Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was our twenty-fourth park, on our journey to see all fifty-nine national parks. Prior to arrival, we had heard very little about this park, so we were excited to see what we would find. We were extremely impressed, to say the least, and the park’s quietness only added to our overall fantastic experience. We were shocked to find ourselves one of only a handful of cars present for sunset on a summer evening. It seems that this park receives far less hype than the other Colorado national parks, a fact that we were totally fine with.
We made two visits to Black Canyon from our campsite in Olathe, about forty minutes away. While not as large as the Grand Canyon, or as vast as Canyonlands, Black Canyon is extremely unique in its sudden steepness. The edge of the canyon essentially drops off and descends 2,200 feet down to the roaring Gunnison River. The black and orange multi-colored walls seemingly reflect the sunlight that pours into the canyon for only thirty minutes a day at the steepest sections. Mark Warner best described this wonder in 1934, when he said:
“Here we find the narrower and deeper portions of the canyon with sheer, perpendicular walls of varicolored granite. Towers, pinnacles, spires, and other fantastic rock formations greet the eye with an ever new challenge, as sunshine and shadow play their part in the creation of this ever-changing pageant of rugged grandeur and majestic beauty.”
This describes our experience of Black Canyon excellently We only visited the south rim of the park, so we can’t really speak on the canyon’s North Rim. However, the things we did in the park gave us a great overall experience and feel of the canyon, and we left feeling like we had truly seen this park. If you have a few days, or even just a single day in this national park, we highly recommend the following activities.
Tomichi Point is the first overlook seen in Black Canyon National Park. This stop is located even before the park’s visitor’s center, and is the first view you will see of the canyon. We quickly parked and walked up to the edge for our pictures of the granite walls. We were impressed to say the least.
South Rim Visitors Center
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Every trip to a national park should begin at the visitor’s center. Here you’ll find tons of information about the history of the park, its discovery, scientific findings about its evolution, establishment as a national park, as well as information about the species of plants and animals found within the park borders.
We also typically watch the park film, which offers even more extensive park information. In Black Canyon’s video, we learned about the initial exploration of the inner canyon. While this feature was not unknown to the Ute people of Colorado, it was deemed inexplorable and unconquerable, which kept many from trying to enter it. However, late nineteenth century Westward Expansion led many to wanting to find a rout for a rail line through the canyon. In 1901, John Pelton began an expedition with a small party into the inner canyon, but they had to cut their exploration short due to diminishing food supply and exhaustion.
Then in 1901, Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence formed another small party of expeditioners, determined to survey the entire length of the canyon.This trip was successful and gave way to the creation of the Gunnison Tunnel, which diverted waters of the Gunnison River twelve miles through the Black Canyon and into the Uncompahgre Valley. This tunnel, completed in 1912, turned a dry desert into fertile farmland and completely changed the way of life of the farmers and ranchers who called this area home. It is still in use to this day.
Drive the loop (stop at Chasm View, Painted Wall, Sunset Point, & Pulpit Rock)
This was my favorite activity we did at Black Canyon. Along this drive, there are twelve stops with short walks to vast overviews. If you have awhile, you should stop at all of them, but if you are short on time, we recommend stopping at Pulpit Rock, Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Sunset Point. Each of these offers unique views of the canyon and the Gunnison River.
Watch a sunset
We think this is a must-do in every national park, and the NPS usually makes it easy to find the best spot to watch the sunset by naming it one of the following: “Sunset Overlook,” “Sunset View,” Sunset Point,” or any other variation. Be sure to look for overlooks named “Sunrise x__,” as these usually mark an ideal point to watch a sunrise for the morning folks.
In all seriousness, the sunset from Sunset Point is particularly lovely, as this point is situated at the perfect spot to watch the sun dip below the canyon walls. Another great sunset spot in Black Canyon is at the end of the Warner Point Nature Trail. This trail end offers a similar view to Sunset Point, but with fewer crowds.
Hike Warner Point Nature Trail
This trail is about 1.5 miles long out-and-back. It winds through juniper trees and sagebrush bushes, offering sweeping views of the Uncompahgre Valley. There are a couple of climbs towards the end, but it is fairly easy overall. The trail end offers a unique view of the Black Canyon and is another unique place to watch the sunset, as mentioned above. If you do stay for sunset, be sure to hike back quickly, as it went from sunset light to complete darkness when we visited.
Hike down to the river (backcountry pass required)
This is a popular activity in Black Canyon, but it is a rather difficult task and would be very hard for anyone not in peak physical condition. The canyon walls are very steep, and the downward hike is described as a “controlled fall.” The upward hike is even more difficult, as hikers must scale 2,000 feet in about one mile of walking.
Bren did this hike alone, since I chickened out. The entire inner canyon is considered backcountry and requires a permit to hike. The permits are first come, first serve, and are doled out on a daily basis. He originally wanted to hike the Gunnison Trail (considered the easiest), which starts right from the visitor’s center. However, when we arrived, the permits for this hike had already all been distributed.
He then settled on the Tomichi Trail, which leaves from nearby Tomichi Point. This ended up being an unexpected positive, as the bottom of the trail from Tomichi Point is the exact place where the Anderson Design Group postcard was based upon. At the bottom of the trail, Bren briefly swam in the river and snapped some amazing photos. 😀
Some tips if you want to hike the inner canyon:
- Hiking poles could be helpful. This could help you to stabilize when steeply climbing downward on a hill of gravel and loose rock. Bren brought his, but actually ended up stowing them in his pack as the hike proved to be more manageable when using hands and feet for both descent and ascent.
- Arrive early in the morning to get your permit for your preferred hike. There are four routes available from the South Rim, three routes from the North Rim, and two additional routes accessed from East Portal Road.
- Plan at least four hours to hike down to the canyon and back, or even longer if you can. It is much more strenuous than you would initially expect. Bren is a very fast hiker and estimated about three hours, but the entire trip took him just about four hours.
- Bring plenty of water and high-energy food. It is fairly warm in the summer, and many of the routes are fully exposed during the day, and you will need extra water due to the strain of the uphill climb. Be prepared. It is better to have extra, rather than not enough. The NPS will educate you on this as well, when you pick up your backcountry permit. They state that biggest mistake made by inner canyon hikers is not packing enough food and water.
- Be prepared for self-rescue in the case that you are injured or lost. When you receive your permit, there is a detachable portion to place in the mailbox at the visitor’s center when you return. On the following day, if they have not received your permit, they will come look for you. This would still require you to spend an entire night in the canyon alone if the worst were to happen. Again, be prepared.
In short, we found Black Canyon of the Gunnison to be a fascinating and gorgeous national park. We visited in mid-summer, and it was much less busy than the other Colorado national parks. The depth and grade of the canyon make it geographically unique and fascinating to see. We found it similar to Kings Canyon, in that it is an amazing, yet underrated national park. Should you find yourself passing through Central Colorado, be sure to stop and check out this incredible park. You’ll be glad you did.
Have you visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? How was your experience! Please share stories and tips below!