Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a national park run by the National Park Service located in Southwestern Colorado, 15 mi (24 km) east of Montrose. It contains 12 miles of a spectacular and scenic gorge called the Black Canyon. It is adjacent to Curecanti National Recreation Area.
The park was founded on March 2, 1933, as a national monument.
The Black Canyon (contained in the borders of the park) is a very deep gorge containing sheer cliffs up to heights of 2250 feet (685 m). The canyon was carved by the Gunnison River, located at the very bottom of the canyon. The park contains Colorado's largest sheer cliff, titled Painted Wall with a height of 2,250 ft (690 m). Also, the canyon at its narrowest is only 40 ft (12 m) wide, making it very narrow.
Flora and fauna
Great horned owls, peregrine falcons, eagles, swifts and jays soar through the canyon. The American dipper uses its wings in fast moving waters to keep it moving underneath the surface when feeding.
When driving through or hiking in Black Canyon, you are apt to see many species of wildlife such as elk and coyotes. But by far one of the most elegant and common animals is the mule deer. Mule deer have adapted to many different types of habitats and seem to thrive in all of them. As you look into the depths of the canyon it may be hard to believe that these animals are just as at home trekking to the canyon bottom as they are meandering the oak flats on the rims.
|Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
The canyon is located in the biological crossroads of the Rocky Mountains meeting with the Colorado Plateau. Due to that sudden effect, temperatures quite vary during the year because of the mountain and desert combination.
Weather can vary greatly between the canyon rim and canyon floor. Summer daytime temperatures range from 60° to 100°F (15° to 38°C), nights 30° to 50°F (-1° to 10°C). Winter daytime temperatures range from 20° to 40°F (-6° to 4°C), nights -10 to 20F (-23° to -6°C). Precipitation is minimal, brief afternoon thunderstorms can occur during the summer.
Wear layered clothing appropriate for the season.
- South Rim Visitor Center, located at Gunnison Point in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas,and New Year’s Day. Summer hours are 8AM-6PM. Winter hours are 8:30AM-4PM. Restrooms.
- Park Headquarters, 2465 South Townsend Ave., Montrose, ☏ , email@example.com.
- Link to Park's Visitor Brochure
Pets on leash may be walked on roads, in campgrounds, to the overlooks, and are allowed on the Rim Rock Trail, Cedar Point Nature Trail, and North Rim Chasm View Nature Trail. Pets are not allowed on any other hiking trails, inner canyon routes or in the wilderness area.
Owners are responsible for their pet’s behavior and may receive fines if their animal creates problems with wildlife and/or other visitors.
Do not leave your pet unattended in a vehicle or campsite. Interior temperatures of vehicles rise within minutes and pets can quickly overheat and die, even with the windows cracked.
There are a number of ways to entering the park. One way is turning north on SR 347 from US Route 50. Another way to get from US Route 50 is to turn north on the East Portal Road. The East Portal Road is closed during the winter. Both routes from US Route 50 take you to the south rim of the canyon. To reach the north rim, you must drive on a gravel road which is closed in the winter from SR 92. There is no public transportation within the park.
Amtrak's California Zephyr Emeryville, California - Chicago route has a stop in Grand Junction. The eastbound train from Emeryville is scheduled to arrive at 11:28AM, and the westbound train from Chicago is scheduled to arrive at 4:10PM.
Fees and permits
Entrance fees are valid for seven days. Entrance fees as of 2020 are:
- $15 - per pedestrian or bicycle
- $20 - per motorcycle
- $25 - per vehicle
- $45 Black Canyon Annual Pass
A free permit is required for all backcountry and wilderness use, both day use and overnight.
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a 50% discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September to August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 15, 2024
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 20, 2024
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 28, 2024
- Veterans Day (November 11)
The South Rim has more services, facilities and overlooks, and provides better views of the Painted Wall.
The North Rim is accessed via a gravel road, has no visitor center, but does provide better views into the narrowest part of the canyon.
There is no bridge across the canyon. Allow two to three hours to drive from one side to the other.
It is possible to hike to the river but trails are unmaintained and extremely difficult. You can drive to the river on East Portal Road which has a 16% grade and is open mid-April to mid-November. Vehicles longer than 22 feet are not allowed on East Portal Road.
