What Is So Special About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?

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View of Black Canyon of the Gunnison at sunset with golden light

When you think of canyons, you probably immediately picture the majesty of the Grand Canyon. And you should. There’s a reason it’s one of the natural wonders of the world. But an entirely different canyon exists about 400 miles northeast: Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

If you’re making a circular trip through Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, you don’t want to miss out on stopping at this national park. Let’s dive in and look closer at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and what makes it so special!

Where Is Black Canyon Of the Gunnison National Park?

The Gunnison River has been carving a canyon in western Colorado for two million years. The steep cliffs and ancient rocks of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison showcase the forces of weathering over time.

This national park is just off Highway 50, northeast of Montrose, Colorado. The park entrance is about 12 miles from the city.

Gunnison sits about 90 minutes west of the national park. You’ll travel through Curecanti National Recreation Area from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to the city of Gunnison.

When Did Black Canyon Of the Gunnison National Park Become A National Park?

In March of 1933, Black Canyon of the Gunnison became a national monument under the Hoover Administration.

But in 1999, it was re-designated as a national park. The land below the canyon rim was also protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System.

When the park was redesignated in 1999, it became the 55th national park and was the first since Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Saguaro were established in 1994.

Welcome Sign to Gunnison National Park

What’s So Special About Black Canyon Of the Gunnison National Park?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison protects one of the darkest, narrowest, and deepest canyons in the U.S. Because of its steepness, there are portions of the canyon that receive less than an hour of sunlight every day. The dark shadows make the rocky walls appear black, thus, a Black Canyon.

Warner Point is the deepest place in the canyon at 2,722 feet. At Chasm View, the Gunnison River drops 240 feet per mile, the greatest descent in the national park.

The Painted Wall, a popular overlook in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, stands 2,250 feet from river to rim. It’s the tallest cliff in Colorado. It’s also taller than the tallest building in America – the One World Trade Centre in New York – which stands at 1,776 feet.

Painted wall in Gunnison National Park

When you visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, you can spend just a few hours taking in the canyon sights along South Rim Road or enjoy an entire day, stopping at all of the overlooks, hiking a few trails, and watching the sunset.

Here are our top three places to go and things to do when you visit this Colorado park.

1.   Drive the South Rim Road

The main drive through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is South Rim Road.

A dozen overlooks are along the 7-mile stretch from Tomichi Point to High Point.

Unlike many national parks where the overlooks are pull-outs, you’ll have to walk a short trail to get to many of the viewpoints.

Of these viewpoints, Painted Wall is one of the most popular places to stop along South Rim Road.

Viewpoint of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

2.   Fish the Gunnison River

The State Wildlife Commission has designated the Gunnison River within the national park as Gold Medal Water and Wild Trout Water.

You can only use artificial lures, but it’s one of the best places for trout fishing.

Rainbow trout are catch and release only, while you can bag up to four brown trout a day.

A Colorado fishing license is required, so pick yours up before heading into the national park.

Gunnison River cutting through the canyon

3.  Hike the Rim Rock Nature Trail

The trails within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park get you closer to the dark, steep, narrow canyon walls.

The Rim Rock Nature Trail is a moderate hike, about two miles round-trip. It follows the rim of the canyon with excellent views of the Gunnison River far below. You’ll also get up close with the native plants of the region, like sagebrush and Utah juniper.

trail sign for rim rock nature trail

Visit This Hidden Gem In Black Canyon Of the Gunnison National Park

Most visitors to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park visit the South Rim. But the North Rim is a hidden oasis of rugged wilderness.

It’s much quieter with fewer crowds and amenities.

In fact, the last seven miles of road to the North Rim entrance are unpaved. This entrance is closed in winter because the gravel road isn’t plowed.

But if you appreciate solitude, the North Rim is where you want to visit. There’s one short trail and two longer trails as well as the main road with five overlooks.

The North Rim campground offers primitive camping with limited services.

Best Place For Camping Near Black Canyon Of the Gunnison National Park

The South Rim campground, just a mile from the South Rim Visitor Center, is the closest overnight camping location to the national park.

It’s open year-round, and you can make reservations mid-May through mid-September on Recreation.gov. The rest of the year it’s first-come, first-served.

There are electric hookups available in Loop B for $22/night. The rest of the campsites are $16/night. Some campsites can accommodate RV combinations up to 55 feet long.

Is Visiting Black Canyon Of the Gunnison National Park Worth It?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park isn’t just another canyon in the west. This isn’t the vast, colorful Grand Canyon. It’s unique because of the steep rock faces and dark shadows.

You won’t need more than a day to visit, but if you camp overnight, you’ll enjoy the dark skies and the sound of the rushing Gunnison River still carving its way through the Black Canyon.

Have you ever visited this Colorado National Park?

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