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 5—Arches NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Canyonlands NP, Capitol Reef NP, and Zion NP. Click the links for each park to learn more about them!
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.
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.
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.
We hope these tips have been helpful for planning your trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! There’s plenty more to share, so if you have a tip to share, please leave it in the comments below!
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Cover photo: Painted Wall at Sunset. Krzysztof Wiktor/Adobe