gunnison River.
- Big Island. This overlook offers a nice photo spot for the Gunnison River. The lonely rock looks like an island in the sea.
- Island Peaks View. It is an exciting viewpoint as you can see a lot of the South Rim. So you see how narrow the gorge is. Looking northwest, you can spot the South Rim Visitor Center. What’s more, you can see how steep the hiking trail to the inner canyon is. Because from this viewpoint, you can see the Gunnison Route from the South Rim. It is one of the easiest and most popular routes to the inner canyon.
- Kneeling Camel View. When you stand on this point and look left towards the river, you will see a camel. It is kneeling comfortably above the rim and looks out at this stunning view. It’s the last viewpoint, and the road ends so that you will drive back.
Take One of the Best Hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim
If you have more than two hours to visit the North Rim of the park, it is worth going on one of the hiking trails. There are 4 hiking trails on this rim. Below we present them briefly and suggest which are the best hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Hike to Exclamation Point
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate | Distance: 3 miles round trip| Time required: 1,5 hours
Exclamation Point is our number one on both rims of Black Canyon. In our opinion is one of the best hikes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Exclamation Point is a part of the longer North Vista Trail. The second part is Green Mountain Trail. Trailhead is located at the North Rim Ranger Station. After passing through an area of sage and oak brush, the trail meanders in a pinyon and juniper forest along the canyon’s rim. From the Exclamation Point is the best inner-canyon view. One of the most dramatic and thrilling views of Black Canyon. Pets are not allowed.
Chasm View Nature Trail
Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 1/3 mile round trip | Time required: 20 minutes
It’s an easy and short hike that starts at the North Rim Campground. One of the best hikes in the Black Canyon. This trail is located at the end of the one-way campground loop. After a short distance, the trail breaks out of the pinyon and juniper forest at the North Chasm View, some 1800 feet above the river. The trail reaches a second overlook with excellent views of Painted Wall and Serpent Point. In our opinion, it offers stunning views of the Painted Wall. The Painted Wall is the tallest cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet. You can see people at the overlooks on the South Rim from here. You can also spot swifts, swallows, and raptors. Pets on a leash are allowed.
Green Mountain Trail
Difficulty: Strenuous | Distance: 7 miles round trip | Time required: 3 – 4 hours
It’s the second part of the North Vista Trail. From Exclamation Point, you can continue the hike to Green Mountain. You can admire panoramic vistas, including the San Juan Mountains, Grand Mesa, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and Black Canyon. The total ascent is 1,230 feet. When you reach the peak of Green Mountain, you’ll be standing at 8,546 feet. It’s a long and pretty strenuous hike, so pack more water and some hiking snacks and food. Trekking poles will be useful on this trail. Wear hiking boots with a good grip. You can check our Day Hiking Packing List to prepare for this adventure. Pets are not allowed.
Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 5 miles round trip | Time required: 2,5 – 3,5 hours
This trail starts at the Kneeling Camel Overlook. It enters the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area offers good views of Deadhorse Gulch and East Portal on the Gunnison River, as well as good birding. Pets are not allowed.
Take the Gunnison River Rafting Trip
Gunnison River Gorge Rafting Trip is a perfect idea for exploring and experience the bottom of the gorge with no climbing. It’s an amazing adventure. Colorado is famous for rafting. But Gunnison River is spectacular, so consider this trip. It starts from Hotchkiss, and it’s an all-day adventure with all boating and safety gear and lunch. Book it here.
Explore the Inner Canyon
If you have no climbing experience and technically challenging descents, skip this part of our guide. Don’t take any chances.
If you want to enter the inner canyon, you have three routes on the North Rim to choose from. But, first of all, you MUST HAVE a permit for a hike to the inner canyon. It’s also possible to camp by the river overnight. All routes to the inner canyon on both sides of the park require wilderness use permits. You can obtain it at the Ranger Station on the North Rim. Permits are free. And they must be obtained on the day of your hike (no reservations). There is a permit self-registration kiosk with instructions when the ranger station is closed. Be sure to thoroughly complete the permit with accurate and legible information.
What to Pack to Inner Canyon?
