Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: A Hidden Gem in Colorado

 
sheer cliff at pulpit rock viewpoint in black canyon gunnison national park with river below


I think it’s safe to call Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park a hidden gem. With all Colorado has to offer, it's easy to accidentally overlook this national park that ranks as one of the least visited.


This Colorado canyon is 48 miles long, and the national park encompasses a 14 mile stretch of that. The national park gets part of its name, Black Canyon, because the canyon is so deep and narrow that sunlight only reaches to the bottom when the sun is directly overhead.


The deepest part of the canyon in the national park is 2,722 feet deep (at Warner’s Point), while the narrowest part of the canyon at the river level is a mere 40 feet wide (The Narrows).


The other part of this park’s name, Gunnison, is named after the river that cuts through the canyon. It's a tributary of the Colorado River and, during its 48 mile journey through the Black Canyon, drops MORE elevation than the Mississippi River does in 1,500 miles!


During its course through the national park, the Gunnison River drops an average of 96 feet per mile, and there’s a two mile stretch in which the river drops a shocking 480 feet!


The resulting erosion has exposed rock that dates back to the Precambrian Era- nearly 2 billion years old.


In case none of those statistics and facts convince you that you have to go see this national park, here’s a few more convincing reasons!!  

No one else is there!

empty parking lot visitor center with black canyon of the gunnison national park colorado in background

To give some perspective, most all of the top 10 most visited national parks see 3-4 million visitors each year (with the most heavily visited receiving over 11 million/year!), while Black Canyon welcomes closer to 300,000 visitors each year.


It’s located off the lesser traveled Highway 50 rather than an interstate, is quite small, and seemingly a lot of people just don’t know about it!

The campgrounds are nice!

We found these campsites to be much nicer than what we’ve experienced in other national parks.


They are closer to primitive sites (30 amp hookups only available at some spots, vault toilets), which I understand is not what the average traveler would include in their definition of “nice”.


But we really enjoyed that they were a little more spaced out, had trees and greenery around them, were frequented by deer and other critters, and were just generally less crowded.

**Be considerate with your use of water. There are 3 spigots (one per loop) at the campground and they aren’t designed or intended to fill empty RV tanks! All the water gets trucked up to this national park, so arrive with water if possible, and then use it sparingly.

 

Wildlife abounds!

Deer were everywhere! At the campsites, the visitor’s center after hours, near the trails, and near some overlooks.


Although not generally considered exotic or unique, our daughter loved seeing them up close.


It’s a break from the heat!

steep uphill road surrounded by plant life as elevation rises

Traveling through this area of the country during the peak of summer can leave you just wanting to find some air conditioning in order to recharge.


But because of the elevation being 8,000 feet above sea level - a rise of about 2,500 ft from the nearby town of Montrose - this park provides a little break from the intense heat. We definitely weren’t cold, but also didn’t feel like we were going to die.


You can get to the river without hiking!

East Portal Road, which takes you to the bottom of the canyon, drops about 2,000 feet in approximately 5 miles, giving it multiple hairpin turns and steep 16% grades! Because of this, no vehicles (including trailers) over 22 feet are permitted.

At the time we were hauling our old 5th wheel, but were able to leave it behind at the campground and enjoy seeing the river and views from the bottom up before heading on to the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park.


When revisiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we plan to camp in the East Portal Campground for part of the visit in order to really enjoy and explore the river.

Easy access to amazing views!

Hikes aren’t required to get to the views! There are a dozen scenic overlooks along the 7 mile paved road that runs along the South Rim of the Black Canyon.


Even while having to deal with the loading and unloading of an 18 month old, we still found it well worth visiting multiple overlooks as each place we stopped offered a new view or vantage point of the canyon walls and river.

 
 

Here’s where we stopped, in order from near the South Rim Campground and Visitor Center heading west:

  • Tomichi Point Overlook and part of Rim Rock Trail:

    We were happy to have done this trail, but we wouldn’t recommend it if you’re really crunched on time.


    You’re mostly hiking on an established and level trail through brush, and the views are not as spectacular as in other locations since the canyon walls are more V shaped rather than sheer cliffs.

  • Gunnison Point Overlook:

    Located just behind the Visitor Center and provides a much more dramatic view of the canyon. Definitely walk down here after stopping at the Visitor Center!

gunnison point overlook sheer cliff walls and river black canyon national park
  • Oak Flat Trail:

    This is an approximately 2 mile loop located right by the Visitor Center and Gunnison Point. It is the only way to get slightly below the South Rim without taking on a hike down to the river - which really isn’t safe or accessible for young families.


    Oak Flat Trail is marked as ‘strenuous’ but we did not feel that way, and never felt like we were taking any sort of risk with our toddler in tow.


    The trail takes you through wooded areas, past a rock outcropping, and eventually to an unmarked viewpoint of the canyon and river below before heading back towards the Visitor Center.

  • Pulpit Rock Overlook:

    Stop here! This viewpoint gives you a great look at the river!

sheer cliff at pulpit rock overlook gunnison river at black canyon national park colorado
  • Chasm View:

    Do not miss this one! Here the canyon is deeper than it is wide, and both the North and South Rim walls drop steeply.

chasm view black canyon of the gunnison national park colorado
panorama chasm view black canyon of the gunnison cliff colorado
  • Painted Wall View:

    This cliff, at 2,250 feet, is the tallest in Colorado, and the third tallest in the lower 48.


    This viewpoint is a must see, as you can stand right in front of Painted Wall, taking in its pink and white decorated surface.

 
Colorado’s steepest cliff painted wall black canyon of the gunnison national park
 
  • Cedar Point:

    An easy 0.6 mile path guides you to this overlook, where you’ll see that the canyon’s walls become less steep and more V shaped again.


    Although less dramatic, this is a really beautiful view of the Gunnison River and surrounding greenery. You’ll also be able to see Painted Wall and some cool rock towers jutting up from the river.

cedar point overlook sheer cliff walls gunnison river colorado
  • High Point:

    This is essentially the parking lot for the short hike out to the last stop on the South Rim- Warner Point, as High Point offers little more than shaded picnic tables for grabbing a bite before heading out to Warner Point.

  • Warner Point:

    This 1.5 mile round trip hike takes you through wooded areas, gives you views of fields and a town far below, and provides intermittent glimpses of the canyon before arriving at Warner Point.


    This is the deepest section of the canyon, although it may not feel like it because the walls are again more V shaped causing the viewpoint to be situated farther back from the canyon and river below.


    Although still striking, it felt less spectacular than many of the previous stops along the rim.

 
family at warner point black canyon of the gunnison national park with toddler sleeping in hiking backpack
 

There is, however, a rewarding lookout for the not-so-faint-of heart that can be accessed by a slightly worn path off to the left of Warner Point. Use your best judgement!


When standing at Warner Point looking out at the canyon you’ll be able to easily recognize where the path will take you, although we wouldn’t recommend scrambling out there with kiddos along.


The lookout offers a peaceful and secluded perch to take in this last section of Black Canyon from the South Rim.

Although Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is small enough to visit in a few hours, we would recommend camping for at least a night or two in order to enjoy a restful stay and really explore the area. An overnight would also give opportunity to see the canyon in different lighting during sunrise or sunset!


With the extra time, a family could go beyond stopping at the handful of overlooks and instead visit both the North Rim and South Rim (a 2-3 hour drive between the two as there is no bridge), do multiple really accessible hikes, and spend time exploring the Gunnison River at the bottom of the intensely steep East Portal Road.


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