Deep, steep, and narrow — these three words basically sum up why Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is so cool. As one of the most underrated National Parks in the United States (according to me), it comes as a breath of fresh air after visiting other crowded parks like Glacier or Banff. Here are the 9 best things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado!
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- How to get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Take a picture with the National Park Sign
- Visit the North Rim
- South Rim Visitor Center
- Drive into the canyon via East Portal Road
- Drive the South Rim Road
- Go camping
- Take a hike
- Go fishing
- Watch the sunrise or sunset
- Things to know before you go
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison FAQ
- When is the best time to visit the park?
- How long should I spend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
- Is half a day long enough?
- Should I visit the North Rim or the South Rim?
- Is Black Canyon of the Gunnison worth visiting?
- Why is it called Black Canyon?
- Best places to visit near Black Canyon of the Gunnison
How to get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The closest airport to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ). You’ll find flights on United, American, and Southwest Airlines.
The South Rim is 14 mi (22.5 km) from Montrose and 63 mi (101 km) from Gunnison. The North Rim is 11 mi (17.7 km) from Crawford. There is no bridge between the North Rim and the South Rim. Allow between 2 and 3 hours if you want to drive from one side of the canyon to the other.
Things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Take a picture with the National Park Sign
For me, it’s basically a tradition at this point to take a picture with the welcome sign at each National Park I visit. There are 3 National Park signs at Black Canyon of the Gunnison: 2 at the South Rim entrance and 1 near the North Rim entrance. It’s definitely worth a quick stop to get a photo to add to the collection!
Visit the North Rim
The North Rim is much less visited and less developed than the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. You won’t find a visitors center and even the North Rim Ranger Station is intermittently staffed. Despite this, the views of the sheer cliffs are incredible and very different to the other side of the canyon.
Once there, drive the North Rim Road around to the various viewpoints. Some of the best stops include Balanced Rock View, The Narrows View, and Chasm View Nature Trail, an easy hike with views of the canyon’s narrowest point.
Taking a trip to the other side of the canyon is the best way to avoid crowds and have a true adventure! Keep in mind that it takes about 2 hours to road trip from the South Rim. If you’re spending the night, North Rim Campground is a great option within the park.
South Rim Visitor Center
The South Rim Visitor Center is where you’ll find any vital information about the park. Run by the National Park Service, the facility offers maps, videos about the park, and tons of relevant books for sale. Stopping at the visitor center is a great way to familiarize yourself with the park, especially if it’s your first time visiting!
Drive into the canyon via East Portal Road
East Portal Road is a fully paved road that will take you down towards the bottom of the canyon. With hairpin turns and a super steep grade, the drive is fun but definitely not for the faint of heart!
At the bottom, you’ll find East Portal Campground, a tranquil spot right on the Gunnison River. East Portal Road is closed in the winter months between November and April.
Drive the South Rim Road
This scenic drive is probably the most popular attraction in the park. Following Rim Drive Road (also known as South Rim Drive), there are 12 overlooks that peek into the canyon’s South Rim. You’ll also find South Rim Campground along this road!
Some of the coolest places to stop include Tomichi Point, Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock Overlook, Devils Lookout, Chasm View, and Painted Wall View. There is easy access to each overlook — at most, they’re just a short walk away from the parking area.
Camping within Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the best ways to experience the true magic of the park. It has been given an International Dark Sky Park designation, which means that it has exceptionally starry skies. This makes for some great stargazing, especially from the park’s campsites!
Here is an overview of all the camping spots available within the park.
Take a hike
There are two types of hiking trails within the park: inner canyon hikes and easier, short hikes from the overlooks. Any trail that ventures down to the canyon floor is considered a strenuous hike — they have a steep descent and should only be attempted if you’re a confident hiker, especially if the weather is not great.
The Gunnison Route is one of the most outstanding examples of an inner canyon hike. The route down to the river is steep, and you’ll occasionally need to scramble down at certain points. You can also experience some hazards such as ticks, poison ivy, and stinging nettle. If you’re interested in hiking the Gunnison Route, you’ll need to get a free backcountry wilderness permitfrom the visitor center before you go.