Whether you choose the inner route from the North or the South Rim – all routes are challenging and require preparation. According to the NPS website, hikers are expected to find their own way and be prepared for self-rescue. So, be sure, to pack well equipped First-Aid-Kit. Excellent physical fitness, prior hiking experience, and even some climbing experience are necessary to do these hikes. There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Prepare yourself for these experiences, pack properly. Pack and check the map, and guide routes to the inner canyon. These hiking trails are also infamous for the abundant poison ivy growing along the trail, 5 feet high in some spots. So be careful. Wear long pants and sleeves. There is also a shade most of the day, so wear layers. Those routes are not for children. Pets are not allowed in the inner canyon wilderness.
Be sure to pack at least 4 liters of water and a water filter or purification tablets. Wear sturdy hiking boots with perfect grip. Pack also high-energy foods, like proteins bars, beef jerky, nuts. Be prepared for rapid weather changing, and thunderstorms, so pack rain gear. What’s more, black bears are present in the wilderness. Here, you can check our tips from Alaska on how to prepare if you spot a bear on the trail. Don’t forget a good compass, as GPS devices often don’t work in the canyon. Pack headlamp and Emergency Sleeping Bag & Tent Shelter in the case in case you have trouble getting out of the canyon on the same day.
Below, we present only brief information about the possibilities of the inner route from the North Rim.
Distance: 1.75 miles (2.8 km) round trip| Time required: 5 hours | Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
According to the NPS website, this is the easiest inner canyon route on the North Rim. The trail drops 1,800 feet before arriving at the Gunnison River. But protect yourself against the poison ivy. Wear long sleeves and long pants. The route begins at the access ladder along the fence line just east of the North Rim Campground.
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km) round trip| Time required: 4,5 hours | Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
This route is also called Devil’s Slide, and it takes you to the narrowest parts of the canyon. There is plenty of poison ivy along the bottom of this route. The route starts at Balanced Rock Overlook.
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km) round trip| Time required: 4,5 hours | Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
This route starts at the Kneeling Camel View area. And it’s extremely steep and the most potentially dangerous due to loose rock and poor footing.
Admire Needle Rock
On the way to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, you can spot Needle Rock. It’s a fabulous rock formation which is located northeast of Crawford. So, it’s great to add a Needle Rock Natural Area short photos stop to your itinerary to enjoy the view.
Best Things To Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim
South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has many more visitors but is still underrated among national parks. You have easier access to South Rim from Montrose. The road is paved, and the park is open year-round. The South Rim Road is closed beyond the Visitor Center in the winter months. But you can still visit it during winter on foot, on ski or snowshoeing. What’s more, you have one of the best views of Black Canyon just to the visitor center (Gunnison Point). So, if you can choose only one part of the park, South Rim is more representative.
Drive South Rim Route
South Rim Road is paved, 7 miles long, and has 12 overlooks. Some viewpoints are close to parking spots, but some require 5 -12 minutes long walking. The longest walk is to Warner Point – 1373 yards one way. Most are located about 1/3 of a mile from the road. So you need at least 3-4 hours to do all overlooks and enjoy the scenery. The first overlook is Tomichi Point, just before you reach the South Rim visitor center. The road ends at High Point.
Visit South Rim Visitor Center
It’s worth stopping at the visitor center to grab a map and check the weather. If you plan to go to the inner canyon, you can pick up your permit and talk to rangers about the current weather situation and conditions on the routes. Next to the visitor center, you have one of the best overlooks – Gunnison Point.
Take Pictures of Black Canyon from South Rim
Below we list all 12 viewpoints on the route from start to finish. But if you do not have time to stop at each of them, in our opinion the best overlooks to take pictures on the South Rim of Black Canyon are Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall, Cedar Point Nature Trail, Dragon Point.
12 overlooks Black Canyon South Rim are:
- Tomichi Point
- Gunnison Point
- Pulpit Rock Overlook
- Cross Fissures View
- Rock Point
- Devils Lookout
- Chasm View
- Painted Wall
- Cedar Point Nature Trail
- Dragon Point
- Sunset View
- High Point
Take One of the Best Hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim
If you have more time to visit, you can choose one of the hikes along the South Rim. However, as mentioned above, short walks are also necessary to reach some of the viewpoints. The best hikes in Black Canyon South Rim are:
Rim Rock Nature Trail
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate | Distance: 2 miles round trip | Time required: 45 minutes – 1 hour
This hike starts near the entrance to Campground Loop C and ends at the South Rim Visitor Center. It’s a rather easy and flat path along the rim. You can admire the steep walls of the canyon and Gunnison River at the bottom. For us, it’s one of the best hikes on the South Rim.
