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
\\ State: Colorado
\\ Size: 30,750 acres or 124.4 square kilometers
\\ # 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 are rated 5.10 and above. Now, this likely will curtail a lot of climbers (we know it does for us), but if you feel like you are at that climbing level, then we definitely recommend taking the canyon on.
Need more inspiration? The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is extremely deep and narrow. In fact, at its deepest, the canyon is 2,722 feet deep (Warner Point). Also, the stunning Painted Wall (which you can clearly see from both rims) is the tallest vertical wall in Colorado, with a height of 2,250 feet. As for climbing, the majority of activity takes place around the North and South Chasm Walls, where the canyon is (only!) 1,820 feet deep. Talk about some crazy views of the canyon!
Designated a Dark Sky Park in 2015, Black Canyon of the Gunnison focuses heavily on keeping their light pollution extremely low. They do this by having only the bare minimum of artificial lighting - aka, only what is necessary for safety. Similarly, motion detectors help limit the light needed within restrooms and other areas in the park. And finally, all outdoor lighting devices use low-energy, low-impact bulbs with shields that direct light to the ground where it is needed.
These measures seem to be working: as of 2019, the park had a rating of 21.5 (23 is perfect). The only national parks with darker skies are Big Bend (Texas), Great Basin (Nevada) and Natural Bridges (Utah).
The top places to view the stars are Chasm View, Dragon Point, and Sunset View (on the South Rim) and Chasm View Nature Trail or Kneeling Camel View (on the North Rim). You can also join in on one of the ranger-led astronomy programs, which occur weekly during the summer. Check out the park’s calendar to see when the next one is.
| Where to Stay
Inside the Park
The Black Canyon offers two campgrounds - one on each rim. The South Rim Campground has 88 sites, each with its own food storage lockers (to keep out bears), picnic table and fire ring. There is potable water available during the warmer months, but no cellphone service or store. The North Rim Campground is much smaller, only offering 13 sites, all of which are first-come, first-served. Similar to the South Rim, services are limited. While the campground is much smaller, the sites themselves are a lot bigger and more spread out, with most of the tent sites surrounded by pinyon and juniper trees. One thing to know is that the North Rim campground fills quickly during the summer, especially on weekends, so make sure to get there early to snag a spot.
The South Rim Campground does require reservations, which you can do here.
Another option is the East Portal Campground, which is located down at the bottom of the canyon. You can only reach the campground by taking the East Portal Road, which as of May 2021 was under construction and closed for the summer season. This campground has 15 sites, all of which are also first-come, first-served. Note: all three campsites charge $16 per night, except the sites on the South Rim with electricity hook-ups (those are $22 a night).
The final option, and one we highly recommend, is to hike down to the bottom of the canyon and camp along the river. There are a limited number of spots available so we recommend heading down there early to claim a good one. You do need a Wilderness Permit, which you can pick up at the visitor centers (they are free). Learn more about camping in the canyon here.
Outside the Park
The closest towns with really any amenities, including hotels, motels or Airbnb’s are going to be in Montrose, Crawford and Gunnison. If you want the most options we suggest heading to Montrose, which is less than half an hour from the South Rim, and full of the standard hotel options.
If you want to camp, either in a tent or in a van/RV, but don’t want to be at an established campground, then we suggest staying along the numerous forest roads that run around the park. We personally found some great boondocking sites right off County Road 77, located about 2 miles from the North Rim entrance.
| Must-See Spots Nearby
While Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park feels like it is in the middle of nowhere, in fact there are numerous sites to see nearby. This includes the adorable mountain town of Crested Butte (read our full 3-day itinerary here), the stunning San Juan Mountains - home to historic towns such as Telluride, Ouray and Silverton and finally, not too far away to the west is the Colorado National Monument - an incredible high desert plateau with towering monoliths and deep canyons (highly recommend).
Closer to the park is Crawford State Park, where you can camp and fish on a sizable lake, the Needle Rock Natural Area and the Curecanti National Recreation Area, a great spot for boating and hiking.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a true hidden gem in the state of Colorado. While it doesn't get the fanfare like other parks in the area, it is one of those places that once you visit and see it with your own eyes, you can't help but be blown away - and of course wonder why you haven't visited sooner.