Black Canyon in Colorado in the Fall | Top Places to Visit

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, located near the town of Montrose in western Colorado, has an ominous name. The park protects 12 miles of a stunning 48-mile gorge of the Gunnison River. In parts of the park, this gorge is over 2000 feet deep and so narrow that sunlight only reaches certain lower portions for a half-hour each day. When combined with the canyon’s dark metamorphic rocks, the sheer cliffs often appear to be black.

Established as a national monument in 1933, Black Canyon was upgraded to a national park in 1999. While the park is small, only 48 square miles, it offers some big views. Visitors will want to focus on a series of vista points reached via the scenic South Rim Drive. Other highlights include some short hikes and the chance to drive to the Gunnison River near the eastern end of the park.

Visits to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are often best combined with road trips to other national parks and outdoor attractions in the region, including nearby Colorado national forests like the adjacent Uncompaghre N.F. These attractions include three other national parks in Colorado (Rocky Mountain NP, Great Sand Dunes NP, and Mesa Verde NP). Black Canyon is also considered part of the Grand Circle, a collection of ten western national parks that include Mesa Verde NP, Petrified Forest NP, Grand Canyon NP, Great Basin NP and Utah’s Mighty 5Arches NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Canyonlands NP, Capitol Reef NP, and Zion NP. Click the links for each park to learn more about them!

black canyon in colorado in the fall at tomichi point
Fall Colors at Tomichi Point. Krzysztof Wiktor/Adobe

When to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Because of the high elevation—Black Canyon’s South Rim is just over 8000 feet—you can comfortably visit the park anytime from late spring through early fall. Due to winter weather, the park’s main highlight, South Rim Drive, is closed from about mid-November to late-April.

Early fall is a great time for a visit to Black Canyon. Depending on elevation and seasonal conditions, fall colors in the area tend to peak around late September into early October. In general, a fall colors trip is a remarkable time of year for a Colorado vacation to the Rocky Mountains. Aspens and oak trees come alive in a colorful display of oranges, yellows, and reds.

Fall color season tends to be a popular time of year for visitation at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. September sees pleasant daily highs in the 70s and about the same average visitation as the peak summer months of June, July, and August. Once the fall foliage display ends, the latter half of October until mid-November sees far fewer visitors and cooler temperatures, with daytimes highs in the high 50s to high 40s.

What to do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison: South Rim

The paved South Rim Drive runs for 7 miles from Tomichi Point to High Point. Along the way, there are 12 scenic overlooks. The park service recommends allowing 2-3 hours to drive the road and stop at several overlooks.

Some of the most popular overlooks include Gunnison Point, which is a short walk from the South Rim Visitor Center. About halfway along the South Rim Road, Chasm View and Painted Wall offer two of the most dramatic visuals of the plunging sheer-walled canyon. Of particular interest, Painted Wall is the tallest sheer cliff face in Colorado at 2,250 feet. The famous viewpoint offers an iconic view of the canyon’s geology, where darker metamorphic rock is intruded by a series of lighter-colored pegmatite dikes. Near the end of the drive, Sunset Point is popular around sunset for its views of the canyon’s western continuation.

A view overlooking the Gunnison River
A view overlooking the Gunnison River. Krzysztof Wiktor/Adobe

Along the South Rim Drive, there are some short hikes, several of which include additional canyons views. The Rim Rock Nature Trail is a scenic and relatively flat hike for two miles (one-way) along the rim between the South Rim Campground and the South Rim Visitor Center. A slightly longer 3-mile loop can be made by combining the Rim Rock Nature Trail with the 1-mile Uplands Trail which runs away from the rim atop Vernal Mesa.

For adventurous hikers looking for something more challenging, the Oak Flat Loop Trail is a strenuous two miles, round trip. The trail starts near the Visitor Center and descends steeply partway inside the Black Canyon.

At the end of South Rim Drive, another popular hike is Warner Point Nature Trail. This trail is 1.5 miles, roundtrip, and starts from High Point Overlook and follows the rim out to Warner Point. The hike offers many views of the western extent of the Black Canyon.

Where to Stay When Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison

There are two campgrounds inside the park, one at the South Rim and one at the North Rim. Plus, there’s a third NPS campground just outside the park at East Portal.

The South Rim Campground is located one mile from the South Rim Visitor Center. This campground has 88 sites, and reservations can be made from mid-May through mid-September.

The East Portal Campground is located inside the Curecanti National Recreation Area at the bottom of the Black Canyon, along the Gunnison River. There are 15 sites, all of which are available on a first come, first serve basis from May until mid-October.

