Prepare to be stunned by the great gorge that carves its way through the heart of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Reaching from top to bottom in a whopping 2,250 feet of vertical at its tallest point, its been whittled out over millions of years by the ceaseless flow of the Gunnison River. It might not be the biggest in America, but boy is it one to get the cameras a-clicking.
The view? Expect sheer walls of painted granite and gneiss and limestone all converging on a cleft that wiggles for 12 miles through the western Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And that’s just the piece de resistance. There are side orders of high desert plateaus peppered by wild mahogany trees, proud American eagles circling overhead, challenging hiking trails, backcountry kayaking routes. Honestly, that’s just scratching the surface, making Black Canyon of the Gunnison one of our favorite Colorado national parks and an outdoorsy traveler’s dream.
Where is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park sits where the snowy tops of the Rocky Mountains dip westwards into the dusty plains that roll towards Utah. That puts it in the very heart of western Colorado. The nearest major town and transport hub is Montrose, which occupies a flat valley on the courses of US-50 some nine miles from the heart of the park as the crow flies. Colorado’s crown jewel, Rocky Mountain National Park, is just 215 miles northeast. The Mile High City of Denver is around 170 miles to the northeast, while Grand Junction is a little over 80 miles to the northwest.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Facts
The Black Canyon – the main attraction in this awesome Colorado national park – might not be the largest in the country, or even the deepest. However, it does have one near-superlative up its sleeve: The fifth-steepest river descent in North America. Yep, the waterway loses over 35 feet per mile as it crashes down from the central Rockies, which is five times more than the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon! Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name, that comes from the fact that some parts of this huge gorge get a mere 33 minutes of sunshine per day. Mhmm — it’s dark down there.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Weather
Summertime tends to usher in the best days for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The months between June and September are guaranteed to see the famous North Rim Road and the bulk of the hiking trails open for business. Basically, winter can be harsh, with ice and snow and freezing rain coming to shut up shop. If you really don’t want the crowds, you could risk a visit in May or October, but check ahead on the NPS site for access options and any closures.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Hours
Some portions of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are completely closed for the winter months. They include the dramatic North Rim Road (for the top views of the narrowest part of the canyon) and the East Portal Road (for access to the hard trails along the Gunnison River). The South Rim area is still in operation, although its main roadway is only accessible between April and the middle of November. The park is currently under limited operations due to COVID-19. For recent COVID status and frequent updates, check out Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s current conditions.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Entrance Fee
Sightings of the Painted Wall and the gurgling Gunnison River aren’t free. Everyone visiting this Colorado national park will be asked to pay an entry fee of $25 if traveling in a car, which allows for seven days’ access to the reserve. Motorcyclists can hit the North Rim, East Portal or South Rim roads for just $25 apiece. Meanwhile, hikers on their own can get in for $15. There’s also an annual pass that’s valid for 12 months on the menu, but that costs $45.
Getting to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
You’ll need to make your way over to the more remote Western Slope region of Colorado to discover the geological wonders of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. From Denver, you could opt to do that on the I-70 through Grand Junction, but the combo of US 285 and then US 50 takes about the same time (just under five hours) and is generally more scenic. To fly in, check out short-haul links into the Montrose Regional Airport, which is just half an hour in the car from the South Rim Visitor Center.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hiking
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has a trail for every type of hiker. Whether you’re a beginner looking a quick walk with unreal views or a pro hoping to launch themselves down the canyon into the river, we’ve got you covered. Here are 15 of our favorite hikes in the park:
Easy, perfect for families:
- Warner Point Nature Trail (1.5 mile out-and-back)
- Chasm View Nature Trail (0.6 mile loop)
- Painted Wall View Trail (0.2 mile out-and-back)
- Cedar Point Nature Trail (0.4 mile out-and-back)
- Dragon Point Trail (0.4 mile out-and-back)
Moderate, fairly strenuous:
- Curecanti Creek Trail (3.7 mile out-and-back)
- Oak Flat Loop Trail (1.3 mile loop)
- Green Mountain Summit via North Vista Trail (6.5 mile out-and-back)
- Mesa Creek Trail (1.3 mile out-and-back)
- Rim Rock Nature Trail (1.5 mile out-and-back)
Difficult, experience recommended:
- Gunnison Route Trail (1.8 mile out-and-back)
- Warner Route Trail (4.2 mile out-and-back)
- Tomichi Trail (1.3 mile out-and-back)
- S.O.B Draw (2.1 mile out-and-back)
- Long Draw (1.7 mile out-and-back)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Lodging
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Camping:
Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds and campsites in and around Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:
- South Rim Campground
- North Rim Campground
- East Portal Campground
- Mesa Creek Campground
- Cedar Creek RV Park
- Iron Creek Campground
- Clear Fork Campground
- Uncompahgre River RV Park
- River Bend RV Park and Cabins
- Cottonwood Grove Campground
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hotels:
If you prefer a cushy bed to a tent, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within a quick drive of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Here are some of our favorites:
- The Hitching Post Hotel and Farm Store
- Stay Wise Inns of Montrose
- Hotchkiss Inn Motel
- Stone House Inn
- Lost Canyon Resort
- Black Canyon Motel
- Ferro’s Blue Mesa Ranch
- LeRoux Creek Inn and Vineyards
- Canyon Creek B&B
- Briarwood Inns
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Airbnb
One of the great things about this protected stretch of the Gunnison River is that it lies between some of the biggest towns on the Western Slope of Colorado. You won’t have to venture far from the entrance to the South Rim to discover all the Airbnb rentals in Montrose. They run the gamut from out-of-town cabins on babbling creeks to modern suites in B&Bs. To the north, you could stay in old adobe cottages around the Redlands Mesa, or converted barns on the plains around Crawford.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Tours
The majority of the 300,000 yearly visitors to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park choose to explore the reserve on their own. However, there are lots of enticing organized programs that can help you get an insight into the unique geology, geography, and wildlife of the region. They include ranger-led snowshoe walks (between January and March), stargazing outings after dark, and guided hikes on the North and South rims.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Landmarks
We’d say the Painted Wall is the most startling and striking point in the whole of the Gunnison. A colossal slab of gneiss, schist and pegmatite rock that lofts more than 2,200 feet over the river below, it’s the highest top-to-bottom in the whole reserve. The best views of it are actually on offer from the South Rim that’s opposite, along the trails to Cedar Point and Dragon Point.
Totally closed to all vehicle traffic throughout the hard winter months, the North Rim is where the Black Canyon of the Gunnison gets seriously rugged. You can take the North Rim Road to encounter some of the most undeveloped portions of the park, where lookouts gaze down steep crevasses to the green waters of the river far below. The best part? This wild corner of the preserve is way less busy than its southern compadre.
South Rim Visitor Center
About 30 minutes’ drive out of Montrose, the South Rim Visitor Center is often the first port of call for travelers heading into the depths of the Gunnison valley. It’s a fine intro to the park. There are exhibits on the local wildlife and flora, along with trained rangers who are happy to answer any questions you have about the gorge and its history. What’s more, the views from Gunnison Point just out back are among the best in the area!