Some of the best hikes for beginners include Rim Rock Nature Trail, Cedar Point Nature Trail, and Warner Point Nature Trail. These walks are short, flat, and easy, but offer a lot in the way of views.
Within the canyon walls, the Gunnison River is known as Gold Medal Waters, or waters that provide great angling opportunities for large trout.
If you’re interested in heading into the canyon to go fishing, then you’ll need to acquire a fishing license from the nearby town of Montrose first. The nearby Blue Mesa Reservoir within Curecanti National Recreation Area is also a great choice for trout fishing.
Watch the sunrise or sunset
Sunrises and sunsets make excellent opportunities to watch the canyon brilliantly change colors. If you’re a photographer, they’re also the best time to capture photographs of the canyon as the lighting isn’t so harsh.
One of the best places to watch the sunset is (very creatively) called Sunset View. This picnic area has a scenic overlook into the canyon’s South Rim and is just off of Rim Drive Road.
Things to know before you go
- The park is split up into 3 sections: South Rim, North Rim, and East Portal. The South Rim and the East Portal are the more popular options for visitors. The North Rim is less-visited but offers stellar views and solitude.
- National Park entrance fees are required. A 7-day vehicle pass costs $30 and is good for everyone within the car. If you’re coming on foot or on bicycle, it’s $15 per person. You can also spring for the America the Beautiful pass, which costs $80 and is good for entry into every US National Park for one year. You can buy your pass online here.
- There are no hotels within the park. You can stay in the town of Montrose, which is a 15-minute drive from the park’s South Rim. Otherwise, there are several campground options in the park.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison FAQ
When is the best time to visit the park?
The summer months (June through August) are the best time to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Because the park isn’t super crowded to begin with, the small influx of crowds during the summer aren’t bothersome. By visiting in the summer, you’ll have the best weather and the better chances of seeing wildlife (black bears and mule deer have been seen within the park!).
How long should I spend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
Anywhere from half a day to two days is enough time to see most of the attractions at the park. The vast majority of the overlooks and viewpoints can also be seen and enjoyed within that timeframe.
Is half a day long enough?
Yes, unless you want to visit all areas of the park or go on a longer camping/kayaking trip inside the canyon. Otherwise, if you just want to see the highlights on the South Rim, half a day is the perfect amount of time.
Should I visit the North Rim or the South Rim?
That depends on what you’re looking for! The South Rim is more popular because it has more facilities, overlooks, and views of the Painted Wall. The North Rim is much more wild — fewer facilities, no visitor’s center, and fewer crowds. You’ll also get better views into the narrowest part of the canyon.
If you want to experience all of the main points of interest and have an easier trip, I’d recommend going to the South Rim. I’d recommend visiting the North Rim if you want to be more adventurous and avoid any and all people. If you have the time, though, you should definitely do both!
Is Black Canyon of the Gunnison worth visiting?
Yes, it is absolutely worth visiting! The small size of the park combined with the relative lack of people that visit make it unlike most US National Parks (in a good way).
The scenery is unique, the trails are well-maintained, and it’s easy to find parking at the overlooks. Peering into the depths of the canyon is awe-inspiring and reminds you that you’re just a tiny human on this big, beautiful planet.
Why is it called Black Canyon?
Because it is so deep, steep, and narrow, some parts of the canyon only receive about 33 minutes of sunlight per day!
Colorado has three other National Parks: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park!
Best places to visit near Black Canyon of the Gunnison
- Curecanti National Recreation Area: Alpine reserves that are used for boating, fishing, and canoeing. Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest with 96 miles of shoreline!
- Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area: Nature preserve to the north of the park with tons of wilderness activities
- Uncompahgre National Forest: Massive wilderness area near Montrose, Colorado
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Thanks for reading this post about the best things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! Hopefully it’s inspired you to plan your next trip — it’s so worth it.
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