United StatesTravel Guide
Written By Melissa Martin
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park wasn’t particularly high on our list of must-see National Parks (though we do plan to visit all of them eventually!). But when we found ourselves on a road trip through Colorado, we made it a point to devote a couple of days to explore this underrated gem, and we’re glad we did!
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is just something that needs to be seen in person, because pictures don’t quite do it justice. Stretching 48 miles long, this canyon, at its tallest, runs 2,722 feet deep. At this park, you can get up close views of its striking features and peer down thousands of feet from various viewpoints along each rim of the canyon.
The canyon can be explored from both its south rim and its north rim. However, the rim entries are about a two hour drive from each other, so if you only have a short window of time in this park, you’ll only be able to visit one side.
So, which side should you visit?
Well, the South Rim is the more popular and more developed side, with ranger programs, paved roads, lots of viewpoints, and some crowds. Most visitors of this park only explore the South Rim.
The North Rim is much quieter, and a little more primitive, with unpaved roads, less developed facilities, and solitude. Not as many people venture out to the North Rim, but those who do find stellar viewpoints of the Black Canyon, often with noone else around!
In this article, we’ll go over all the things to do at the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, including how much time you’ll need, and we’ll give you our take on which side of the canyon we liked more!
And be sure to check out our complete guide to the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison to help you decide which rim you want to visit!
Where is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?
Best time to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Best things to do on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
How much time to spend on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
North Rim versus South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Where to stay on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
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If you're on a roadtrip through Colorado, check out our guides to some of the other National Park in Colorado:
Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary and Best Things to Do
7 Awesome Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park (plus tips!)
Where is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?
This underrated park is located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but not too far from major Colorado hotspots. Located near the Gunnison National Forest and the Curecanti National Recreation Area, it’s an hour and half southeast of Grand Junction, an hour and 45 minutes north of Silverton, and 4 hours south west of Breckinridge.
The entrance to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is located off of route 92. If travelling from the south, you’ll drive about an hour up route 92 from route 50. You’ll turn left on Black Canyon Road, which will end at the entrance to the park in about 20 minutes. The last half of this road becomes unpaved gravel, and continues to be unpaved throughout the entirety of the park. The road is doable in a 2WD car in good weather. We had no problem in our small car.
Best Time to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Summer is the best time to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison for the best weather and accessibility. All the park’s main roads, including both rim roads, are closed between November and April due to snow. In the summer, though, expect hot days with lots of sun exposure, and the biggest crowds (along the South Rim at least). Also keep in mind the chance for afternoon thunderstorms that can be common in this area, so plan your time accordingly and always check the forecasts.
Best Things to Do on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
While the park is small, it’s still worth a visit, and you can find plenty of things to do along the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison to fill most of your day.
Drive the North Rim Scenic Road
The no brainer thing to do on the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is to drive the scenic North Rim road. This is a short drive that weaves right alongside the canyon’s edge (sometimes a little too close for comfort if you ask me!), where you can stop at five different viewpoints along the way. Each viewpoint gives a slightly different perspective of the canyon’s steep walls and jagged features.
To drive the entire rim road and stop at each of the viewpoints, it took us about one hour, so it’s a nice way to spend some time at the park. Unlike the South Rim, which has 12 viewpoints that, after a while, can get a little repetitive and tiring, the North Rim’s five viewpoints felt like just enough. Plus, unlike the South Rim, where a lot of the viewpoints require quite a walk to get out to them, the North Rim’s viewpoints are mostly right near the parking areas.
One thing that we really loved about the North Rim of the Black Canyon was the solitude. On the South Rim, we felt like we were in just a continuous train of cars all driving the same route, stopping at all the same viewpoints, like we were in a tourist conveyor belt, and occasionally we couldn’t even get parking at some of the viewpoints because of the crowds. This was not the case on the North Rim. In fact, it couldn’t be more different. There were only a few cars on North Rim Road, and we always had the viewpoints to ourselves.
If I’m totally honest, I would say that there were a few viewpoints along the South Rim road that were my favorite over those along the North Rim, but we still loved the quietness of the North Rim and the views were still amazing. Plus, we still thought the very best viewpoint of the canyon was found at the North Rim, just not along the road…we’ll get to that in just a second…
But first, here are some of the views you’ll see along the scenic drive of Gunnison’s North Rim.
2. Take a short hike
Another great thing to do along the North Rim of the Black Canyon is to hike…our favorite! The North Rim has three short trails along the rim that you can choose from.
