Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Montrose, Colorado
Updated: Aug 21
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is not widely visited compared to other national parks in the United States. It’s not overcrowded with visitors, not yet at least, probably due to its location, deep in the boonies of Colorado, where the nearest town is 11 miles from the north rim and 14 miles from the south rim of the park. This is the "Grand Canyon" of Colorado. It has several overlooks on either rim where you can look down into the magnificent gorge and the Gunnison River, deep down below the canyon wall. This place is definitely not for people who are afraid of heights. The almost vertical sheer drops are a vertigo-inducing experience. There are many other activities within the canyon - mainly rock climbing and river rafting. If you plan on stargazing or night-time cross-county skiing, there are camping sites with RV hookups on the south rim.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, located in southwest Colorado, is one of the longest, narrowest and deepest gorges in the world. Black Canyon has a total length of 48 miles, with 14 miles running through the park. The canyon has some of the world's oldest exposed rock - almost two billion years old. The park only achieved "National Park" status in 1999 - after having been a National Monument since 1933.
The Gunnison River and several geologic processes created the carving and the steepness of the canyon walls. The walls are so steep, and the canyon so narrow, that it is difficult for the sun to penetrate into many parts, especially in winter. In fact, the bottom of the gorge only receives 33 minutes of sunlight a day on average. That puts much of the canyon into deep shadow at different times of day and year - hence, the name Black Canyon. About half of the Black Canyon Canyon National Park was designated as a wilderness area in 1976, with a total of 15,599 acres.
The park has some of the darkest skies in the country where it’s possible to see up to 5,000 stars throughout the night. They preserve the dark sky by limiting artificial lighting only when necessary for safety. In 2015, the park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park. There are astronomy programs that you can check out at the park ranger stations.
TO GET HERE
There are two main entrances to the park. The south rim entrance is 14 miles from the town of Montrose while the north rim is 11 miles from the town of Crawford. Coming from downtown Denver to the North Rim is about a 4 hour and 43-minute drive via I-70 West. Then take Exit 116 to Glenwood Springs/CO-82. At the town of Carbondale, take CO-133 S/Crawford Road to Black Canyon Road. Coming from downtown Denver to the South Rim is about a five-hour drive via US Highway 285 South. Then follow US-50 West from the town of Poncha Springs. Turn right to CO-347 North to Rim Drive Road.
THE SOUTH RIM
There are two ranger stations in the park, one on the north rim and the other on the south rim. You can pretty much get the same views from either rims, although some say the north rim is more “photogenic”. But the north rim has difficult access, unpaved road and lacking in facilities. It is also closed in winter. But if you seek solitude, then the north rim is ideal for you since the south rim is more popular. If you want to take on both rims, it will take about two to three hours to drive from one to the other. The south rim is more popular due to its accessibility. It also has the most overlooks, 12 in all. The road is paved as well,
Some overlooks have protective railings where the vertical cliffs are over 2,000 feet high, but parts of the trails to the overlooks are unprotected. You have to be cautious, especially if you have kids along with you. You have a choice whether you want to go to every overlook, or choose the ones that are popular such as the iconic Painted Wall.
There are hiking trails in the park, but we did not hike here, except to the viewpoints. The hiking routes in the inner canyon are difficult to follow, trails are unmaintained and the hikes, though short, are very strenuous. You have to be prepared to rescue yourself.
The 180-mile-long Gunnison River is one of the largest tributaries of the Colorado River. The Ute Indians referred to the river as “much rocks, big water”. The river was named in honor of John Williams Gunnison, an American military officer and explorer, who led a survey expedition in 1853 for a railroad route (Saint Louis and San Francisco route). Gunnison and seven of his men were massacred by a local band of Pahvant Utes.
Gunnison River provides irrigation water to the Uncompahgre Valley through the Gunnison Tunnel. Constructed between 1905 and 1909, the tunnel provided the arid land around Montrose much needed water, as a result of which the town became an agricultural hub. The Gunnison River joins the Colorado River at Grand Junction.
From the Rim Drive Road you can take the East Portal Road down to the bottom of the canyon, though the road is steep with many sharp bends. In the canyon is the East Portal Campground. If you're an angler, the river within the park is known for outstanding large trout, a good incentive to stay at the camp for a night or two in summer. This road is closed in winter and early spring (November to April).