Cedar Point Nature Trail
Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 2/3 mile round trip | Time required: 30 minutes
This trail leads you to one of the best overlooks on the South Rim. What’s more, during this walk you can admire local flora, as it offers guideposts describing the various plants along the way. From overlooks are views of the river over 2,000 feet below, with the famous Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado (2,250 ft.), as well as rock islands jutting up from the depths of the canyon. Pets are allowed on leash.
Warner Point Nature Trail
Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 1,5 miles round trip | Time required: 1 hour
Warner Point Trail is located at the end of South Rim Road, near the High Point overlook. What’s important, most of the hike, you don’t have views of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This hike offers views over the San Juan Mountain Range and Uncompahgre Valley. At the end of the trail, you can see Gunnison River. So, if you don’t have enough time choose another one with Black Canyon views.
Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 2 miles round trip | Time required: 45 minutes – 1 hour
It’s easy to hike, but it’s not along the rim, so you can’t admire the canyon from it. But you have the opportunity to spot some wildlife early in the morning or in the evening, and it offers views of the West Elk Mountains. Pets are not allowed.
Oak Flat Loop Trail
Difficulty: Strenuous | Distance: 2 miles round trip | Time required: 1,5 – 2 hours
This is the most strenuous hike along the rim. It offers variety to the hiker who would like to explore below the rim without taking on the challenge of hiking to the inner canyon of the river. The trail is narrow in places and traverses some steep slopes. Pets are not allowed. The trail begins near the Visitor Center.
Explore the Inner Canyon of the Gunnison
If you have a lot of experience hiking in rough terrain, great physical condition, you might consider hiking down to the bottom of the canyon. Remember that these are not marked trails. They are challenging descents to the inner canyon. You MUST HAVE Wilderness Use Permits. Check the regulations and rules for obtaining permits on the official website. Sometimes you need to pick up your permit the day before your hike, so reserve at least 2 days for this adventure.
Check out our tips above for the North Rim section to get well prepared for your adventure.
Distance: 1.5 miles (1.6 km) round trip| Time required: 3,5 hours | Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
This route is the easiest and most popular to the inner canyon. But it is still very strenuous. It begins at the South Rim Visitor Center. Follow the Oak Flat Trail for 1/3 mile, down the first few switchbacks to a sign “Wilderness Permit Required.” There is a steep descent to the chain down the drainage. An 80-foot chain is located 1/3 of the way down.
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km) round trip| Time required: 6 hours (4.5 hours, or triple the descent time)| Vertical Drop: 1960 feet (597 m)
Tomichi Route is the steepest South Rim route and is extremely difficult. The entire length of the route is loose rock and receives full sun exposure. There are several steep inclines near the top of the route that require scrambling. To get this route, park at Tomichi Point overlook. Take the Rim Rock Trail (near Loop C at the campground) to post #13. This is the start of the Tomichi Route.
Distance: 2.75 miles (4.4 km) round trip| Time required: 6,5 hours | Vertical Drop: 2722 feet (829 m)
This is the longest route, and NPS suggested overnight camping at the bottom. The bottom of this route takes you to a wider point in the canyon, which offers great fishing opportunities. This route starts at Warner Point Nature Trail. Walk this trail and find past post #13. Look for a large Utah serviceberry bush on the left marked with a small silver sign titled “Serviceberry Bush.” This is the start of the Warner Route.
Drive East Portal Road
From South Rim is also possible to get to the Gunnison River by car. The East Portal Road is 7 miles long, and it starts next to the park entrance station and ends at the Crystal Dam. But it is extremely steep with turns and 16% grades in some spots. Vehicles over 22 feet are prohibited. But check before your visit if it’s open. East Portal Road is closed in the summer of 2021 for a road construction project.
Go Fishing in Black Canyon
Fishing is possible on the Gunnison River, but you must have a permit and follow all rules. You can see the details on the official website.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is home to coyotes, elk, magpies, eagles, mule deer, bears, and more. If you plan hiking to the inner canyon, especially if you plan to camp there, check our tips from Alaska on what to pack in case you encounter a bear.
Kayak in the Gunnison River
Expert kayakers find the Gunnison River through the park an arduous challenge. So, consider rather a kayak or rafting trip in the area. Self-rafting is not possible in the canyon. You can do it only as an organized trip. Kayakers run the river at their own risk. So, before taking this adventure ask a ranger at the visitor center about current river conditions.