Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the most incredible locations yet one of the least visited of the National Parks in the US. This post is about how to visit and what to do when going to Black Canyon National Park.
About Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The first thing most people think of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is that the park is named for the black rocks of the canyon walls. But actually, the park is named given the steep, deep nature of the park that sunlight only hits certain areas of the canyon walls for a few minutes a day. So much of the park actually lives in darkness, thus black canyon.
The park was established as a national monument in 1933 and it wasn’t until 1999 that the park received it’s current designation as a national park. Much of the park is actually considered wilderness and all of the area within the canyon is considered backcountry/wilderness area.
The park generally sees around 200,000 visitors a year, which is not the least for a national park but certainly lower than some of the most popular ones. The most popular areas of the park are the viewpoints along the south rim of the park. The south rim seems a far greater number of the visitors than the north rim.
The South Rim consists of the South Rim road, visitor center, campground and various trails and viewpoints along the trail. Visitors here are treated to beautiful views of the more vertical walls of the north rim. Due to the way snow and ice melted and carved the walls, the north rim is more sheer up and down and the south more angled. You get some of the most beautiful views of the walls from this area of the park.
The less visited and more wild area of the park. Given that the north rim is further away from main roads it certainly sees far fewer tourists as well. This is definitely a benefit. the North Rim area is unpaved and has fewer viewpoints but also some great hikes as well. My favorite hike, the trail to exclamation point is also located in this part of the park. The north rim has a campground and a ranger station and far less parking than the south rim.
Where is Black Canyon National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in west-central Colorado along the Gunnison River and close to Montrose Colorado. Entrances to the park for either rim are actually quite a bit away from the town of Gunnison Colorado.
The park is located along US-50 which is a popular route through central Colorado. You can access the park from US-50 from areas east or west. Just of note, when I was recently visiting, construction on US-50 made travel difficult from areas east of the park.
The south rim entrance is located close to the town of Montrose Colorado (which is a good spot to find a hotel if you are looking) and the North Entrance close to Crawford Colorado. The south entrance is the more visited and easier access of the two rims.
Traveling Between North and South Rim
Traveling between rims is definitely more of an ordeal that I had anticipated before coming.
The first thing you realize is that there’s no bridge or other method of travel between rims within the National Park. You’ll actually need to exit the park and travel outside of the park to find where to cross between the rims.
Expect the journey to take at least 2 hours to travel between both rims.
From the South Rim, you’ll need to head back out the entrance to the park and onto Route US-50W towards Montrose and continue on 50 until you reach Delta. Turn onto CO-92E until the town of Crawford.
The area becomes more rural and soon much more unpaved. You’ll actually see signs for Black Canyon National Park once you get to this area. You can either continue on 92E until you see the turn-off after Crawford Reservoir for Black Canyon Road or your GPS system may take you down more side roads until you end up in the same spot.
Don’t be too concerned with the unpaved roads. They are actually at least when I visited in quite good shape. You’ll need to be ok driving on unpaved roads to access the north rim of the park.
When you enter the park on the north rim you can either turn right towards the campground and ranger station or left towards the various turnoffs. I would do both in my opinion. The road you took in is the same way back out of the park.
To get back to the South Rim just follow the above in reverse.
Hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Warner Point Nature Trail: Moderate, 1.5 miles round trip trail that starts from the High Point Overlook (far end of the South Canyon). The trail gives you some lovely views of the canyon and is also one of the main entry points for inter-canyon travel (permit required). There are also a bunch of markers along the trail for additional information about the Nature Trail.
Deadhorse Trail: Easy 5 mile round trip trail. This is from the east end of the north canyon rim. It’s a decent trail along an old service trail. However, if time is limited, the North Vista Trail is the one you should focus on.
North Vista Trail: Moderate/Strenuous. 3 Miles to Exclamation Point and 7 miles to Green Mountain. The trail to Exclamation point is my favorite of the easily accessible trails in Black Canyon. The views are beautiful, and exclamation point particularly so. Be sure to go out to the actual point and watch the river look like its coming towards you.
