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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
Since it’s Colorado and there’s a river, of course, fishing is also a possible activity in the Black Canyon. And the fishing is supposed to be particularly amazing in the “Gunny”- 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 Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water because of its outstanding angling opportunities for large wild 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.
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.
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
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All photos in this post were taken by Luci Westphal – except the two credited to Captain Frank Praznik of Coastal Fly Fishing Adventures. By clicking on any of Luci’s photos you can see a larger version. Check out even more of our photos from the Black Canyon.