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Cheap, free, and local-endorsed things to do in beautiful places

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

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  • The canyon is deeper than it is wide in some places and so narrow that sunlight hits the bottom for less than an hour a day
  • One of the last places in the U.S. to be mapped due to its rugged terrain
  • The Painted Wall cliff is twice as tall as the Empire State Building

When To Visit: June-September

Climate: Cold and snowy in winter and spring. Warm and mostly sunny in summer and early fall.

Location: Western Colorado 5 hours from Denver

One of the National Park System’s best-kept secrets, Black Canyon of the Gunnison protects a stunningly deep and narrow canyon that was seen as “impenetrable” by humans for centuries and remains largely untouched by human contact. The Gunnison River’s extreme elevation drops have made it an incredibly powerful river that continues to reshape the canyon today.

Photo: Painted Wall

What To See & Do in Black Canyon

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Black Canyon from Painted Hill View

There are overlooks and hikes on both the South Rim and North Rim sides of the park which are a 2-hour drive from each other. A drive on either side’s Rim Road takes you to countless viewpoints and short hikes where you can stop and snap scenic shots of this awe-inspiring canyon. Many visitors choose just one side – the South Rim is more developed and has a bit more to see, while the North Rim offers many of the same views but an escape from the crowds.

There are no officially sanctioned trails into the canyon, but there are extremely precarious paths down recommended only for very experienced and brave hikers (who are required to obtain a wilderness permit). If such an extreme adventure doesn’t appeal to you, try to make time to drive to the terminus of El Portal Road which will allow you to drive and walk along a scenic portion of the Gunnison River.

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Gunnison River from El Portal Road

Black Canyon Walks

These very short, easy hikes ranked in order of scenery will take you less than a half-hour to complete.

South Rim

All of the South Rim’s viewpoints are actually a short walk from the road (all are easy and only 10-30 minutes round trip). If you have time, stop at them all; but I’ve listed the walks with the most scenic views.

  1. Painted Hill View
  2. Pulpit Rock Viewpoint
  3. Cross Fissures View
  4. Dragon Point Viewpoint
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Dragon Point Viewpoint

North Rim

Most of the North Rim’s viewpoints are right next to the side of the road, but there is one short 1/3 mile loop walk (Chasm View Trail) which is a must-see.

Black Canyon Hikes

Black Canyon has surprisingly few hikes, but each of them offers a unique and memorable experience. I’ve ranked the park’s best trails in order of scenery.

Note that there are no official trails descending to the bottom of the canyon; click here to read more about the extremely strenuous and precarious paths that do take you there.

South Rim

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Uncompahgre Valley from Warner Point Trail
  1. Warner Point Trail

    • 1.5 mile loop, 158 foot elevation gain, 30 minutes-1.5 hours, moderately strenuous
    • Enjoy panoramic views of the lovely Uncompahgre Valley and distant mountain peaks for most of the hike
    • The terminus of the hike awards you with a sweeping view of the Black Canyon
  2. Rim Rock, Uplands, & Oak Flat Loop Trail
    • 2.5 miles loop, out & back, 377 foot elevation gain, 1-2 hours, moderately strenuous
    • Combine these three short trails into one loop, taking the Rim Rock Nature Trail from the Visitor Center to Uplands Trail and then making a left on Oak Flat Trail
    • If short on time, just do the Oak Flat Loop, which takes you a bit down into the canyon and offers the best Black Canyon views

North Rim

  1. North Vista Trail
    • 7 miles round trip, out & back, 1,456 foot elevation gain, 3-5 hours, strenuous
    • Can be shortened to a 3 mile round trip, moderately strenuous trail to Exclamation Point (a short offshoot trail with its own great scenery)
    • The terminus of the trail at Green Mountain offers incredible panoramic views looking from above down into a large portion of Black Canyon
  2. Deadhorse Trail
    • 5 miles round trip, out & back, 580 foot elevation gain, 2-3 hours, easy to moderately strenuous
    • Great views of the eastern side of the canyon and the El Portal section of the Gunnison River

Where To Stay & Eat in Black Canyon

Black Canyon has more limited visitor services than most national parks – no lodging and only a tiny selection of snacks at the Visitor Center. However, it’s only a 20-minute drive from the South Rim to the large town of Montrose which has a plethora of food and lodging options. From the North Rim, the small town of Crawford a half-hour away has a small number of eateries and hotels.

There are two campgrounds on the South Rim of the park (South Rim and El Portal) and one on the north (North Rim). South Rim has a mix of reservable and first-come, first-served spots, while both of the others are solely first-come, first serve. El Portal is located in a more scenic area next to the Gunnison River but is a further drive from the park’s centers of activity.

There are picnic areas at the Visitor Center, Pulpit Rock, Sunset View, and High Point overlooks.

Nearby Side Trips from Black Canyon

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East River near Crested Butte

Aspen and Vicinity: A world-famous mountain town 2.5 hours north, Aspen is a popular year-round destination for outdoors activities – hiking and climbing in spring and summer, fall foliage viewing in autumn, and skiing and snowboarding in winter. Read more.

Great Sand Dunes National Park: One of America’s newest national parks and home to North America’s tallest dunes, Great Sand Dunes (3.5 hours east) offers some unique outdoor adventure opportunities and lots of freedom to choose your own path of exploration. Read more.

Curecanti National Recreation Area: Less than an hour east of the park, Curecanti encompasses striking rock formations and three connected reservoirs which are a total of 38 miles long. Read more.

Crested Butte: One of Colorado’s most popular mountain towns, Crested Butte sits in a stunningly gorgeous valley 2 hours from Black Canyon surrounded by mountain peaks and has excellent hiking and winter sports. Read more.

 

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