Chasm View Nature Trail – a short 0.3 mile interpretive loop that starts from the North Rim campground. It leads to two good viewpoints over the narrowest part of the canyon.
North Vista Trail – this leaves from the visitor center and has two destinations. The first is an easy 3 mile round trip hike down this trail to Exclamation Point. And this, my friends, was our favorite view in the entire park. You get a perfectly straight shot down the canyon and the Gunnison River…beautiful! It certainly lives up to its name, because when you see this view, you’re bound to exclaim “Wow!” or something very similar. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. We would say this view alone is worth a visit to the North Rim. It’s an easy and relatively flat hike with just a 300 foot elevation gain or so and takes about a half hour or so each way.
You can turn around here, or, if you have the time, you can continue along the North Vista Trail up to Green Mountain for a little bit more of a birds-eye view over the Black Canyon. This would be a roundtrip total of 7 miles with an additional 800 feet or so of elevation gain.
Deadhorse Trail - this starts from the Kneeling Camel viewpoint and is five miles roundtrip of easy hiking. The trail goes through wilderness area to Deadhorse Gulch (a drainage into the canyon) and of the East Portal area of the canyon.
For more hikes in Colorado, check our our favorite hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
3. Explore the inner canyon
If you’re really up for an adventure and are an experienced hiker, you can actually take a hike down to the bottom of the canyon from the North Rim. This is a great thing to do on Gunnison’s North Rim for those looking for a challenging and unique experience in the park.
But hang on…you might look at those steep, nearly vertical, jagged canyon walls and think, how the heck can someone hike down that? Trust us, we thought that, too. But, there are a few routes down into the canyon that follow gullies and drainages to the canyon floor.
We say hikes, but really, these routes are full on scrambles. They are not maintained or marked trails. They are rough, steep, challenging scrambles down loose rock, dirt and scree and require good route finding skills. These are recommended only for experienced hikers. Other things to note about these routes is they are often in full exposure to the sun and heat, and poison ivy is pretty common along the routes and at the river, where it can grow as tall as five feet (a.k.a. wear long pants!).
From the North Rim, there are three routes to the bottom of the canyon, and they are steep. We’re talking dropping 1800 feet in one mile type of steep for some. For first time hikers into the canyon on the North Rim, the park service recommends the SOB Draw trail. It’s a bit gentler, dropping 1800 feet but over 1.75 miles….still pretty steep if you ask me!
To hike into the canyon, a wilderness permit is required. They are free and available on a first come first serve basis on the day of your hike…reservations are not possible. Since the North Rim visitor center is often closed, there is a self-registration kiosk outside the visitor center with instructions.
Note: If you want to visit the canyon’s floor without doing a crazy scramble, you’ll need to visit the South Rim. East Portal Road will take you down to the Gunnison River where you can admire the steep cliff walls from below.
Facilities along the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
As we mentioned above, the North Rim is a bit less developed than the South Rim. The rim road is unpaved, and there are only vault toilets - one outside of the visitor center and one at the end of the rim road.
The visitor center is tiny, and often closed throughout the summer. Instead, the park maps and brochures, as well as the self-registration kiosk for wilderness permits, are left outside for visitors. There are often no rangers here, and there are no exhibits, park stores, or ranger programs. Visitors to the North Rim have to be pretty self-sufficient.
How Much Time Do You Need on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
As you can see, there aren’t a ton of things to do on the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (but the things there are to do are worth the visit!), so you don’t need a huge amount of time to adequately explore the North Rim.
In as a little as a half day, you can drive the entire North Rim road, stopping at all the viewpoints, and hike one or two trails (we highly recommend Exclamation Point!).
If you want to hike down into the canyon, we recommend you set aside a separate day for that. The hike could take a good half day and if you try to fit in everything else, that might be too rushed or exhausting. But, if you’re determined, it certainly is possible to do all of this in just a single day.
Should I vist the South Rim or North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
If you only have one day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we recommend concentrating your time on either the South or the North Rim. Sure, you can see right across the canyon and make out the cars driving along the opposite rim and see the people along the viewpoints across the canyon, so it’s a short drive in between the two rims, right?
Nope! It actually takes about two hours to drive between the North and the South Rim because, you know, there’s that big canyon in the way. It’s doable to see both rims in a day if you just want to drive the scenic roads along each rim, but it will be a lot of driving and might seem a little rushed. If you want to visit both the North and South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we recommend setting aside two days for the park.
So, if you have just limited time, such as a half day or day, should you visit the North or the South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s our take on the two rims.