The Morrow Point Boat Tour to Black Rock Canyon begins in the neighboring park to the east, Curecanti National Recreation Area.
It helps to research the local wildlife and know what they look like before your visit.
- Look for the Yellow-bellied Marmot, a large rodent who lives and sunbathes on rocky out crops and ledges.
- Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Least and Colorado Chipmunks and Mountain Cottontails can be seen just about anywhere in the Black Canyon. Also look for the pretty spotted coats of the gray Rock Squirrel.
- Mule Deer can be found throughout the Black Canyon. Look for the spotted fawns in early summer. Be careful driving along U.S. Highway 50 and CO Highways 347 and 92 at dawn and dusk, they frequently cross the road.
- Occasionally seen around Black Canyon are Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
- Elk, or Wapiti, are occasionally seen in early fall and winter, look for them in grassy clearings and forested areas. They spend most of their time at higher elevations in summer.
- Coyotes are more often heard than seen. Listen for their pre-dawn songs from either of the campgrounds.
- Skunks, Badgers, Long-tail Weasels and Ringtail Cats are occasionally seen at dusk and dawn along trails, in the inner canyon, along roadsides and in the campgrounds.
- The Mountain Lion may be seen in early morning and evening. Only the luckiest of visitors will get a glimpse of the great "ghost of the Rockies". This incredibly elusive mammal is occasionally seen slipping off into the oak and juniper forests and across the road. Bobcat and Black Bear are occasionally seen in this manner as well.
- Walking along the trails at Black Canyon, you might cross paths with a Smooth Green Snake or a Great Basin Gopher Snake. Also occurring along roadsides, trailside thickets and rock gardens are Garter Snakes and Striped Whipsnakes. Come see a Park Ranger to learn how to identify these non-venomous snakes. A variety of Lizards and Salamanders can also be found. There are no poisonous snakes in the canyon due to the winter's cold temperatures.
Bird watching in the area is excellent, especially in spring and early summer.
- Peregrine Falcon - the world's fastest flyer. In spring and early summer look for this amazing bird in the vicinity of the Painted Wall.
- Blue Grouse can be observed in the sagebrush areas. Look for this beautiful bird along roadsides and thickets.
- Look for birds of prey such as the Cooper's Hawk and Red Tailed Hawks.
- Also up above the canyon rims look for Turkey Vultures and Golden Eagles riding thermals.
- Listen to the graceful and unforgettable note of the Canyon Wren in the inner canyon and from Rock Point in the morning.
- Ranger Guided Activities. Boat tours into the canyon, moonlight outings, snowshoe walks and star-gazing walks are some of the activities arranged by staff.
- Horseback Riding The Deadhorse Trail on the North Rim is the only area open to horses or pack animals for day use, recreational riding in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. No permit is required. Horses must be trailered to the trailhead at Kneeling Camel Overlook. Trailers must be parked at this overlook as well.
- Kayaking For experts only. Rapids are class V and some sections are unrunnable. Kayakers run the river at their own risk. The Gunnison River through the National Park has claimed the lives of even the most experienced, respected kayakers. The river's hydraulics can make self-rescue or rescue by others impossible.
- Many trails pass by steep dropoffs, so be cautious and keep a close watch on children.
- Hikers should be aware that limited cattle grazing is permitted on the North Rim. Please keep cattle gates closed should you encounter them.
South Rim Trails
- Rim Rock Nature Trail Moderate - 1 mile round trip.
As its name implies, this self-guided nature trail takes you along a relatively flat path following the rim of the canyon. Along this sunny route you will encounter a variety of plant life from sagebrush and Gambel oak to pinyon pine and Utah juniper. This trail allows many excellent views of the Gunnison River as well as the sheer walls of the canyon.
The trailhead is near the entrance to Campground Loop C and ends at the Tomichi Point Overlook.
- Oak Flat Loop Trail Strenuous - 2 miles round trip.
The Oak Flat Loop Trail (built by Student Conservation Association volunteers) offers variety to the hiker who would like to explore below the rim without taking on the challenge of hiking to the river. Parents should be aware that the trail is narrow in places and traverses some steep slopes.
