The Burj Khalifa Tower, also known as the tallest building in the world, is 2,717′ tall. If this building was constructed at the deepest point in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison the top would be 5 feet below the rim. It is the deepest canyon in Colorado. What makes this canyon truly unique is its depth paired with its steepness and the fact that its towering walls are made up of granite. Only 1,100′ separate the two rims at the top and only a mere 40′ separate the two walls at the river. This is a very deep and narrow granite canyon that, according to the National Park Service, on average falls 43 feet per mile over the total length of 48 miles. Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison is about discovering this unique canyon, its beauty, and man’s taming of it.
Top 8 Reasons for Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison
- The Painted Wall
- South Rim Drive
- Hiking Warner Point
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison Visitor Center
- Venturing into the Canyon
- North Rim Drive
- Exclamation Point & North Vista Trail
- Camping on the North Rim
1) The Painted Wall
The Painted Wall is one of the most striking features in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. A massive sheer wall of granite laced with layers of quarts that turn pink in the late afternoon light. It is a gorgeous tapestry painted by geologic natural forces. The Painted Wall is overwhelming in both beauty and scale. While it can be viewed from either the North or South Rim, it is most easily and fully seen from the South Rim at the aptly named Painted Wall Viewpoint.
2) South Rim Drive
One of the highlights of visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is driving the 7-mile (one-way) South Rim Drive. The road is sometimes perched on the edge of the canyon wall and is never more than a short walk to the canyon rim from the various viewpoints. It is easiest to stop at all the desired viewpoints as you head west traveling deeper into the park and this places all the pullouts on the right-hand side of the road. All the viewpoints are great. But if you are in a hurry make sure you stop at the Cross Fissures View, Chasm View, Painted Wall View, and Cedar Point.
3) Hiking Warner Point
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is fairly sparse on hiking trails. It makes the beauty found on the Warner Point trail all the more impressive. This pathway is a 3/4 of a mile (one-way) nature trail. There is tons of information to be gleaned about the landscape, flora, and fauna. You can usually pick up a trail guide at the trailhead or come prepared by downloading this pdf ahead of time. The real reason to hike this relatively easy trail is found in its destination at Warner Point. The canyon opens up at its deepest point. It is like looking down the barrel of the gun that is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
4) Black Canyon of the Gunnison Visitor Center
I’m usually not one to simply recommend the visitor center as you tend to learn more by reading the signs out on the trails. However, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is rich with human history that is hidden within the depths of the canyon. For example, General William Palmer defeated all the naysayers and actually built a narrow-gauge railroad through a section of the canyon. The path of the railroad is now hidden at the bottom of the reservoirs after flooding when the three dams were built on the Gunnison River. The video at the visitor center does a great job of exploring the human history as well as the geologic history of the canyon. It should not be missed when visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. While you are at the visitor center also make the short walk to the Gunnison Point Overlook.
5) Venturing into the Canyon
There are no official trails that descend into the canyon. It is also not recommended to travel on the few unmaintained trails that do venture into its depths because poison ivy covers much of the terrain. The good news is that there is a paved road (not open in the winter) that descends to the shore of the Gunnison River. The 7-mile long road is steep (16% grade), very curvy, and dead-ends at the Crystal Dam. Vehicles over 22′ in length are not allowed on the road. From the depths of the canyon, you can take in the East Portal of the 5.8-mile long Gunnison Tunnel. When the tunnel was bored in 1909 it was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world. You can even camp inside the canyon at the East Portal Campground, a part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
6) North Rim Drive
Just getting from the South to the North Rim is a nearly 3-hour and 86-mile journey via the Blue Mesa Dam. When you remember that the two rims are only separated by 1,100′ at the Chasm viewpoint it is hard to imagine the drive taking so long. I kind of wish they would install a zip line :). While the drive is long it is also beautiful. It crosses over Blue Mesa Dam and winds through the terrain east of the park. Once you are in the park the actual North Rim Drive is only about 4.5 miles. Like the South Rim Drive, it is also full of epic views into the deep canyon. The Narrows View, Island Peaks View, and Kneeling Camel View are some of our favorites.
