(Literally) Awesome: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)

Painted Wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado - Happier Place

The moment you come upon the deep, dark canyon, you’ll be amazed. But it’s when you see the magnificent Painted Wall that you know the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is truly awesome.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park may be the least known of the four National Parks in Colorado. But that’s probably because it’s a bit off the beaten path and not because it lacks in amazing vistas and memorable outdoor experiences.

While it’s not the longest or deepest canyon in the USA, the Black Canyon is so deep, steep and narrow that it’s one of the most fascinating to view.

Quick Facts About the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

It’s almost 5 hours driving distance from Denver, almost 6 hours from Salt Lake City, UT and over 6 hours from Albuquerque, NM. But it’s only a little about an hour and a half drive from Telluride, CO. We believe it’s worth even the longer drives – especially if you combine it with other nearby outdoor attractions.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a 48-mile (77 km) long gorge on the west side of the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado. Like all rivers west of the Continental Divide, it runs towards the Pacific – but not very far. Its headwaters are just above the town of Gunnison; and it already merges into the Colorado River in Grand Junction. Over 2 million years the Gunnison River carved the gorge out of the Precambrian rock – up to 2,722 feet (830 m) at its deepest spot at Warner Point.

Plays of light and shadow around the Black Canyon
The play of light and shadow around the Black Canyon

The name Black Canyon comes from the fact that some parts down in the gorge only receive about 30 minutes of sunlight a day. Maybe because of that prevailing darkness, the Ute tribes avoided the canyon out of superstition long before European adventurers discovered it for themselves. The name Gunnison comes from John W. Gunnison, a US Army officer who surveyed for the transcontinental railroad in 1853.

Between the towns of Montrose and Crawford, the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park contains 12 miles of the gorge, including the deepest and most dramatic sections. The two entrances to the park are both at the top. The South Rim Entrance is open year-round, the North Rim Entrance is closed in the winter.

Person at Overlook at Gunnison Point near the National Park's Visitor Center
Overlook at Gunnison Point near the National Park’s Visitor Center

Must-See Sights in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The easiest way to see the Black Canyon is to follow the 7-mile South Rim Drive, which includes 12 overlooks. The overlooks are mostly just a quick walk from where you can park your car. If you don’t have time for the whole route, try to at least check out Gunnison Point (location of the visitors center), Chasm View, Sunset View, and…

… most importantly: do not leave the National Park without having gazed at The Painted Wall! The Painted Wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the tallest vertical cliff wall in Colorado, standing 2,250 feet (690 meters) tall! What makes it so stunning, besides its size, are the intricate lines “painted” by dikes of igneous pegmatite rock, containing crystals. So cool!

The Painted Wall in the Black Canyon is the tallest vertical cliff wall in Colorado - and the featured image for April in the Happier Place Nature Photography Calendar 2019
The Painted Wall in the Black Canyon is the tallest vertical cliff wall in Colorado – and the featured image for April in the Happier Place Nature Photography Calendar 2019

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP Visitor FAQs and Tips

The South Rim Drive is open year-round. However from November to mid-April (approx.), the South Rim Drive is only open up to Gunnison Point for vehicles. The entire road may be open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The North Rim Road, its Ranger Station and the East Portal Road are usually only open from mid-April to November.

The South Rim Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Hours vary by season, but generally the visitor center is open at least from 9am to 4pm.

View of Gunnison River flowing through the Black Canyon - seen from Pulpit Rock Overlook
View from Pulpit Rock Overlook of the Gunnison River flowing through the Black Canyon

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park entrance fee is $20 per personal vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, and $10 per pedestrian or bicycle. Commercial fees are between $32 and $100.

As with all of our posts about US National Parks, we highly recommend you purchase the America the Beautiful Pass, which covers your fee at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites across the United States, including all the National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. It’s a great way to support the amazing U.S. National Parks and Recreational Lands system! As of this writing, the America the Beautiful pass costs $80 (even less if you’re eligible for any of their discounted passes, e.g. senior or military).

Looking from the South Rim to the North Rim and Rocky Mountain peaks beyond
Looking from the South Rim to the North Rim and snow-covered mountain peaks beyond

There are three campgrounds in the area: South Rim and North Rim at the top of the canyon and East Portal, which is at the bottom near the historic Gunnison River Diversion Tunnel.

Unlike many other US National Parks, pets are actually allowed in more places than just the parking lots. However, they have to be on the leash and are only allowed in the North Rim Campground, the parking spots and walkways to the overlooks, on the Cedar Point Nature Trail, the North Rim Chasm View Nature Trail and on the roads. Pets are not allowed along any other trails or areas. Please don’t leave your pets unattended in a car.

Research deeper with this collection of maps for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Looking into the canyon from one of 12 official overlooks along the South Rim of the Black Canyon in Colorado
Looking into the canyon from one of 12 official overlooks along the South Rim

Activities at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The most obvious activity is to just stand there at the rim and stare into the canyon. Following the South Rim Drive or the North Rim Drive (from mid-April to November only), you can even stare at it from a multitude of different angles.

Looking for more activity? You can hike along and slightly down into the gorge from several easy and moderate hiking trails along the South Rim and the North Rim. If you only have time for one hike, we were recommended the 1.5-mile roundtrip Warner Point Nature Trail. However, we didn’t want to leave WhiskeyDog in the car while we’re hiking. We’re not nature-hungry monsters. If you take that trail (or any others), please send us some photos – we might even include one in this post…

The more experienced, daring and physically fit hiker can also hike into the inner canyon. According to National Park Services, these trails that lead from either the south or the north rim down to the bottom of the canyon are “extremely steep, rocky and strenuous”.

