Are you planning a visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park? Congratulations! You’ve discovered a lesser-known National Park gem!
In this guide, discover all the best things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison, as well as tips to plan a successful visit.
6 Top Things to Do in
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Excuse the nerdy teacher in me for a moment, but looking at Black Canyon, it’s easy to focus on the towering rock walls. Whether what you’re seeing is smooth or jagged, flat or rounded, the formations are impressive to the eye. Yet, the Gunnison River below is the true source of power that cut through the rock for millions of years as it eroded and shaped the rock into the canyon that it is today.
Standing on either rim, Black Canyon plunges more than 2,700 feet down at its deepest point. Within the National Park limits, you’ll see 14 miles of the 48-mile canyon.
At its widest, the North and South Rims of the Canyon are only 1/4 of a mile apart. At the Narrows Viewpoint, the base of the canyon walls are just 40 feet away from each other! This makes it nearly impossible for sunlight to get into the deepest parts of the Canyon at all!
If you’re wondering which of Black Canyon’s rims to visit, the South Rim is where most visitors spend their time. The North Rim is more remote and, even though the distance between them isn’t much, it can take up to 2 1/2 hours by car to reach the North Rim from the South Rim.
As you plan your visit, remember to have your American the Beautiful pass. It pays for itself if you plan to see 2-3 National Parks or Monuments within 12 months. If you’re on a Colorado road trip, the state alone has 3 other National Parks besides Black Canyon making the pass a great way to save money on National Park entry fees.
Depending on what you’d like to do in the National Park, it’s entirely possible to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison for a day or even for a few hours. Here’s how to plan your time.
1. Drive the Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim Road.
From the South Rim Visitor Center to High Point at the end of the road, there are 12 scenic viewpoints where you can stop to overlook the canyon. The majority of the stops have a short trail leading to the canyon views.
Of all the stops, don’t miss Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall View (looks like paint dripping down the rock wall!), and Sunset View. Pulpit Rock is also a highlight as it has wide-open views of the canyon and the river below.
As you plan your time, know that stopping at each of the 12 incredible overlooks along the 7-mile scenic drive would take around 2 – 2 1/2 hours. It would seem obvious to say this but…remember to stay on the trails. You do NOT want to get too close to the edge of the rim.
2. Plan Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hiking.
There’s nothing better than exploring a National Park on foot! If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, then you know that trails can range from flat and easy on the rim to steep and strenuous as you climb up and out of the canyon.
At Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the Rim Rock Nature Trail is a mostly flat 1-mile round trip hike. The trailhead is near the South Rim Campgrounds and finishes at the Visitor Center. Along the way, you can see both the walls of the canyon and the river below. Plan about 30 minutes to complete this hike.
Don’t be fooled by the name of this next hike! The Oak Flat Loop Trail is anything but flat. This strenuous 2-mile hike takes you below Black Canyon’s rim (but not all the way to the bottom) and reveals a couple of scenic overlooks with views you can only get by getting under the rim. Look for the trailhead near the South Rim Visitor Center and plan on 1 – 1 1/2 hours to complete the round trip.
The Warner Point Trail is accessible from High Point, the last stop on the South Rim Road. It’s a moderate 1.5-mile round trip hike. You can take a trail guide at the High Point viewpoint. This trail will take about an hour to complete and has views of Black Canyon, the Gunnison River, and the valley and mountains beyond the National Park.
3. Drive the East Portal Road.
The East Portal Road takes you down to the bottom of Black Canyon to the Gunnison River. The drive is an adventurous 5-mile journey along a steep and winding road into the canyon. Don’t worry! It’s not as scary as it sounds and you get to see the Gunnison River up close and the National Park from a different perspective.
There are spots to picnic and campgrounds at the base. There’s also a chance to spot wildlife from deer to bears as you get away from the busier South Rim Road. Plan on the drive taking about an hour to go down and back up the road.
Vehicles with trailers or longer than 22 feet are not allowed on the East Portal Road.
4. Enjoy the Night Sky.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an International Dark Sky Park, meaning there is very little artificial light and a lot of darkness for thousands of stars to shine brightly.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison stays open so you can drive the South Rim Road after dark. Head to viewpoints like Chasm Point and Sunset View which are set away from the road.
In the summer, night programs are held by Park Rangers to help you get the most from your stargazing, including looking at the galaxy through one of the Park’s telescopes.
5. Look for Wildlife.
Even in the rocky, harshness of Black Canyon, wildlife lives and thrives. No matter how many National Parks I’ve been to, seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is always a thrill.
As you drive and hike in Black Canyon of the Gunnison look for Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons overhead, mule deer, skunks, chipmunks, and weasels, and if you’re lucky, maybe even a black bear or bobcat.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot wildlife and always respect that you are in their home. Allow them their rightful space.
6. Get onto the Gunnison River.
Imagine looking up at the imposing walls of Black Canyon from the Gunnison River. You can do just that on the 90-minute Morrow Point Boat Tour. The tours run in the summer months until just after Labor Day. Reservations are required. Dates and times are opened in May.
The boat leaves from the Pine Creek boat dock, which you get to from the Pine Creek Trail from U.S. 50. The trail to the dock includes 200+ steps and a 1-mile walk along a dirt path. Just remember that what goes down must come up. When the tour is finished, you’ll need to head back up to the parking area via the trail and stairs.
The reward is the opportunity to see waterfalls dropping from openings in the canyon walls, wildlife along the banks of the river, and a guided exploration of beautiful Black Canyon.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Camping
Black Canyon has 2 available campgrounds, 1 on the South Rim and 1 on the North Rim. Campers can also find the East Portal Campground at the bottom of the Canyon, technically just outside the borders of the National Park.
There’s also backcountry camping in the inner parts of the canyon, but you’ll need to get a permit from the Visitor’s Center on either the South or North rims. Permits are given out on the day of and aren’t available for advance reservations. Keep in mind, wilderness camping is for experienced campers who plan to pack in the essentials including food and water.
Hotels near Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The National Park has no hotels within its boundaries, only campgrounds. Most visitors spend their time on the South Rim and use the town of Montrose as their gateway for the National Park.
I recommend staying at the Montrose Hampton Inn. The town is just 20 minutes away and the hotel is clean, comfortable, and includes a free breakfast. Montrose also has gas service stations and places to eat.
What would you like to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
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