The trail begins near the Visitor Center. Go a short distance to the Oak Flat Loop/River Access sign and follow the trail which leads right. Descend through a grove of aspen to another signed junction. Turn left here to continue on the Oak Flat Loop. The trail meanders through a thicket of oak scrub (Gambel oak) passing near a rock outcrop, a pleasant location where you can relax and enjoy the view. The trail then heads west where it begins its ascent through a forest of Douglas fir, Aspen, and Gambel oak. On the return leg one encounters another unmarked overlook offering spectacular views downstream. Pets are not allowed.
- Cedar Point Nature Trail Easy - 2/3 mile round trip.
An excellent place for one to brush up on the local flora, this short, sunny, moderately sloped trail offers guideposts describing the various plants along the way. At the end are two overlooks offering breathtaking views of the river over 2,000 feet below. Also visible is the famous Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado (2,250 ft), as well as rock islands jutting up from the depths of the canyon.
- Warner Point Nature Trail Moderate - 1.5 miles round trip.
You can pick up a trail guide at the High Point Overlook or the South Rim Visitor Center. Along this trail you will find shady benches which allow you to rest among mountain mahogany, serviceberry, pinyon pine, and juniper. Looking south you can see the San Juan Mountain Range, Uncompahgre Valley, and Bostwick Park. To the north look for the West Elk Mountains, and at the end of the trail enjoy the views of the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon. Pets are not allowed.
North Rim Trails
- Chasm View Nature Trail Moderate - 1/3 mile round trip.
This trail is located at the end of the one-way campground loop. After a short distance, the trail breaks out of the pinyon/juniper forest at the North Chasm View, some 1800 ft above the river. Continuing near the rim, the trail reaches a second overlook with excellent views of Painted Wall and Serpent Point. Keep a lookout for swifts, swallows and raptors frequently seen from this overlook. The people you can see on the far side, at Chasm View overlook are only 1,100 ft away.
- North Vista Trail Moderate to Exclamation Point - 3 miles round trip; Strenuous to Green Mountain - 7 miles round trip.
Constructed by volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, the North Vista Trail offers some of the best scenic views and birding in the park.
Start this trail at the North Rim Ranger Station. After passing through an area of sage and oak brush, the trail meanders in a pinyon/juniper forest along the canyon’s rim. Several overlooks offer views of SOB draw and the inner canyon. At Exclamation Point some of the best inner-canyon views can be found. Those continuing to Green Mountain will be rewarded by panoramic vistas, including the San Juan Mountains, the West Elks, Grand Mesa, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and an aerial perspective of the Black Canyon.
- Deadhorse Trail Easy to moderate - 5 miles round trip.
This trail offers good views of Deadhorse gulch and East Portal on the Gunnison River, as well as good birding.
Park at the Kneeling Camel Overlook and walk a few yards east to a spur road that leads to the old Ranger Station. The trail, actually an old service road, begins here. After 3/4 of a mile the road passes a stock pond. This pond is fed by one of the few springs found on the rim of the Black Canyon. Continue on another 1 1/2 miles until you encounter a stock fence. Turn right (south) here and walk 1/4 mile along the fence until you come to the canyon’s rim. Deadhorse Gulch is the large side drainage located just east of the overlook (and the fence).
- There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes and only with adequate preparations.
The Gunnison River within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is designated as Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water. Streams and rivers in Colorado are designated as Gold Medal Waters by the state wildlife commission because they provide outstanding angling opportunities for large trout. The Gold Medal Waters begin 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam and continue to the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Special regulations are required to maintain gold medal quality experiences. Of the more than 9,000 mi of trout streams in Colorado, only 168 mi are designated as Gold Medal. Consider an outfitted Colorado River Outfitters Association whitewater rafting trip on the Gunnison River Gorge below the last dam for outstanding beauty and exclusive bragging rights to some of the biggest Rainbow and Brown Trout fishing in the world.
The easiest access to the Gunnison River is to drive the East Portal Road. This road is extremely steep (15% grades) with hairpin curves. Vehicles with an overall length (including trailer) greater than 22 feet are prohibited. Fishing within 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam is prohibited. The East Portal Road is closed in winter.
- Use artificial flies or lures only. No bait.
- All Rainbow trout are catch and release.
- Brown trout 12-16 inches must be returned to the water immediately.
- Bag and possession limit for brown trout is 4 fish, 12 inches or less or 3 fish less than 12 inches and 1 fish 16 inches or longer.
- A Colorado fishing license is required.