Because of the limited options for staying inside the park, most visitors stay outside the park in the nearby towns of Montrose and Gunnison. For more information visit the park webpage.

A rainbow forms over Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
A rainbow forms over Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Zach Schierl/NPS

The North Rim of Black Canyon

The North Rim is the less visited and less accessible side of the park. There are no paved roads—the access road to the rim and the North Rim Drive are both unpaved gravel roads. Along North Rim Drive there are five overlooks and three hiking trails. One hike is the very short (1/3-mile round trip) Chasm View Nature Trail. North Vista Trail is either a moderate 3 miles, round trip, to Exclamation Point or a strenuous 7 miles, round trip, to Green Mountain. Deadhorse Trail is a moderate 5 miles round trip into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area. The North Rim Campground has only 13 sites, all first come, first served.

Final Thoughts

Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park provides a truly unique experience with its steep, narrow canyon walls and stunning geological features. Despite being lesser-known than some other national parks, its dramatic landscapes and impressive vistas make it a must-see destination. Located near Montrose in western Colorado, the park offers a variety of activities from scenic drives and short hikes along the South Rim to more challenging trails and less crowded experiences on the North Rim.

The South Rim Drive provides easy access to numerous overlooks where you can marvel at the canyon’s sheer cliffs, including the Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado. For those who enjoy hiking, trails like the Rim Rock Nature Trail and the Oak Flat Loop Trail offer additional opportunities to explore the park’s natural beauty. Meanwhile, the Warner Point Nature Trail provides stunning views from the rim out to Warner Point.

If you prefer a quieter and more rugged experience, the North Rim offers gravel roads, fewer visitors, and a selection of scenic overlooks and trails. Camping options are available within the park at both the South and North Rim campgrounds, though many visitors choose to stay in nearby Montrose or Gunnison for additional amenities.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is best visited from late spring through early fall, with fall being particularly beautiful as the area’s foliage turns vibrant shades of orange, yellow, and red. Whether you’re seeking a peaceful retreat, an adventurous hike, or a chance to witness some of nature’s most awe-inspiring formations, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park delivers an unforgettable experience.

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FAQs

What is special about Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is special because of its incredibly steep, narrow canyon walls that plunge dramatically to the Gunnison River below. The canyon’s unique features include some of the oldest rock formations in North America, dramatic overlooks, and scenic drives. The Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado, and the sheer drop-offs create breathtaking views and challenging hiking trails.

How long does it take to drive through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Driving through the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park typically takes about 1 to 2 hours, depending on how many stops you make at the various viewpoints and overlooks. The South Rim Road is 7 miles long and features 12 scenic overlooks. The North Rim is less developed and has a 6-mile gravel road with several overlooks, which also takes about 1 to 2 hours to explore.

Is it worth going to Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Yes, it is absolutely worth visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The park offers unique geological formations, stunning vistas, and a sense of awe that comes from viewing such dramatic and rugged terrain. Whether you enjoy hiking, photography, or simply soaking in nature’s beauty, the park provides an unforgettable experience.

What town is near Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

The nearest town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is Montrose, Colorado. Montrose is about a 20-minute drive from the South Rim entrance of the park and offers various amenities, including hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Are there bears in Black Canyon?

Yes, there are black bears in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. While sightings are not extremely common, it’s important to practice bear safety by storing food properly and being aware of your surroundings while hiking and camping.

Do you need a reservation for Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

No, you do not need a reservation to enter Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. However, some campsites within the park do require reservations, especially during the peak season. It’s always a good idea to check the park’s official website for the latest information on camping and any other special regulations.

Is the drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison scary?

The drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison is generally not considered scary, but it does involve some winding roads and steep drop-offs, especially along the rim drives. If you are comfortable driving in mountainous areas and take your time, you should find the drive manageable and very scenic.

Can you swim in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Swimming in the Gunnison River within the Black Canyon is not recommended due to the dangerous and swift currents, cold water temperatures, and steep canyon walls. The river is known for its challenging rapids and should be approached with caution, primarily for experienced kayakers and rafters.

When to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

The best times to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison are in the spring (April to June) and fall (September to October). During these seasons, the weather is mild, and the park is less crowded. Summer can also be a good time to visit, but temperatures can be warmer, and there may be more visitors. Winter offers a unique experience with fewer crowds and the opportunity for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but access to some areas may be limited due to snow.

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Cover photo: Painted Wall at Sunset. Krzysztof Wiktor/Adobe

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

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