Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

There are canyons in North America that are deeper.
There are canyons in North America that are steeper.
There are canyons in North America that are narrower.

But there is arguably no canyon in North America that offers such a dramatic combination of depth, steepness and narrowness as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado. The canyon stretches almost 80 kilometers through a high plateau and reaches depths of up to 800 meters, while the canyon walls are sometimes less than 300 meters apart. There are parts of the gorge where the sun only shines for around 30 minutes a day. This makes the canyon, which already exists due to the dark rock, appear even darker. This is how the gorge got its name “Black Canyon”.

The Gunnison River, which formed the canyon, is one of the five steepest rivers in North America. In one part of the park, it climbs more than 50 meters in just one kilometer.

The park has two entrances, one on the north and one on the south. The southern entrance is much better developed and also more popular with visitors. The main attraction here is the 10-kilometer South Rim Drive, a panoramic road that partly meanders along the edge of the gorge. In addition to numerous vantage points, there are also several hiking trails and an informative visitor center.

At the vantage points, you should always keep an eye out for the birds that take advantage of the great thermals in the canyon. Here you can see, for example, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and turkey vultures. Mule deer, bighorn sheep and even cougars and black bears can also be found sporadically within the park.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park information

Location and Size
According to Travelationary, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park covers an area of ​​around 124 km² and is located in western Colorado.

Getting there
The park is easily accessible by car from Montrose on Highway 50. The park’s south entrance is about 20 minutes west of town. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive from Grand Junction and Gunnison is about an hour east of the park. The town of Montrose is also accessible by flight from Denver or even locations on the east coast.

Opening Hours and Seasons
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is generally open all year round. However, there are some parts of the park that are closed during the winter months. From the end of November to usually mid-April, for example, the entire north side of the canyon is closed. Also on the south side, East Portal Road and parts of South Rim Road are closed to traffic between November and April.

Centers The South Rim Visitor Center is open from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm year-round, and from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm during the summer months. On the north side there is only a ranger station and a station where you can pay the entrance fee yourself if the ranger station is not manned.

prices Park admission is valid for all visitors for up to 7 days. By private vehicle, admission is USD 20 per vehicle. For individuals entering the park on foot or by bike, the fee is $10. Motorcycles are $15. Children 16 and under are free.

America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual pass costs $80 and entitles you to visit over 2,000 US federal recreation areas and national parks for one year from the date of purchase. The entrance fee applies to the driver and all passengers of a private, non-commercial vehicle (or up to a maximum of 4 adults in total if per-person entrance fees are charged). Children under 16 are free. If you visit more than 4 national parks, it is usually worth buying the America the Beautiful Annual Pass.
The pass can be purchased at many stores across the US and is also available in advance from various tour operators.

Within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park there is no accommodation (apart from the camping possibilities) – and also no gastronomy. The closest hotels are in the town of Montrose, which is about 20 minutes from the park entrance. Here you will find the usual chain hotels and a wide range of shopping and dining options, as well as a small, well-arranged downtown.

Just over an hour east of the park is the farming community of Gunnison, site of Colorado’s oldest rodeo. Here, too, there are some accommodation options and numerous dining and shopping options. Another option is the ski resort of Crested Butte, a 30-minute drive away, which nestles idyllically in the Rockies with its colorful wooden houses.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can also be reached from Grand Junction – the largest city in western Colorado – within around 90 minutes.

There are three different camping options in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park area. By far the largest place is the South Rim Campground with 88 pitches. It is the only site in the park that has electricity and water connections (in summer) and reserved sites. Also accessible from the south side of the park is the East Portal Campground. Since this can only be reached via the very narrow and extremely curvy East Portal Road, the campground with its 15 pitches is only open to tent campers and mobile homes up to 6.70m in length. Since the road itself is closed in the winter months (Nov-Apr), this also applies to the campground.

The park’s smallest campground is on the north side of the canyon. The North Rim Campground has 13 unplugged sites. Water is available in midsummer. Mobile homes up to 10 meters in length are permitted here. However, the access road is unpaved for the last 10 kilometers. In spring and autumn the place is often full.

The summer months (June to mid-September) are generally warm to hot, but it often gets quite cool in the evenings. Daytime temperatures can occasionally reach the 30 degree mark. The risk of thunderstorms is particularly high in July and August.
Winter is usually cool. There are also occasional snowstorms between October and May.

Average temperatures in
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado in °C
Month Jan Feb March Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Max 2 7 12 16 22 28 31 29 25 18 9 3
Min -9 -6 -2 2 6 11 14 13 14 2 -4 -8th

Good gear, layered clothing appropriate to the season, and sound planning are essential to ensure a safe and comfortable stay when embarking on any major hikes. However, most viewpoints can be reached on foot from the respective parking spaces within a few minutes, so that sturdy, sure-footed shoes are recommended.


VUSA Tips for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

For most visitors, the classic visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park consists of a scenic drive along the south rim of the canyon, the South Rim Drive, which should take about half a day. The road meanders for around 10 kilometers directly along the southern edge of the gorge and has a total of 12 different viewpoints, which can usually be reached within short walks from different parking lots. If you are short on time, you should at least stop at the main viewpoints Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall and Sunset View.
The park’s visitor center is also located at Gunnison Point. There is an exciting exhibition about the fascinating formation of the canyon, as well as an impressive video about the gorge. The visitor center is therefore also a good place to stop.

Due to the extremely steep walls of the canyon, there are no opportunities for normal visitors to hike into the canyon. The existing hiking trails are mostly short trails that run along the edge of the gorge – including, for example, the 3 km long ‘Oak Flat Loop Trail’ or the somewhat easier, 2 km long ‘Warner Point Nature Trail’. More extensive and challenging hiking trails are located on the north side of the park with the ‘North Vista Trail’ (approx. 10 kilometers) and the ‘Dead Horse Trail’ (approx. 7.5 kilometers).

If you want to get to the bottom of the canyon , you have two options: The East Portal Road allows you to drive down a very winding, steep road to the bottom of the canyon at a slightly wider and flat spot on the east side of the park. In addition to a campground, there are also excellent fishing opportunities here. The second option is to descend unmarked trails through chutes directly into the canyon walls. However, this is only recommended for people in excellent physical condition, since hundreds of meters of altitude have to be overcome here in a very short time. In addition to appropriate preparation, these extreme hikes also require a wilderness permit from the national park rangers.

Basically the same applies to rock climbers and kayakers : Both activities are possible, but the terrain within the park is so demanding and sometimes dangerous that these activities are only suitable for absolute experts in the best physical condition.

Since the national park itself only covers around a quarter of the almost 80-kilometer-long canyon (but the deepest and steepest part), there are other options for activities in and around the canyon around the park. There are numerous opportunities for hiking, water sports, fishing and camping, especially in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, which borders the park to the east.

One of the most popular is the Morrow Point Boat Tour , which allows visitors to explore part of Black Canyon from comfortable pontoon boats on a roughly 90-minute cruise. The ticket costs USD 16 per person and requires prior reservation by phone or at the Elk Creek Visitor Center at Blue Mesa Reservoir. The tours themselves start at the Pine Creek Trail and take place twice a day (except Tuesday) during the summer months.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado