Exploring Colorado’s Black Canyon
Pretty. Breathtaking. Deep. Interesting. A little scary. These are just some of the words that Grant and I used to describe the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is probably one of those parks which, unless you live nearby or you’re a National Parks enthusiast like us, you’ve never heard of. Located in western Colorado, Black Canyon is one of the least visited of the 59 National Parks, with only about 183,000 visitors in 2014 (the most recent data I could find).
The canyon is pretty, but it’s not the Grand Canyon. There are some great views, but it’s not Yosemite. The river is nearly impossible to access, steep slopes limi hiking and the vast majority of the park is inaccessible in the winter. It’s really not hard to understand why it isn’t more popular than it is.
But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of being a national park or worthy of a visit.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Black Canyon may not be the biggest, deepest or most scenic canyon in the US, but it is a canyon of extremes, nonetheless. Great depths (2,700 feet), narrow widths (only 40 feet wide in places at the bottom) and nearly vertical walls, make this canyon unlike any other. Its name, the Black Canyon, comes from the fact that sunlight only barely reaches some points at the bottom of the canyon.
The canyon has been a barrier to human exploration from the beginning. It’s rims indicate evidence of human occupation by the Ute Indians, but the canyon itself shows no signs of humans. In fact, expedition teams and surveyors in the late 1800s described the canyon as “inaccessible.”
Of course, most humans don’t like to take “no” as an answer. And, nearby residents wanted to divert water from the Gunnison River, way down at the bottom of the canyon, for irrigation. So, in 1900, a few local residents attempted to reach the inner canyon. The team of five gave up after a month.
A year later, two guys were crazy enough to try again. A. Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence floated in on a “rubber mattress.” It took them nine days to go 33 miles. But, they were successful and determined that an irrigation tunnel was possible. A few years later, construction began and that tunnel is still in use today.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the canyon a national monument in 1933, after local residents lobbied for inclusion in the National Park System. Congress established it as a national park in 1999.
Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison
While the park is open year-round, only a small part is easily accessible in the winter. Thus, a summer visit is most popular.
Visitors will find most of the services on the South Rim. Here you will find a visitor center, a scenic rim drive with 12 overlooks, hiking trails, a campground and a road down to the river. The North Rim also offers a scenic drive, but the road is not paved.
The South Rim
South Rim Road is only 7 miles long, but includes several stops to get out and enjoy the views. Some overlooks offer the views right at the parking lot. Other stops require a short walk, up to about a quarter of a mile one way.
Some of the views are a bit redundant, but for the most part, each overlook offers a unique perspective of the canyon.
All visitors should make a point to complete the South Rim Drive, even if you only have a couple of hours to visit. I would also suggest stopping at the Visitor Center and watching the 20-minute movie. The film does a great job of explaining the history and geology of the canyon.
Hiking at Black Canyon
Hiking at Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP really means hiking along the rim, for all but the most experienced hikers/climbers. There are a few ways to access the river at the bottom of the canyon, but the park service does not even consider them official trails.
To hike the inner canyon, you need a wilderness permit and a lot of gumption! All these trails are very steep and rocky.
A couple of weeks before arriving, we had both read Dear Bob and Sue by Matt and Karen Smith, which summarizes their experience visiting all 59 National Parks. Their experience trying to hike into the Black Canyon was enough for us to know it was not something we needed to try!
The good news for hikers is that there are a few trails along the rim that are not terribly difficult. We completed two hikes at the South Rim: Oak Flat Trail and Warner Point Trail.
Oak Flat Trail
The Oak Flat Trail is a loop trail at the Visitor Center. It descends about 400 feet into the canyon and offers some unique views. If you’re interesting in getting “into” the canyon, this is the trail you should do!
On the advice of a couple of hikers just finishing, we took the left side of the loop first. I’m not sure that was the best advice.
The left part is more of a gradual incline (or, for us, decline). It took us about a mile to get to the “bottom” of the trail, which offered some great views of the canyon and river. Note: this trail does NOT go to the bottom of the canyon.
The hike back up from here was shorter, less than a half-mile, but obviously much steeper. We tend to like shorter uphills, but I’m not sure that was the best idea in this case. Most everyone else was hiking the reverse direction from us. Take your pick – short and steep (right side) vs. long and gradual (left side).
Fodor’s The Complete Guide to The National Parks of the West lists this as a difficult 2-mile hike. While this hike was demanding, it was not any harder than other hikes we’ve done that are described as moderate. We saw lots of visitors on this trail, including several children. While you must be able to handle a steep ascent or descent and navigate rocky terrain, it is not overly strenuous.