View Points: There are a lot of other viewpoints throughout the park. Many are very quick trips while others up to a half mile. Some of my favorite include Chasm Point, Sunset View, Kneeling Camel, and Narrows. They are pretty good though, you can usually skip ones adjacent to another just as the views don’t change that much.
Best Sunrise and Sunset Spots
I found that Painted Wall on the South Rim is still also one of the best places to view the sunrise if you are on the South Rim. The view is pretty gorgeous, and the painted wall just really shines with the different types of rock and the river.
From the North Rim the Chasm View is a great place to view the sunrise. It basically faces the opposite way of the Painted wall. So while I think the Painted wall is better you still get a great view here. It’s probably better for sunset though.
Sunset Point is Obviously the place to go if you are on the South Rim. It has the name Sunset in the name! The beautiful light on the canyon is one of my favorite and it really makes the shades and colors of the rock shine.
Chasm view is the best of the sunset points on the north rim as well. You’ll get the opposite view of the sunrise view if you start at Painted Wall (on the south rim). The canyon wall is not as cool, but the high walls allow you to get good light and views as the sun sets.
Inner Canyon Travel
Inter-canyon Travel within Black Canyon of the Gunnison is considered Back Country and Wilderness Travel. It definitely should not be taken lightly
All travel into the canyon requires a permit from one of the visitor or ranger stations. There are several different entry points for inter-canyon travel as well as other points for boat entries into the canyon as well.
It is recommended that you consult with the rangers in terms of what your plans are and your time in the canyon. They can recommend the best entry points. Some are certainly easier than others.
Note: Some canyon areas can be difficult to rescue from. It is expected and hopeful you are able to do self-rescue. If not, it may not be possible to get a helicopter or other rescue crafts into the canyon and some rescues may take multi-day.
Read more on the Inner Canyon Travel Page on the NPS.
One Day Black Canyon Itinerary
If you are wanting to see much of the park and if you are willing to start early, you can basically see most everything (other than inner canyon travel) within one day.
Start Early. I would recommend getting up before sunrise and entering the south rim of the park. Figure out where you want to see for Sunrise. I would recommend Painted Wall or Devil’s Lookout. After sunrise continue on visiting the viewpoints until you get to the end of the road.
From here take the short hike out to Warner Point Nature Trail. You’ll still have some lovely light without it yet being too harsh.
After the hike take the road back towards the visitor center. Stop at any viewpoints you choose. You won’t be coming back this way if you plan to do everything in one day. You can even do all of them if you prefer.
Take a stop at the visitor center. Ask about conditions and anything you may be of interest. Grab the national park stamp if that’s your thing. Take a quick stop at the Tomichi Point overlook on the drive back out of the park.
This is a great time to grab brunch in the city of Montrose. We really liked breakfast at the Lighthouse Eatery. They are famous for their Green Chili and their portions are generous. Papa Bear is definitely a big meal. They have vegetarian options even for their chili which is great
From here take the drive north to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Expect it to take about 90 minutes or so from Montrose.
From the entrance pick either direction. I recommend stopping at all the viewpoints as there aren’t that many. If you go to to the ranger station, take the hike at least as far as exclamation point. This was my favorite view of the entire canyon and the best day hike you can do.
Afterwards and if there’s time drive the road to the end. Take in all the viewpoints you can. Most are a really quick walk to the overlooks. If you have interest or time you can do Deadhorse trail, although skipping it won’t make you feel you missed something special.
Where to Stay
Camping at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon National Park has two campgrounds, one for each of the rims.
88 Sites. The South Rim is the more popular of the campgrounds in the park. During Summer reservations are recommended from Recreation.gov. Other seasons its first-come first-serve. There are 23 sites with electric hookups as well.
13 Campsites. Since the North Rim is less frequented the area is also more primitive than the south campground. Sites are all first-come first-serve. You can have small RVs here, although none of the sites have electric hookups.