7) Exclamation Point & North Vista Trail
The 3.5-mile (one-way) North Vista Trail is not only the longest established trail in the park but it is also the most difficult. The first half of the trail is relatively flat but the later half ascends more than 860′ to the top of the 8,563′ high Green Mountain. The views from the mountain top are spectacular with sweeping views of the San Juan Mountains to the south and the West Elk Mountains to the north.
The views from the top into the canyon are beautiful as well but the real reason to hike this trail is found on the short spur to Exclamation Point (The first image in this article) where the overlooks into the canyon are some of the best and are situated right on the edge, free of railings. Even if you don’t want to undertake the full trail make the 1.5 mile journey (one-way) to Exclamation Point!
8) Camping on the North Rim
In 2015 Black Canyon of the Gunnison was officially named an International Dark Sky Park. This makes it an excellent place to take in the night sky. While the South Rim has a campground the North Rim is by far the better of the two. Fewer people travel to the North Rim making it quieter and more secluded but it is also perched closer to the edge of the canyon. The 1/3-mile Chasm View Loop trail allows campers great access to canyon views. The Chasm View overlooks the Painted Wall to the west and is located at the narrowest point. It is only 1,100′ from rim to rim.
Logistics for Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison
November – April: Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison during the winter is not recommended. Much of the park is closed including the entire North Rim and East Portal Road.
May & June: Late spring is one of the best times to visit the park with moderate temperatures.
July & August: July and August can be hot but the temperature rarely exceeds the low 90’s. The summer a relatively pleasant time for visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
September & October: The autumn cools off quickly in Colorado making this a pleasant time to visit the park. Most of the park’s foliage are evergreens so this isn’t the best place for fall colors. However, the best aspen forest in the state is relatively close-by. Check out the Best Autumn Road Trip in Colorado for details.
Black Canyon BLM: This beautiful and free camping area is located within a few miles of the South Rim Gate. It can be very crowded near the main road as the BLM access road is very rough. A high clearance 4×4 is recommended especially after any precipitation.
North Rim Campground: We love this campground because of its location and seclusion. All campsites are first-come, first-served. Plan to arrive early to secure a spot. The sites are smaller so anything longer than 22′ is not allowed.
East Portal: It is very cool to sleep along the Gunnison River inside the canyon itself. All sites are first-come, first-served. Plan on traveling into the canyon earlier in the day to grab a campsite. Access is limited to vehicles shorter than 22′ in length.
South Rim Hotels: Montrose is a fairly large town for this area of Colorado and is relatively close to the southern entrance of the park. It has a lot of options when it comes to accommodations. We recommend the Canyon Creek Bed and Breakfast for those looking for a more unique experience.
North Rim Hotels: The closest town to the North Rim is Crawford, Colorado. The accommodations in Crawford are very limited, but the Lodge at Needle Rock is surprisingly luxurious. it is hard to beat the atmosphere and environment found at the lodge.
Montrose is really the only place to find a restaurant near Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The town has a lot of national fast-food chains as well as some great local fare. Buckaroos Slices & Scoops is a unique local establishment with great food. Tacos and Beer Montrose is also excellent and, really, the name of the eatery says it all.
Top 8 Reasons for Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was given National Park status in 1999 and, according to the National Parks Service, in 2019 had only 432,000 visitors. That makes it the least visited park amongst Colorado’s four National Parks. For comparison, Rocky Mountain National Park ranked first in the state and third in the country with more than 4.6 million visitors. The good news is that this makes this amazing hidden gem far less crowded than the majority of Colorado’s gorgeous places. So if after reading through the top 8 you needed yet another reason for visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it should be to beat the crowds before everyone else finds out about this amazing place.