Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a national park run by the National Park Service located in Southwestern Colorado, 15 miles 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, originally 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 2250 feet. Also, the canyon at its narrowest is only 40 feet 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.
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 between 60° to 100°F (15° to 38°C), nights 30° to 50°F (-1° to 10°C). Winter daytime temperatures range between 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.
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 11:28 AM, and the westbound train from Chicago is scheduled to arrive at 4:10 PM.
The entrance fee for a single visit is $15. It covers all persons in a single, private, noncommercial vehicle and is valid for seven calendar days. The entry fee for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcycles, motor scooters, or mopeds is $7 per person. There is no fee charged for persons 16 years of age or younger. You can also buy a Black Canyon Annual Pass for $30, which is valid for 12 months. Also, a free permit is required for all backcountry and wilderness use, both day use and overnight.
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.
Bird watching in the area is excellent, especially in spring and early summer.
South Rim Trails
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Black Canyon is not a place for the beginning climber. Of the one hundred forty five climbs that are either found in Black Canyon Rock Climbs or are known by the Park Service; eight are rated at 5.8, and of these eight only four have good information available and see regular ascents. Twenty one climbs have a rating of 5.9; five of these are aid routes and only six of them see any significant climbing activity. The other one hundred and seventeen 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 one should keep in mind that 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.
13 sites in Pinyon-Juniper forest with vault toilets, tables and grills. 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. Occasionally fills during summer months. All sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations) and have a maximum 14 consecutive day stay in a 30 day period.
88 sites in oak-brush forest with vault toilets, tables and grills. Water is available mid-May to mid-October. 30 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
Fees: Loop A - $12.00 per night plus $3.00 per night if reserved ($6.00 per night for Interagency Senior/Access Pass plus $3.00 per night if reserved) Loop B (electric hookups) - $18.00 per night plus $3.00 per night if reserved ($12.00 per night for Interagency Senior/Access Pass plus $3.00 per night if reserved) Loop C - $12.00 per night ($6.00 per night with Interagency Senior/Access)
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 vist other places, too.