There are hotels located in several of the nearby towns. I would recommend looking in Montrose or Delta Colorado. Montrose is closer to the south rim and Delta to the north rim.
Holiday Inn Express Montrose: It’s a good, clean hotel located close to the south rim of Black Canyon NP.
Stay Wise Montrose: We found the hotel to be decent, close to things, and also reasonably priced. For a spot to stay when you’ll be out all day, it works well.
Hotchkiss Inn Motel: Located East of Delta. Hotchkiss Inn is a hard to beat location for the North Rim. Clean, reasonable, although a lot less going on in this village.
Quality Inn Delta: It’s overall fine. I think it makes a decent home base for exploring the area and park. Prices were pretty reasonable when we were in Delta.
The main visitor center for the park is located in the South Rim. In the north there isn’t a real visitor center, just a ranger station that can provide more limited information.
South Rim Visitor Center
Hours: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm (summer); 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (spring/fall); 10:00am – 4:00pm (winter)
The main visitor center of the park and where most of the information you’ll get for the park. I would recommend stopping here if you are planning on visiting the south rim at all. Here you’ll find information about the park, store, national park stamp, information, permits, etc.
North Rim Ranger Station
The north rim ranger station is the only real “information” area in the north rim of the park. Unfortunately it is also open far more intermittently and only during the summer mountains. There is information located outside of the station on signs as well as often national park pamphlets if any remain. You can get permits and information here when it’s open but I wouldn’t count on it being open randomly. The station area has a parking lot and is the trailhead for several north rim trails and close to the campground.
- 7-Day Vehicle Pass: $30.00
- 7-Day Motorcycle Pass: $25.00
- 7-Day Individual Pass: $15.00 (pedestrian or bicycle)
- Black Canyon Annual Pass: $55.00
- America the Beautiful Annual Pass: $80.00
If you are planning on visiting multiple parks in a year, I highly recommend the America the Beautiful pass. I make so much use of mine annually and it’s a great purchase.
National Park Stamp
There’s a national park passport (cancellation) stamp located within the visitor center of the south rim. As far as I know this is the only location for the stamps.
Website: Official NPS Website
Getting to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is located across two unconnected parts of the park, the north and south rim.
The south rim is where most people end up and likely the first stop even if you do both. Located along US-50, the park is easily accessed for many parts of Colorado.
Distances to the South Rim:
- Montrose: 13 miles (20 minutes)
- Denver: 270 miles (5 hours)
- Grand Junction: 73 miles (90 minutes)
- Telluride: 80 miles (2 hours)
- Gunnison: 63 miles (90 minutes)
- Colorado Springs: 230 miles (5 hours)
- North Rim: 77 miles (2 hours)
The North Rim is located off CO-92 which is far more rural and a bit off the major roadways than the south entrance. You’ll then need to drive down a mix of paved and unpaved roads to reach the north rim.
Distances to the North Rim:
- Delta: 45 miles (1 hour)
- Crawford: 13 miles (30 minutes)
- Denver: 255 miles (5 hours)
- Grand Junction: 85 miles (2 hours)
- Montrose: 64 miles (90 minutes)
- South Rim: 77 miles (2 hours)
- Colorado Springs: 244 miles (5 hours)
Tips & FAQs
- If time is limited, focus on one rim. The South Rim is definitely easier to get to and the more visited of the rims. It’s paved, has the main visitor center and several trails and great overlooks. However, I found the North Rim to be more interesting in terms of hikes. The Exclamation Point hike was definitely my favorite of all the hikes in the park. Also the North Rim is less visited, unpaved, and a bit longer to get to from major roads.
- Don’t expect to go in-canyon, unless you know what you are doing. It is not for the faint of heart, and if you have issues it may take awhile to rescue you. If you are just day visiting, stick with the rims. It’s still a great park from there.
- Go Early. I found that being there early, especially for sunrise gave me much of the park to myself. It was really cool feeling like it was all for me.
- You can visit both rims in the same day. However, it will be a long day. Expect 2 hours of travel one way between the two rims.
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