"No Rock Throwing - Hikers Below" sign on the South Rim of the Black Canyon
“No Rock Throwing – Hikers Below” sign on the South Rim of the Black Canyon

Kayaking in the Black Canyon is possible, but should only be attempted by very experienced kayakers. The rapids within the park are rated Class V. Of course, some people also climb the walls of the canyon, mostly in the area of the North and South Chasm Walls.

Rapids along the Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon
Rapids along the Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon

Since it’s Colorado and there’s a river, of course, fishing is also a possible activity in the Black Canyon. And the fishing there is supposed to be amazing, especially for hungry monster rainbow and brown trout, according to DIY Fly Fishing. As a matter of fact, the Gunnison River within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is deemed a Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water because of its outstanding angling opportunities for large trout.

If you time it just right: watch the sunset from Sunset View. (Again, we didn’t because by the time the sun set we watched it in Arches National Park – what a day!)

How Do I Access the River in Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Glad you asked. … because it’s a question that might not puzzle you until you stand at the rim staring down into the deep gorge… especially if you know that there are some monster rainbow trout down in the Gunnison River. According to National Park Services, the easiest access to the Gunnison River is to drive the East Portal Road, on the South Rim. “This road is extremely steep (15% grades) with hairpin curves. Vehicles with an overall length (including trailer) greater than 22 feet are prohibited.”

Alternatively, you can hike down the inner canyon routes, like the Gunnison Route. However, these trails are very challenging due to the steep, rocky terrain and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. A backcountry permit is required.

The Gunnison River inside the Black Canyon has been designated Gold Medal Water status for its outstanding trout fishing
The Gunnison River inside the Black Canyon has been designated Gold Medal Water status for its outstanding trout fishing

Things To Do Near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Black Canyon is a bit out of the way – so it’s worth combining your visit with other sights and activities.

The Town of Gunnison is only 60 miles east (about 70-minute drive) from the National Park. Besides plenty of hotels to spend the night, Gunnison also features Powerstop, the “Coolest Gas Station Restaurant Ever!!!”. We personally recommend it.

Between the town of Gunnison and the Black Canyon is the stunning Curecanti National Recreation Area around Blue Mesa Reservoir. You might want to plan one or many days right here. We wish we had. Even if you can’t stay around Curecanti, and even if you drove to the Black Canyon from the other direction: do yourself the favor and drive the scenic route along Highway 50 between the two.

Dillon Pinnacles at the Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Curecanti National Recreation Area just east of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Dillon Pinnacles at the Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Curecanti National Recreation Area east of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

North-west you will find Grand Junction – about 70 miles, 85-minute drive. On this drive, keep your eyes open for a whole lot full of vintage cars. And then just outside of Grand Junction you’ll find Colorado National Monument, a park full of red sandstone monoliths and canyons. Another hop and and a few skips west, you’ll get to Moab, Utah, and two more national Parks: Arches NP and Canyonlands NP.

Approaching the Black Canyon: If you’re driving in from the east (e.g., from I-25, Colorado Springs, etc.) as we did, we’d like to alert you that the shortest route will take you over the Continental Divide via Monarch Pass. Depending on the time of day and season, you may suddenly find yourself with near-zero visibility during unexpected snowfall (we did in April). And if by chance you’ve watched the Netflix series Maniac – that’s the pass where the traumatic event happens in Emma Stone’s character’s life. However, if the weather is great, make sure you stop and take a moment to appreciate standing directly on the Continental Divide!

More Photos from Around the Black Canyon

Not only the famous Painted Wall shows the intricate lines of crystal-filled rock along the Black Canyon
Not only the famous Painted Wall shows the intricate lines of crystal-filled rock along the Black Canyon
Tall spires and the rushing Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon
Tall spires, evergreen trees, and the rushing Gunnison River at the bottom of the Black Canyon
Green life along the Black Canyon
It’s not all black: green life along the Black Canyon
Evergreen trees growing on the cliff wall of the Black Canyon in Colorado
Hold on!!!
Indian Paintbrush - a red wildflower common along the Colorado Plateau
Black Canyon Blooms: Indian Paintbrush – a wildflower common along the Colorado Plateau
Because the Black Canyon gets so narrow in certain areas, the contrast between light and shadow is more dramatic than in most gorges
Because the Black Canyon gets so narrow in certain areas, the contrast between light and shadow is especially dramatic
Falling rock held by crags in the Black Canyon
Watch out for falling rocks, huge rocks!
One last look deep into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
One last look deep into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

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All photos in this post were taken by Luci Westphal. By clicking on an individual image you can see a larger version. Also: more photos from the Black Canyon.

(Literally) Awesome: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park  (Colorado)

9 thoughts on “(Literally) Awesome: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)

  1. Wow this is literally breathtaking for sure. Beautiful scenery and views. I love all your fab piccys too xx

  2. I’ve only been to Grand Canyons South rim and had no idea about Black Canyons! Saving it for my future trips. By the way, your pictures are splendid!

  3. Nature can be so beautiful! I’m in love with the whole landscape. That canyon is indeed deep but I love the watch point where you get to see its beauty and get some pictures too.

  4. Wow. It is so beautiful! I can’t believe it only receives 30 minutes of sunlight a day. It makes me wonder what kind of vegetation would thrive in the area. Totally amazing. I wish I could see it in person!

  5. Omg! This place looks absolutely amazing! I will be going to CO for my bachelorette and will def be putting this on my list!

  6. Wow, that looks deep. I’ve been to Colorado before, but never to that part of the state. Only Denver and its suburbs.

  7. I enjoy hiking at canyons. Adding the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to my travel list. Btw awesome photos

  8. This natural park is amazing and you have shared all the informative details.

  9. There are so many national parks I want to visit — thanks for this informative post! Your pictures are stunning and this definitely seems like a must-see place. Thanks — Paige Bainbridge (www.paigebainbridge.com)

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