The name sounds like something from a fantasy novel: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. One of the steepest mountain descents in the world, Black Canyon earned its name from the limited sunlight that’s able to shine through these narrow canyon walls—which, at their narrowest point, are separated by a mere forty feet. Two spectacular scenic drives run along both rims of the canyon, and a number of overlooks and hikes offer one-of-a-kind scenic experiences to peer over immense drop-offs at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, located in western Colorado.
Geologists think that the modern Gunnison River came into existence about ten to fifteen million years ago (though some suspect it could be much younger at around two million years). At about that same time, the dramatic and rapid uplifting of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin was taking place in between the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. With this inexplicable uplifting (it’s still not completely understood by geologists), the Gunnison River gained force and cut its way through the different layers of rock in the region, including the hard Precambrian basement rocks. It’s said that the rocks in the canyon were whittled away at a rate of about one inch per every hundred years. This process was excruciatingly slow by human standards, but, because the canyon walls are so steep, we know that the relentless Gunnison River must have been highly efficient throughout the millions of years it eroded the hard granite cliffsides.
The first known civilization to inhabit this area were the Ute Indians, who are said to have avoided the area initially for superstitious reasons—perhaps due to the ominous appearance of the treacherous dark cliffs found here. Aside from a few Spanish explorers and fur trappers, the area didn’t get frequented by American settlers until the late 1800s, when the transcontinental railroad made its way through the canyon. The route over this perilous terrain became too difficult to maintain, however, and the railroad was later abandoned in the 1950s. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a fairly young national park as it was redesignated from a national monument to a national park in 1999.
One of the main attractions at the park is South Rim Drive. It’s a seven-mile drive that has twelve overlooks, all of which give you spectacular views of the canyon. Almost all the overlooks are accessible via short trails. The top lookout points are Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Sunset View, and the Painted Wall, which happens to be the highest cliff in Colorado. The light streaks running across the face of the Painted Wall are what’s left of igneous intrusions of magma that formed dikes through the granite. If you’re going to do the South Rim Drive, then allocate at least two hours to give you plenty of time to leisurely make your way through and stop at multiple overlooks.
There are plenty of different hikes to choose from along the South Rim. For those who prefer a more leisurely hike with great scenery, I recommend the Rim Rock Nature Trail. It’s a short one-mile round-trip hike of mostly flat terrain, making it moderately difficult. Along the trial you’ll encounter a variety of vegetation, and be given some excellent views of the Gunnison River and the sheer walls of the canyon. For anyone looking for an even shorter trail, the Cedar Point Nature Trail is a solid choice (two-thirds mile round-trip), with interpretive flora signs along the way and two overlooks at the end that will give you breathtaking views, including a view of the Painted Wall. Finally you can look into embarking on the moderate 1.5-mile round-trip hike to Warner Point, which is the deepest part of the canyon at 2,722 feet and taller than the tallest building in the world.
You can also venture onto the more out-of-the-way North Rim as well, but know that winter conditions will often have the gravel roads closed down. If the roads are open at the North Rim, you may have the overlooks to yourself, since they are visited far less frequently. If you’re looking for a trail on the North Rim, then you won’t be let down by the Chasm View Trail. It’s a short (one-third-mile round-trip) hike that takes you through a thick forest area and then leads you to two amazing overlooks that give you great views of the Painted Wall and Serpent Point, as well as a great vantage point for bird-watching.
While hiking, be on the lookout for some of the interesting local wildlife and vegetation, where the canyon’s inhabitants include mule deer, coyote, elk, magpie, and even eagles. If you look to the sky, you’ll likely catch glimpses of swells and swallows and might even be able to see some of the harder-to-find birds, like the great horned owl or the mountain bluebird. As for the flora, you’ll come across plenty of ponderosa pine, juniper, and aspen, and keep a close eye out for a wildflower native to the area called the Black Canyon Gilia, which is known for growing through rock cracks along the steep cliffsides.
Black Canyon is also a prime location for the ultra-adventurous. There are rock-climbing opportunities as well as rafting options, but, due to the extremely technical nature of navigating through or up the canyon, these activities are really only available to those who are very skilled and experienced. If you’ve got the heart of an adventurer but just don’t have the technical skill of a climber or a rafter, then look into embarking on a strenuous inner-canyon hike down to the river.
The hike won’t be easy and will require you to be in great shape. You’ll also need to have a good “hiking sense,” because there are no established trails, and it is more of a route-finding experience. Most people recommend the Gunnison Route as the “easiest” option, but even that hike will be extremely challenging. If you’re thinking about doing such an adventurous hike, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into and secure a backcountry permit before you set out.
- Try to catch the Painted Wall in its most spectacular form in the morning as the sunrise illuminates the wall and creates great photo opportunities.
- If you’re a fan of astronomy, then you’ll be pleased to know that the parks offers astronomy sessions on Fridays and Saturdays during the summer at the Gunnison Valley Observatory.
- Consider visiting nearby towns known for their cafés, wineries, and museums.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located approximately 250 miles southwest of Denver.
- South Rim:15 miles east of Montrose, via U.S. Highway 50 and CO Highway 347
- North Rim:11 miles south of Crawford, via CO Highway 92 and North Rim Road (unpaved)
There is no bridge between the north and south rims of the canyon. Allow two to three hours to drive from one side to the other.
Directions via the NPS.