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Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Our Expert Visitor's Guide

The Grand Canyon gets all the glory, but the significantly lesser-visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park sees fewer visitors (297,257 in 2022 to the Grand Canyon National Park’s 4.7 million) and is steeper and narrower, with mind-bending drop-offs and up-close views of the canyon walls.

I grew up less than an hour’s drive from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and have visited the park many times, but two visits stand out. One in the summer, when I played hooky from work and visited the park with my dad for a day of hiking, and a second, when I cross-country skied along the South Rim of the canyon with a friend. During both trips I was struck by how quiet the park was. We had most of the overlooks to ourselves and spotted peregrine falcons soaring through the narrow canyon.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, is, in a word, peaceful, and a far cry from the traffic jams and overcrowded overlooks that have become the norm at most national parks.

In this guide, I'll share everything you need to know about the national park, including when to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison, what to do and see, and a few local tips that will make your experience just a little smoother and more enjoyable. I’ll also share some of our favorite nearby tours and excursions so you can extend your journey beyond the canyon.

[LINK to Expert Visitor’s Guide and favorite tours guide]

Black Canyon of the Gunnison: What Makes It So Special

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s defining feature is the fact that it is unbelievably steep and narrow. The cliff walls of the canyon are considered to be among the steepest in North America, and at one point, the two canyon walls are a mere 40 feet apart. It is both dizzying and fascinating to stand on the edge of a sheer, 2,000-foot metamorphic rock cliff and to be able to see in detail the various layers of rock that makeup the canyon wall.

After dark, the skies above the Black Canyon of the Gunnison take center stage. The park is a certified dark-sky place by Dark Sky International, who says, “There is little artificial light at night on the property,” noting that, “The Park is composed largely of federal lands and private property used for agricultural production, helping preserve its dark skies against long-term urban encroachment.”

If you happen to visit in September, you might even catch the annual Black Canyon Astronomy Festival (aka Astro Fest), which features speakers along with several nights of telescope-aided stargazing.

The park is also unique in that it is open 24 hours a day, every day. You can hike and fish in the summer, cross-country ski and snowshoe in the winter, and visit the park after dark to experience the quiet solitude found under its star-studded skies.

Where is Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is situated in a quiet corner of Southwest Colorado. It has two sides, the South Rim, which is accessed via Montrose and Cimarron, Colorado, and the North Rim, which can be reached by driving through Crawford and Hotchkiss, Colorado.

The History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The creation of the Black Canyon started around 60 million years ago when a small piece of land lifted — known as the Gunnison Uplift — pushing 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rock to the surface of the earth. Around 30 million years later, volcanoes erupted on either side of the uplift, covering the lifted land in volcanic rock. Then, around 2 million years ago, the Gunnison River began to flow in force, eroding the volcanic rock and cutting a deep canyon into the underlying metamorphic rock.

The canyon was and remains a barrier to humans. The area’s first inhabitants, the Indigenous Ute tribe who lived along the rims of the canyon, did not attempt to expand their land into the gorge. The Spanish were the first Europeans to canvas the area through one expedition led by Juan Rivera in 1765 and one by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776. As explorations into the American West became more common in the middle of the century, there were several expeditions to the Black Canyon — including those in search of water, minerals, and railroad passageways.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a national monument in 1933 and as a U.S. National Park on October 21, 1999.

Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison Today

people sitting top of cliff overlooking canyon

Visitors to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park today experience the same landscape the Utes and early explorers had to navigate. The steep cliffs and rugged spires remain relatively unchanged, and visitors today can still walk in the footsteps of the canyon’s early residents and visitors.

When to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The best time to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is between mid-May and September when the park is fully accessible. During this time, the park’s only visitor center, the South Rim Visitor Center, is open and the hiking trails are dry. In addition to full access to the park’s South Rim, the North Rim Road and ranger station are open, as is the East Portal Road, which winds into the canyon from the South Rim.

This is also the time, in my experience, when you will find more people — especially in June, July, and August. By visiting in May and September, you can get the best of both worlds: a relatively quiet, crowd-free park that is fully open and operational.

That said, the park is open in some capacity 24-hours a day, year-round. My favorite time to visit is in the winter, when the South Rim Drive closes to vehicles and becomes a cross-country ski and snowshoe route. Rather than driving to the overlooks along the South Rim, you can ski to them — a truly rewarding and one-of-a-kind experience.

What You'll See When You Arrive at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has two rims: the more popular South Rim and the quieter North Rim. When you arrive at the South Rim, you’ll be greeted by the park’s sole visitor center and the meandering South Rim Drive, which runs for 7 miles and has 12 overlooks — most of which can be reached by walking a short trail. The South Rim is also home to the Painted Wall, one of the park’s most famous and sought-after sites.

Those who make their way to the North Rim will be greeted by the North Rim Ranger Station and the gravel North Rim Road, which provides access to 6 overlooks.

Things to Do at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

If you have the time, driving both the North and South Rim Roads is a must. These two routes provide a general overview of the park and allow you to see some of the most stunning cliff walls and impressive drop-offs — including Warner Point, which sits 2,722 feet above the river, and the heavily photographed Painted Wall, a 2,250-foot-tall cliff face lined with veins of varying rock (both sites are off the South Rim Road).