The South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The South Rim is by far the more popular and crowded of the two sides of the canyon. You’ll likely be one of many cars inching their way down South Rim Road, encountering the same sets of people as you each make stops along all the viewpoints. Sometimes, you might have to pass up a viewpoint because of a full parking lot. The crowds aren’t akin to more busier parks like Yosemite or Zion, but because the park is so small, it can get congested over here.
The South Rim is more developed and has more going on than the North Rim. The visitor center is open all summer and staffed with rangers, and has exhibits, a park film, and a gift shop. Ranger programs are available throughout the summer for geology walks and night sky viewing. This side of the park has flush toilets and all the roads are paved.
The South Rim has more viewpoints. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a pro, since they do get kind of repetitive, but there a few select viewpoints that we would make sure to stop at. I would say that my favorite roadside viewpoints were found along the South Rim, but if you were to ask me favorite viewpoint of the canyon overall? That title is reserved for Exclamation Point on the North Rim, as we mentioned above.
If you want to experience the views from the bottom of the canyon without a strenuous scramble, the South Rim offers the chance to drive to the bottom via East Portal Road.
Read more: We have a complete guide to the South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunninson to help you decide!
The North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The North Rim is much quieter than the South Rim. Much quieter. There were hardly any cars on the road and we rarely shared a view point with someone…when we did, it was only for a minute or so in passing. We loved this about the North Rim.
There are fewer viewpoints along the North Rim…only five. But that didn’t bother us at all and we felt it still gave good glimpses into the canyon. The viewpoints along the North Rim don’t require much walking either like the ones on the South Rim do.
For us, the North Rim has the best viewpoint in the entire park, Exclamation Point.
The North Rim is a bit more primitive. The entry road and rim road are unpaved gravel (but still doable in a 2WD car most of the time), and there are vault toilets. There is a small visitor center that’s open sporadically throughout the summer, but there are no exhibits or ranger programs offered.
The North Rim provides access to the bottom of the canyon only via strenuous scrambles. There is no option to drive to the canyon floor from this rim.
In summary, the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is good for those who are looking to see as much as the canyon as they can through lots of viewpoints, participate in park programs, explore informational exhibits, want some better facilities, and don’t mind crowds. The North Rim is good for those looking for a much quieter experience away from the hustle and bustle and don’t mind having to drive dirt roads with less developed facilities.
If I had to pick a favorite, I would say that the North Rim was my favorite side. While there were some great views from the South Rim, I just really loved the solitude of the North Rim, and Exclamation Point really took the cake in terms of views.
Where to Stay in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?
There are no hotels or lodging inside this National Park. The closest major town to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is Montrose, which is about 90 minutes from the North Rim entrance. If you couldn’t tell, the North entrance is a bit out of the way from anywhere, contributing to its solitude! Montrose is a good base to stay if you want to visit both rims. Or, you can visit the North Rim from Grand Junction, which is also about 90 minutes from the entrance.
Camping in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
There are three frontcountry campgrounds in Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one along the South Rim, one along the North Rim and one at the bottom of East Portal Road. Standard sites are $16 per night and are pretty basic sites with vault toilets and no showers.
The South Rim campground has 88 sites - two loops that can be reserved in advance at recreation.gov and one loop that’s first come first serve. According to the ranger, these are hard to get on weekends.
The East Portal campground has 15 sites that are all first come first serve and the North Rim campground has 13 sites that are all first come first serve. These North Rim sites seem to be easier to get…when we drove through on a Saturday afternoon, there was still some availability as far as we could tell.
There are also some dispersed camping areas just outside of each entrance. They’re free but have no facilities so you have to be pretty rugged and self sufficient. The dispersed camping near the North Rim entrance is on BLM land along CR77 about one mile from the park’s entrance.
Curecanti National Recreation Area
When we went to reserve a campsite at the South Rim before our trip, it was all booked up, and since we were visiting on a Saturday, we didn’t want to take our chances on trying to find an available first come first serve site anywhere in the park. If this is the case, there’s another good option…
Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is also run by the NPS, sits just to the east of Black Canyon of the Gunnison and has a number of campgrounds you can stay at and reserve easily in advance. We stayed at Lake Fork Campground, which was an idea location for visiting both rims, because it sits right at the fork between the access roads to each rim. However, it’s still a good 45 minutes to the South Rim entrance and an hour and a half to the North Rim entrance. Check out the camping options here.
Let us know if you plan on visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and any questions you have! If you’ve been, which was your favorite side…the South or North Rim? Let us know in the comments!