In the tucked-away southwestern corner of Colorado lies a hidden treasure—Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The five-hour journey from Denver acts as a deterrent for many, who opt for the more popular Rocky Mountain National Park, leaving Black Canyon with a modest 297,257 visitors in 2022. However, don’t let the numbers fool you; this park is a natural marvel, featuring towering 2,700-foot cliffs that plunge dramatically to the Gunnison River, with hiking trails offering awe-inspiring views of the canyon rim.
What Sets Black Canyon Apart
Described by Lori Rome, chief of interpretation and public information for the park, as a “gem,” Black Canyon boasts the steepest, deepest, and narrowest combined canyons in the country. Despite its smaller size, the impact is colossal, creating an illusion of depth that rivals even the Grand Canyon.
Choosing Your Canyon Adventure: South Rim vs. North Rim
Just like its illustrious cousin, the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon is divided into two primary sections—the accessible South Rim and the tranquil North Rim. With no bridge connecting these halves, planning a two to three-hour drive becomes essential for those eager to explore both realms.
Where to Rest Your Head
Though no in-park hotels exist, campers and RV enthusiasts have enticing options. The South Rim Campground, featuring 88 sites (including 23 with electric hookups), is the most accessible. For a more immersive experience, the North Rim Campground (13 sites without hookups) and the East Portal Campground (15 hookup-free sites within the Curecanti National Recreation Area) offer a closer connection to nature.
If camping isn’t your cup of tea, Montrose, Colorado, the nearest community, boasts various hotels. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites and the family-operated Canyon Creek Bed & Breakfast provide convenient and comfortable options.
Must-Do Activities in Black Canyon
- South Rim Road Adventure
Lori Rome insists that driving the South Rim and stopping at viewpoints is a must. The seven-mile drive hosts 12 viewpoints, many accessible through short hikes. Key stops include Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Sunset View.
- Warner Point Nature Trail Hike
Both Rome and national park specialist Mike Augustine recommend the Warner Point Nature Trail. This moderate 1.5-mile hike, located at the end of the South Rim Road, offers stunning views ranging from glimpses into the canyon to expansive panoramas of the San Juan Mountains.
- East Portal Road Excursion
Managed alongside the Curecanti National Recreation Area, Black Canyon offers the steep and spectacular East Portal Road. Augustine suggests this route for a unique perspective, providing a view from below as you relax by the river before heading back to Montrose.
Dining Near the Canyon
While the park lacks restaurants, Montrose offers a range of dining options.
- Bluecorn Cafe & Mercantile
- A breakfast and lunch spot with locally sourced soups, salads, and sandwiches.
- Enjoy watching candle dipping and shop in the gift shop.
- Colorado Boy Pizzeria & Brewery
- Neapolitan-style pizzas and award-winning craft beer.
- Also offers salads and sandwiches.
- Camp Robber
- Southwestern-style cooking in a slightly more upscale setting.
- Known for quality eats and a loyal local following.
- Tacos & Beer Montrose
- A casual Mexican restaurant with a great taco menu and outdoor seating.
- Backstreet Bagel Company
- East Coast-style bagels with a range of breakfast and lunch options.
Choosing the Perfect Time to Visit
Early fall emerges as the ideal time, with thinning crowds, pleasant temperatures, and the Gambel Oak trees transitioning into fall colors. Augustine suggests mid-September after Labor Day for a less crowded experience, with warm temperatures conducive to hiking. Expect some afternoon rain, making early starts and afternoon departures a smart choice.
Navigating Your Journey to Black Canyon
While remote, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers a unique and special experience. The South Rim entrance is the primary point of entry, and those seeking less-trodden trails should explore the North Rim as well.
The South Rim is around a five-hour drive from Denver, offering a scenic route along U.S. 285 through breathtaking mountain ranges. For a shorter drive, Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ) is just 20 minutes away. Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT), 1.5 hours from the park, is another option.
Getting Around the Park
A car is essential for park exploration, with rental cars readily available. Local ride services, like TelluRides, offer reliable transportation. Visiting both the South Rim and the more secluded North Rim entails a two to three-hour drive, including rough dirt roads. Note that the North Rim is closed to vehicles during winter.