- Fishing is prohibited within 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam.
Black Canyon is not a place for the beginning climber. Of the 145 climbs that are either found in Black Canyon Rock Climbs or are known by the Park Service; 8 are rated at 5.8, and of these 8 only 4 have good information available and see regular ascents. 21 climbs have a rating of 5.9; 5 of these are aid routes and only 6 of them see any significant climbing activity. The other 117 climbs have ratings between 5.10 and 5.13 and many require aid. All of the climbs at the Black Canyon are committing and many climbers have said that the ratings here can be deceiving.
All of the climbs within Black Canyon are multi-pitch traditional routes located in remote areas within the canyon. The National Park Service has rangers trained in high angle rescue, but any rescue operation within the park is difficult and requires extended periods of time. Being benighted due to underestimating a route is not cause for rescue at the Black Canyon. Climbers visiting the park should carry the equipment necessary to endure an unexpected bivy.
Peak climbing season at the Black Canyon begins in mid-April and runs through the early part of June and then from mid-September through early November. Environmental hazards found at the park during these time periods include frequent afternoon thunder showers, fully leafed out poison ivy, and approach gullies inhabited by ticks.
No shops or gasoline services are available at either rim. Full services are available in nearby communities. Water is available mid-May through mid-October.
No food services are available except in nearby communities. Water is available mid-May through mid-October. Picnic tables are available along the South Rim at Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock, Sunset View, High Point and East Portal.
Water is available mid-May through mid-October.
You can camp inside the park. Camping requires a free permit.
- 1 East Portal Campground (Just past the park’s entrance station, turn right into East Portal. Follow the road 5 miles to the base of the canyon and turn left at the T-Junction. The Campground is just past the ranger station.). 15 sites. All sites are first-come, first-served. The East Portal Campground is located within Curecanti National Recreation Area, but is adjacent to and only accessible from Black Canyon National Park. The campground is located at the bottom of the canyon, along the Gunnison River. It is a small, tent-only campground shaded by box elder trees. East Portal is closed in winter, when the Bureau of Reclamation closes the East Portal Road. $16 Standard Camping Fee (2020 rates).
- 2 North Rim Campground. (Open from Spring to Fall) 13 sites in Pinyon-Juniper forest with vault toilets, tables and grills. All sites are first-come, first-served and have a maximum 14 consecutive day stay in a 30-day period.. Water is available mid-May to mid-October. No hook-ups. Vehicles greater than 35 feet are not recommended. Maximum 8 persons and 2 vehicles per site. The North Rim Campground is a remote campground on the North Rim of the Park. The last 7 miles of the North Rim Road and the campground road are unpaved. Services are limited. The campground is small, but the sites are spacious and spread out among pinyon and juniper trees. This campground can easily fill in the summer, especially on weekends. $16 Standard Camping Fee (2020 rates).
- 3 South Rim Campground (about 1 mile past the park’s entrance station, turn right onto the South Rim Campground road.). Loop A open year round. Loops B & C open Spring to Fall. 88 sites, 23 sites with electricial hookups. 56 sites can be reserved in advance, 32 sites are first-come, first-served. Sites are located in an oak-brush forest with vault toilets, tables and grills. Water is available mid-May to mid-October. 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical hookups are available in Loop B only. All sites have a maximum 14 consecutive day stay in a 30-day period. Vehicles greater than 35 feet are not recommended. Maximum of 8 persons and 2 vehicles per site. Accessible sites: A21 and B1. Reservations may be made for South Rim Loops A and B only, and must be made at least 3 days in advance. $16 Loop A Standard Camping Fee, $22 Loop B (electrical hookups) Standard Camping Fee (2020 rates).
Trails in the park are located exactly on the deep canyon's edges. Do not attempt to pass the trail barriers.
Since the park is located in a region of Colorado that has a lot of tourist opportunities, you might want to visit other places, too.
- Mesa Verde National Park, containing a large collection of Native American pueblos, is 160 miles southwest of the park. Telluride, a popular skiing town, is about 70 miles southwest of the park. Colorado National Monument, a monument containing a large expansion of desert bluffs and buttes, is about 75 miles northwest near the town of Grand Junction. Glenwood Canyon, a huge gorge with I-70 running through it, is 160 miles northeast of the park.
- Curecanti National Recreation Area is adjacent.