When describing Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to someone who’s never visited, you might draw some comparisons to Grand Canyon National Park or even New River Gorge National Park, but those are quickly dismissed when you first peek out from the first overlook. The vertigo-inducing views will catch you off guard like no other park you’ve visited.
The walls of Black Canyon are so steep and the river so narrow at places, it struggles to get even a few minutes of sunlight per day in places. This vertical landscape is full of awe, ancient geology, and one incredible view after another.
Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can be done in a few hours, but we suggest taking a little more time to explore a little deeper to see what it has to offer. Some of the very best views aren’t from the top, but from the bottom at the Gunnison River that’s been carving up this rock for eons. If you decide to take the winding trip to the bottom, you’ll be rewarded with a cool new perspective.
Whether you have a few days or just a few hours, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is worth a stop. Let’s check it out!
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Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Start with a scenic drive
Like the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon of the Gunnison has two rims, a North and South Rim. The South Rim is more developed and is where we spent all of our time. The North Rim, while less developed, still offers hiking, camping, and a scenic drive with five overlooks.
After taking some time to explore the South Rim Visitor Center, set out to one of the twelve overlooks along the South Rim Road.
Gunnison Point is just beyond the Visitor Center and is where we got our first view of the Canyon and the Gunnison River. It’s an easy walk down from the Visitor Center and is a great way to get started exploring.
Painted Wall View
Painted Wall View is another popular overlook in the park. Striations in the rock allow you to see the unique geology of Black Canyon. Some of these are millions of years old.
All of the overlooks in Black Canyon are stunning, so be sure to stop at as many as your schedule will allow. You can stop at all twelve if you have three hours or so.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hiking Trails
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has several hiking trails both along the rim and down into the canyon. Generally the trails along the rim are easy to moderate while the trails into the canyon are strenuous and will require a wilderness permit.
The Rim Rock Trail and the Oak Flat Trail are two-mile loops that are accessible from the South Rim Visitor Center. The Rim Rock Trail is mostly flat and offers some great views of the canyon. The Oak Flat Trail will take you below the rim and is much more strenuous. It does not go all the way to the river.
However, if you want to hike the rest of the way, you’ll meet up with the Gunnison Route. It’s unmarked trail over loose rock and poison ivy, and you must have a permit with you to continue down to the river. Make sure you are prepared with food and water before making this trip.
Visit the Gunnison River and Curecanti National Recreation Area via the East Portal
The ‘easy’ way to access the Gunnison River is by driving down East Portal Road. This narrow, winding road is very steep – 16% grade in places – but is worth the trip. This will take you into Curecanti National Recreation Area and will give you access to some fishing, as well as camping at the East Portal Campground.
We loved to dip our toes in the chilly water, to skip some rocks, and enjoy the view.
The majority of Curecanti National Recreation Area is located east of Black Canyon and offers a wide variety of water sports, fishing, and Ranger-guided boat tours up the river to Black Canyon.
Stargazing at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon is one of the best places for stargazing due to its lack of light pollution. It has been recognized as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association and is an incredible place to view the night sky.
Be sure to check the park schedule for special Ranger-led astronomy programs happening during your visit. The park regularly works together with the Black Canyon Astronomical Society to provide programming for visitors to the park
Where to stay in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
There is no lodging in the park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison camping is limited to just two campgrounds – one on either rim of the park. The East Portal campground is technically part of Curecanti National Recreation Area. If you’re interested in camping at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, click here for more information.
Hotels near Black Canyon of the Gunnison can be found in nearby Montrose and Gunnison.
Black Canyon, CO is small but mighty!
Visiting Black Canyon was a really cool experience, and the views are some of the best we’ve seen in any National Park. It’s also great that there are so many other National Parks nearby. You could easily take a week or two and visit A LOT of Parks. We visited several in Colorado on this trip and several in Utah on a previous trip.
Other nearby National Parks
Curecanti National Recreation Area – Gunnison, CO
Colorado National Monument – Fruita, CO
Mesa Verde National Park – Mesa Verde, CO
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument – Cortez, CO
Arches National Park – Moab, UT
Canyonlands National Park – Moab, UT
Hovenweep National Monument – Cortez, CO and UT
Have you even been to Black Canyon of the Gunnison? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments!
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