12 Tips for Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

     

    Located 250 miles southwest of Denver, the Black Canyon stretches 48 miles, but only 14 miles of it is designated as a national park. Seven miles northeast of Montrose at the intersection of Highway 347 and Highway 50, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a national monument in 1933 and became a national park in 1999.

    Plan Your Visit

    The park is divided into three areas, South Rim, East Portal Road, and North Rim. Most people visit the South Rim as it is a 3-hour drive between the two rims. We recommend this park as part of a 6-day Southwest Colorado road trip loop.

    South Rim

    The 7-mile South Rim Road has 12 overlook stops. Some outlooks are located right next to the road and others require a walk out to the viewing point. Posted signs inform how many yards the viewing point is from the road.

    Your first stop at Tomichi Point will have you gasping your breath in awe and grasping your little ones in fear at the great drop off of a couple of thousand feet. While the viewing platform is safe for everyone, great caution should be used while on Rim Rock Trail.

    If you have little ones, I suggest you scout out the area while an adult waits in the car with the kids. This will help you decide if the trail is right for your family or for some of your family and how much you want to cover.

    Tomichi View from the parking lot
    Gunnison Point

    The Gunnison Point parking lot includes the park’s South Rim visitor center where you can watch an educational movie about the park and learn about how the canyon was created.

    Although I’ve alerted you to potential danger, please don’t skip this park because of a few perilous areas. Most of the viewing outlooks are fenced in like this.

    During our visit, Colorado had several wildfires. You can see the smoke in my pictures.

    The park was still beautiful even if it was dimmed by, let’s say, 10% by the smoke.

    Painted Wall – named for the pink veins of igneous pegmatite rock showing through layers of gneiss and schist.

    East Portal Road

    The road travels five steep miles at a 16% grade to the bottom of the canyon. You’ll find a 15 site campground, picnic area, and primitive trail. Due to the steep grades and hairpin curves, vehicles over 22 feet are not permitted on this road. East Portal is closed in winter.

    North Rim

    Kneeling Camel View

    The North Rim of the park is 11 miles southwest of Crawford, Colorado. Closed in winter, the last 7 miles of the access road is unpaved gravel. You’ll find 5 overlooks you can visit by car and four or more from the hiking trails. A campground with 13 sites is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

    Black Canyon of the Gunnison Junior Ranger Program

    Pick up a Junior Ranger program for both the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and its sister site, Curecanti National Recreation Area

    Time to Cover Black Canyon of the Gunnison

    Since the park isn’t considered one of the top ten, receiving around 400,000 visitors in 2019, you don’t have to worry about crowds, especially at the North Rim. Allow yourself 2-4 hours to visit the park depending on how many overlooks you walk out to and visit.

    Although the park is open every day, during winter months the South Rim is open only to Gunnison Point. The North Rim and East Portal Road close late November to mid-April.

    Hiking with Kids

    Depending on your kids’ ages and ability levels, you could schedule a hike in your visit.

    • Rim Rock Nature Trail – This moderate 1-mile trail starts near the entrance to Campground Loop C and ends at the South Rim Visitor Center.
    • Cedar Point Nature Trail – An easy 2/3 mile round trip leads to two overlooks of the river and Painted Wall.
    • Warner Point Nature Trail – Another moderate trail of 1.5 miles, the trail begins/ends at the High Point Overlook or the South Rim Visitor Center. Enjoy shady benches and views of the San Juan Mountain Range, Uncompahgre Valley, Bostwick Park, West Elk Mountains, Gunnison River, and the Black Canyon.

    Tips for Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison

    1. Talk with your kids before the trip about sticking close to you during your visit.
    2. There are no restaurants inside the national park, stop at a grocery store (in Montrose or Gunnison) to pack snacks and lunch before you head to the park.
    3. You can find vault toilets at the following stops: Tomichi Point, Visitor Center, Pulpit Rock, Sunset View, and High Point.
    4. There isn’t much shade – be sure to bring hats, sunscreen, and water!
    5. Watch for altitude sickness – the park is at a 7500-8500 feet elevation. Although by this point in your Colorado trip, your crew should have acclimated.
    6. Stop and listen to the river at Pulpit Rock Overlook. The river might be 1800+ feet down but you can still watch the current and hear the flow of the water.
    7. Poison Ivy grows near the banks of the Gunnison River. Be on the lookout for leaves of 3 if you visit East Portal Road or go hiking.
    8. Curecanti National Recreation Area – visit the nearby 43,095-acre park, comprising of three reservoirs, including Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in the state.
    9. The most expansive view of the canyon can be found at the end of  Warner Point Trail.  At the trailhead, grab a guide with information that corresponds to numbered markers.
    10. Get another viewpoint of the Canyon by booking a ranger-led, 1-1/2-hour tour of the Morrow Point Reservoir.  Travel seven miles of the canyon by boat. Children must weigh a minimum of 35 pounds to wear the required and provided flotation devices. Reservations are required and it’s strongly encouraged to make them several weeks in advance.
    11. Every year, Black Canyon hosts an Astronomy Festival. Events may include solar viewing and astronomy activities during the day and ranger talks, guest speaker programs, and telescope viewing each night.
    12. If you know your crew might not want to visit the whole park or if you’re short on time, stop at these viewpoints– Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Pulpit Rock.
    13. Bonus tip – Three South Rim overlooks, Pulpit Rock, Chasm View, and Sunset View are mobility accessible. Balanced Rock Overlook on the North Rim is too. Both rims have restrooms with accessible facilities.

    Fun Facts

    1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an International Dark Sky Park, which means that it is a great place to see the Milky Way and constellations on a clear night.
    2. Black Canyon derives its name because some parts of the gorge receive only 33 total minutes of sunlight per day.
    3. Nearby Gunnison was named after John Williams Gunnison, an American military officer, who explored in the area as part of the Stansbury Expedition in 1849.
    4. In 1901, an expedition was made to analyze the possibility of blasting a diversion tunnel for irrigation through the canyon. It took 9 days to cover a distance of 33 miles.
    5. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad train first passed through the canyon in 1882. Carving a railroad bed from the steep, rugged, and extremely hard rock walls was extremely difficult, it took a year to construct the last mile of track.
    6. The track was abandoned in 1955 in favor of the new route through Glenwood Springs which didn’t have as much inclement weather or rock slides.

    Entrance Fees for Black Canyon of the Gunnison

    We highly recommend buying an America the Beautiful pass for $80. The pass is good for one calendar year and is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Having a pass will allow you to pop in for a few hours in the evening and again the next morning.

    If you have a 4th grader, check out the FREE Annual 4th Grade pass which is good for the duration of the school year through the following summer (September-August).

    Current U.S. military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, qualify for a free annual pass.

    Where to Stay

    Hotels

    • Montrose – the biggest town closest to the park.
    • Gunnison – a great place to stay after you visit the park.

    Camping and RV

    Vacation Rentals

    Need more room or want to stay a while? Check out a vacation rental near the park.

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    Theresa Jorgensen

    Theresa is the mother of four including twins. She is the owner of SixSuitcaseTravel, a travel site for big families of 5, 6, 7, 8. She enjoys helping other big families build life-long travel memories. Her family's travel bucket list includes Washington, DC (done!), Yellowstone (done!), London, and anywhere in the Caribbean.