Overall, the Oak Flat Trail took us about 50 minutes and GPS measured it at only 1.4 miles.
Warner Point Trail
The Warner Point Trail is at the end of the South Rim Drive, at the High Point parking area. This trail dips down into a “saddle” and then comes back up on a rise. Along the way there are great views of the valley below, with only a few canyon views.
Once at the end, at Warner Point, you will find spectacular views of the canyon and the steepest rim to river drop-offs. We took our lunch with us and enjoyed a picnic with a spectacular view.
With all the up and down, this trail felt a little harder. I think this was mostly because it was hot and up over 8,000 feet in elevation. The altitude definitely got to us on this one!
The Warner Point Trail came in right at 1.5 miles round-trip. It took us about 50 minutes, plus another 20 or 30 minutes enjoying lunch and taking pictures.
East Portal Road
The East Portal Road is located just inside the entrance gate at the south rim. Boasting 16% grades, at least according to the signs, it is the only road that takes you to the bottom of the canyon.
We found the drive to be much easier than we expected. That said, we understand why vehicles longer than 22 feet are prohibited.
At the bottom, there is a campground, a covered picnic area (the only shaded picnic tables we found) and a short drive along the river. Swimming is not allowed, but fishing is, with a few restrictions.
The drive provided an interesting and different view of the canyon, but it was a short trip for us. Since we had already eaten, there really wasn’t much to do here. That said, it was worth the 30-45 minutes that we spent driving down and back up.
The North Rim
To access the North Rim of the park, you must drive around the canyon. The closest access is by driving around to the north side. Even then, it will take at least two hours to drive there from the South Rim.
The North Rim is much less developed. There is a small ranger station/visitor center, but it wasn’t open by the time we got there, after 5 p.m. The roads here are not paved, but they are in good condition.
North Rim Road offers six scenic overlooks. There are also a couple of hiking trails along the North rim.
Due to the time (late in the afternoon), and how long it would take us to return to town, we only stopped at a couple of the overlooks. That said, we really enjoyed this area and would definitely suggest allowing a few hours for this side of the canyon.
The ranger’s description of the trail to Exclamation Point made us really want to do that hike (three miles, moderate difficulty, spectacular views). Unfortunately, it just wasn’t in the cards for this visit. If we ever make it back to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we’ll definitely plan more time for the North Rim.
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Curecanti NRA is located adjacent to Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, to the south. Three upriver dams along the Gunnison River create reservoirs that make up Curecanti. The dams provide irrigation and hydroelectric power to the semiarid surrounding community. The reservoirs also provide great opportunities for fishing and boating.
The National Park Service operates sight-seeing boat tours during the summer. These boat tours typically start early-mid June. Unfortunately, high water and issues with a new boat delayed the operating season this year.
Thus, we were left to explore on our own. Without a boat, that meant just a scenic drive. We actually turned our drive into a big loop from/to Black Canyon. Starting at the South Rim of Black Canyon, we drove southeast to Curecanti, then northwest to the North Rim, then completed the circle back to our campground in Montrose. The drive made for a long day, but it was worth it in the long run.
The scenic drive through Curecanti NRA, along Highway 92 from the Blue Mesa Reservoir, offered additional views of the canyon, reservoirs and the surrounding mountains.
We would have loved to have been able to do the boat tour and experience more of Curecanti National Recreation Area, but we did enjoy the scenic drive. There are also a few hiking trails along the reservoir and even into the canyon. Apparently canyon access is easier from this area. We still did not try.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP is located about 30 minutes east of Montrose, where we camped for several days. Our campground, Centennial RV Park, provided a great base and a good campsite. You can read our review of the campground here.
Montrose is a reasonably well-sized town, with about 20,000 residents. They have plenty of opportunities for groceries, gas and anything else you could need.
After several busy days in Yellowstone National Park and Cody, Wyoming, we enjoyed some downtime in Montrose. We spent one day exploring both Black Canyon and Curecanti, but easily could have spent two, or even three days.
We also celebrated our seventh anniversary here, at Ted Nelson’s Steakhouse. You can find our review of this restaurant here.
I also must point out that due to spotty cell service and WiFi at the campground, I even got Grant into a Starbucks to work. This is huge since Grant doesn’t like coffee or tea!
This area of Colorado is beautiful. There are mountains, badlands and scenic views everywhere. In fact, the canyon is somewhat “hidden” by all the other spectacular terrain surrounding it.
If you are looking for a national park that isn’t too far from civilization and has great views, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a great choice! Curecanti NRA provides fun for boat-lovers and fishermen. And this is a great place to just sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery!