LOOKING TO EXPLORE ONE OF COLORADO'S LESSER-KNOWN NATIONAL PARKS? THEN CONSIDER HEADING TO BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK. HERE IS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW.
Ask most people about national parks in Colorado and they will quickly bring up Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most famous and most visited parks in the whole USA. But did you know that the state of Colorado is also home to three other national parks? While the other three don't bring in nearly as many visitors as Rocky, all are very unique and 100% worth visiting - including probably the least visited of them all, Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
While you can explore the epic Black Canyon of the Gunnison canyon in other places - most notably in the Curecanti National Recreation Area nearby, the national park itself actually contains the deepest and most dramatic section of the entire canyon. Interestingly, the canyon's name owes itself to the fact that parts of the gorge only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day, according to Images of America: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. In the same book, author Duane Vandenbusche states, "Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combines the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon." Now if that doesn't make you want to visit, then nothing will.
\\ Fast Facts
Year Established: 1999
Size: 30,750 acres or 124.4 square kilometers
Number of Visitors: in 2018 there were 308,962 visitors
Cost to Enter: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, and $15 per individual (bicycle or pedestrian). All are valid for 7 days.
\\ History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Ute Indians knew about the canyons existence long before the first Europeans saw it. They referred to the river as "much rocks, big water," and are known to have avoided the canyon out of superstition. The first "official" account of the Black Canyon was provided by Captain John Williams Gunnison in 1853. Gunnison was leading an expedition whose goal was to survey a potential route from Saint Louis to San Francisco. He described the country to be "the roughest, most hilly and most cut up," he had ever seen, and skirted the canyon by going south towards present-day Montrose. Note: the river and nearby town of Gunnison were named in honor of Captain Gunnison after his death in 1854.
In 1881, William Jackson Palmer's Denver and Rio Grande Railroad had reached the town of Gunnison. This rail line was built to provide a link to the quickly growing gold and silver mines of the San Juan mountains nearby. It took over a year for laborers to carve out a 15-mile roadbed from Sapinero to Cimarron (right along the canyon), which cost a staggering $165,000 a mile - with the last mile said to have cost more than the entire Royal Gorge project combined.
Soon passenger trains were passing through the canyon as well. And as one traveler noted, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is "undoubtedly the largest and most rugged canyon in the world traversed by the iron horse. We had often heard of the scenery of this canyon, but no one can have the faintest conception of its grandeur and magnificence until they have made a trip through it. It is a narrow gorge with walls of granite rising in some places to a height of thousands of feet…"
But by 1890, an alternate route through nearby Glenwood Springs had been completed and the route through the Black Canyon, being much more difficult to operate, lost importance for cargo trains. However, local rail traffic continued over the "Black Canyon Line" until the route was finally abandoned in the early 1950s.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a national monument on March 2, 1933 before being re-designated as a national park in 1999. Note: between 1933-1935 the Civilian Conservation Corps built the North Rim Road, which would include five miles of roadway and five overlooks. Today, the area is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
Read more about the history of the national park here.
\\ When to Visit
You can visit the national park year-round, though the South Rim is the only area that really stays open in the winter. The road to the North Rim and the small visitor center located there, close at the end of November and open sometime in April (depending on snow levels).
If you are looking to explore the bottom of the canyon, or just hike around the rim, we suggest visiting in the late springtime (April-early June) when all the flowers are blooming and the temperature isn’t too hot yet. Though, we visited in the middle of July and while the middle of the day was pretty toasty (in the 90s) it was never unbearable.
\\ How to Get There
The park is just over 5 hours from Denver, which is by far the closest major airport to the Black Canyon. Other larger towns nearby include Montrose (20 minutes from the South Rim), Grand Junction (1.5 hours from the South Rim) and Glenwood Springs (2.5 hours from the North Rim).
The distance to the park entirely depends on which side of the park you want to be on: the North Rim has more hiking, especially if you are looking to head down to the canyon floor, but no real visitor center. Whereas the South Rim has a larger visitor center but not as much hiking. More on the two rims below.
\\ What to Not Miss
There are a variety of animals that call Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park home. Including, mule deer, bears, mountain lions, a variety of birds (over 125), river otters, and bighorn sheep. But, while all of these animals call the park home, in truth, each lives in its own specific area: mule deer in the juniper forests along the canyon rim, bighorn sheep on the steep canyon walls, and river otters in the rushing Gunnison River at the base of the canyon.
The most common plants you will see, especially along the rim are pinyon and juniper trees, various wildflowers - especially in spring - sagebrush and Gambel oak trees. Once you start to descend into the canyon you will see more cactus, poison ivy and oak plants, and a variety of smaller bushes. Finally, once at the bottom, you will see thickets of water-loving plants as well as groves of various cottonwood trees.
Learn more about the various life zones in the park here.
Points of Interest
Besides the stunning canyon itself, and the various observation points along its rim, there are not very many points of interest within the park. But with that being said, there is one spot that is worth seeing (though it is not technically in the park): the D&RG Narrow Gauge Trestle, a historic bridge that crosses the Gunnison River near the town of Cimarron. This historic railroad bridge was completed in 1881 and is said to have cost more than the entire Royal Gorge railway project (see the history section above). The goal of having a train run through the area was to connect the bustling city of Denver with the burgeoning gold and silver mines of the San Juan mountains nearby. The first passenger train barreled through in 1882 and as one person states, it seems it made quite the impression.
"Another such feat of railroad engineering probably can not be found in the world, and there is probably no section of Colorado or of the whole country where such a varied and interesting lot of scenery can be found."
\\ Top Adventures
You can find some great hiking trails on both the South and North Rims of the canyon. The majority of trails, especially on the South Rim, lead to observation points or lookouts. Some great ones to check out are Oak Flat Loop Trail (2-miles), Chasm View Nature Trail (⅓ mile) and Warner Point Nature Trail (1.5 miles) - all three of which are located near the South Rim Visitor Center.
Now, if you are wanting to head out for a full-day adventure you have two options: stay above the canyon on one of the longer trails at the North Rim, or head down to the canyon floor (also likely done from the North Rim). If you aren’t looking to do the hike down, consider checking out the North Vista Trail (3-7 miles in length) and Deadhorse Trail (5 miles). But if you are looking to head down to the canyon floor (which we definitely recommend) then you can take the S.O.B Draw (the easiest trail, has 6 backcountry campsites), Long Draw (narrow, so more shade; one campsite) and Slide Draw (the most dangerous due to loose screw, 2 campsites). Whichever route you choose to take, make sure to grab a Wilderness Permit at the visitor center before heading out.
It is highly recommended that only expert climbers attempt to climb in the Black Canyon due to the extreme difficulty: of the 145 known routes, 117 of them