Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, also called Black Canyon of Colorado, is a hidden gem of the US national park system. It is the least-visited national park in Colorado and one of the lesser-visited national parks in the country. But what is behind this lack of popularity? Certainly not an absence of amazing scenery. The reason is most likely a combination of a rather remote location and a huge concentration of outstanding natural attractions in Colorado itself, and in nearby Utah. Whatever the cause, it means that you will have all of its beauty to yourself during your visit! Here is all you need to know about visiting the Black Canyon of Colorado.
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BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
When getting ready for my second visit to Colorado, I decided to concentrate on the state’s lesser-known attractions. Black Canyon certainly fell into this category. The canyon and Colorado National Monument turned out to be the highlights of the trip.
Now, looking back, I know that one full day there was not enough. There are plenty of things to do in Black Canyon of Gunnison and in the area. You can easily make it a one-week destination. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, you will find the park very appealing.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison – Where did the name come from?
The Black Canyon is so named because its steepness makes it difficult for sunlight to penetrate its depths. As a result, it is often shrouded in shadow, causing the grayish rocky walls to appear black. In fact, some parts of the gorge receive only 33 total minutes of sunlight per day!
The canyon, carved by rushing Gunnison River, is very narrow, spanning just 40 feet at its narrowest point – The Narrows. It is also very deep, reaching 2,722 feet at Warner Point.
Both the river and the park are named for Lieutenant John Gunnison, an engineer sent to survey a railroad route across the Rockies in 1853.
Black Canyon’s Geology
Per National Park Service: “Black Canyon is a story of deep geologic time, starting back 1.8 billion years ago. About 60 million years ago, a small area of land uplifted (grow), bringing 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rock to high elevations. This is called the Gunnison Uplift.
About 30 million years ago, large volcanoes erupted on either side of this uplift, burying it in volcanic rock (blow). Then, as early as 2 million years ago, the Gunnison River began flowing in force (flow). The river and time eroded all of the volcanic rock and cut a deep canyon in the metamorphic rock below. ”
History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon isn’t the deepest or the longest in the country, but it posses the rare combination of extraordinary depth, verticality, narrowness, and darkness.
For these extraordinary features, president Herbert Hoover declared the Black Canyon a national monument in 1933. Eventually, in 1999, Congress upgraded its status to the national park.
Contact the park
102 Elk Creek
Gunnison, CO 81230
(970) 641-2337 x 205
Best Time to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The best time to visit Black Canyon of Gunnison is summer, since the North rim roads, ranger station, and the main road on the South rim are closed from November till mid-April. However, winter presents other opportunities such as cross-country and downhill skiing, and snowshoeing.
Location of the Black Canyon of Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in southwest Colorado. The South Rim is 7 miles north on CO Highway 347 from the intersection with U.S. Highway 50 east of Montrose.
The North Rim is 11 miles southwest of Crawford. From CO Highway 92, turn west on Black Canyon Road, approximately 3 miles south of Crawford. Follow the road signs to the park. The last 7 miles are unpaved. The North Rim is closed to vehicles in the winter.
There is no bridge across the canyon. Allow 2 to 3 hours to drive from one rim to the other. The North Rim is closed to vehicles in the winter.
What to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Discover South Rim
If you only have one day in the park, concentrate on the South Rim. With a paved drive, visitor center, and large campground, the South Rim is the busier, more developed side of the park. All roads in the area are paved. In winter, the South Rim Drive is closed to vehicles just past the visitor center.
The best thing to do with the limited time is to take the South Rim Drive. There are 12 overlooks to enjoy along the South Rim Drive. Most have a short walk to the edge and provide stunning views of the canyon.
Follow the North Rim Road
With more time, explore the canyon’s North Rim that can be reached by taking a gravel road from the east end of Crawford State Park. The North Rim Road provides access to 6 overlooks. The canyon walls on the North Rim are almost vertical, offering some of the most impressive views found in the national park.
Allow 2-3 hours for a leisurely tour. Information is available at the North Rim Ranger Station, open intermittently in summer. The North Rim Road is closed in winter.
Take East Portal Road to the bottom of the Black Canyon (if you dare!)
East Portal is accessible from the South Rim, 7 miles north on CO Highway 347 from the intersection with U.S. Highway 50 east of Montrose. Turn right onto the East Portal road at the park entrance station. The road is actually within the boundary of Curecanti National Recreation Area but needs to be accessed from the park.
The road is extremely steep (16% grades) with sharp curves. Not to brag, but yes – I drove this road! I was traveling with my friend, and she had no desire to do it. Actually, after driving Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway a few days before, I felt that nothing could scare me anymore.
Vehicles with an overall length (including trailer) greater than 22 feet are prohibited on the East Portal Road. Trailers may be left unhitched and left at a parking area at the campground entrance.
Hiking in Black Canyon of Colorado
No better way to see the park than to hike a trail. You will find many trails that take you to spectacular overlooks. The South Rim has easier hikes, and the North Rim has longer and more strenuous hikes. Check the best hikes in Black Canyon here.
Photography in Black Canyon
I am sure that I am not the only one finding photographing the Black Canyon difficult. It is deep, dark, and disturbed by many shadows. On a sunny day, the sharp difference in lighting can really fool your camera.
On a positive note, the park is home to a wide range of fauna, with juniper trees being the most photogenic.
The park’s fauna includes coyotes, elk, magpie, eagles, mule deer, bears, and more. For birders, the park offers great horned owls, American dippers, and Steller’s jay, and a range of migratory birds.
Camping in Black Canyon
South Rim Camping
The campground does take reservations, and it is open year-round.
Sites are usually available even on the busiest weekends.
North Rim Campground
All campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations). This campground can easily fill in the summer, especially on weekends.
The North Rim Campground is remote. The last 7 miles of the North Rim Road and the campground road are unpaved. Services are limited. The campground has 13 specious sites in pinyon and juniper forest.
The campground has drinking water (mid-May to mid-September) and vault toilets. Each campsite also has a table, fire ring, and grill. There are no showers. RVs/trailers larger than 35 feet are not recommended.
East Portal Campground
This campground also doesn’t take reservations. On holiday weekends, don’t expect to find a place to pitch your tent at this first-come, first-served campground.
Activities at Curecanti National Recreation Area
Curecanti National Recreation Area is a popular destination for boating and fishing. It offers visitors two marinas, traditional and group campgrounds, hiking trails, boat launches, and boat-in campsites. Learn more here.
Lodging and Dining
There are no restaurants or lodges in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The nearest restaurants and hotels are in Montrose, CO, or Gunnison, CO.
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