To experience the inner canyon, you’ll want to drive the East Portal Road, which runs from the South Rim to the river at its base. It’s the easiest way to get to the bottom of the canyon.

For hiking on the South Rim, start on the Rim Rock Nature Trail, which is relatively flat but goes along the rim of the canyon. If you’re feeling strong, you can add on the Uplands Trail, which connects Rim Rock Nature Trail to Oak Flat Loop Trail. On the North Rim, I’d recommend the Chasm View Nature Trail, which has an interesting and less-photographed view of the Painted Wall and frequent bird sightings. The North Vista Trail is another popular route on the North Rim. It meanders along the canyon rim until it comes to Exclamation Point where some of the best inner-canyon views are.

If you have the time, skill, and strength, you can hike into the inner Black Canyon from either rim. But because the inner canyon is considered wilderness, you will need a permit. You can get your free permit at either the South Rim Visitor Center or the North Rim Ranger Station. The free permits are limited and first-come, first-served. From the South Rim, you can take the Gunnison Route, Tomichi Route, or the Warner Route into the canyon. On the North Rim, the Pinyon Draw, Long Draw, and Slide Draw provide access into the canyon.

Staying Safe & Fitting In While Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison

When it comes to safety, there are three things to keep in mind when visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The first is that there are some spots on the overlooks without guardrails, making it dangerous for children, dogs, and people who are not paying attention. Nothing should ever be thrown from the rim into the canyon because even a small stone could be fatal to a rock climber or fisher 2,000 feet below. The second thing to keep in mind is that the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is at 8,000 feet above sea level. Visitors coming from lower elevations should drink plenty of water and lower their physical expectations. It is helpful to spend at least one night at a moderate elevation before coming to the park (Montrose near the South Rim is at 5,800 feet and Crawford near the North Rim is at 6,590).

The third safety measure to consider is that Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is home to black bears and mountain lions. Both animals are not commonly spotted, but do live inside the park. To avoid coming into surprising a bear or lion, the park recommends talking or clapping while hiking so the animal will hear you coming and leave.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Weather & Climate

In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the summers tend to be warm and dry and the winters short, with snow and low temperatures.

According to in-park monitoring, the temperatures range from 15 to 85-degrees-Fahrenheit (-9 to 29-degrees Celsius) over the course of the year. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison sees between 16 and 20 inches of rain, mainly in the spring and summer, while the annual snowfall measures between 2.5 and 4.5 feet a year. Even in the middle of winter, Colorado’s notorious clear, blue skies tend to be the norm.

Getting To & Around Black Canyon of the Gunnison

There are two rims, or sides, of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The most popular is the South Rim, which has the park’s only visitor center and is a short, 20-minute drive from the two nearest towns: Montrose and Cimarron, Colorado. From Denver, the South Rim is just over 5 hours by car.

The North Rim, on the other hand, is accessed from the north. The nearest town of Crawford, Colorado is just over 20 minutes from the North Rim Ranger Station, while the larger town of Hotchkiss, Colorado is just over 30 minutes by car. The North Rim is just under 5 hours by car from Denver.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the fact that there is no bridge connecting the North and South Rims. So, if you want to visit both rims, you’ll have to make the almost 2 hour drive between the two.

On the South Rim, the South Rim Drive is the best way to see the full southside of the park. The drive runs for 7 miles and has 12 overlooks. The East Portal Road, which is technically part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, descends from the South Rim to the Gunnison River at the base of the canyon. On the North Rim, the gravel North Rim Road provides access to the 6 overlooks on the northern side of the canyon.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is relatively small, at 30,750 acres (for reference, Grand Canyon National Park has 1.21 million acres), making it easy to fully explore both rims, all three roads, and several hiking trails in just two days.

Our Favorite Tours & Excursions Near Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Just over an hour from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the mountain town of Ouray, aptly nicknamed the “Little Switzerland of America.” [LINK to Ouray article] In the winter, the gorge south of town is home to a world-class ice park that transforms into a via ferrata in the summer. Our favorite guiding service for both the ice park and via ferrata is Basecamp Ouray, which also offers gear rentals.

From Ouray, you can drive the famous “Million Dollar Highway,” a breathtaking drive full of drop-offs and cliffs, to the neighboring community of Silverton. [LINK to Silverton article] From Silverton, you can continue over the mountain pass to Durango, a larger town with plenty of hiking, mining tours, river play, and a narrow gauge railroad that travels between Durango and Silverton. [LINK to several Durango articles]

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park visitors can also make the drive to Telluride, a ski town set in a picturesque box canyon. From the national park, Telluride is under 2 hours by car, with Jeep tours, hiking, and whitewater rafting in the summer and snowmobiling and downhill skiing in the winter. [LINK to several Telluride articles]

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Evie C
Writer, Editor & Telluride Local
Evie is a Colorado native who lives in a small town in the San Juan Mountains. When she's not skiing or running, she works as a freelance writer and editor for publications like Travel + Leisure, Outside, and SKI. She loves playing in the outdoors, but her real passion is travel — so far, she has visited well over 50 countries and lived in 5 and has no plans to stop.