Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 2021 Travel Guide ⋆ We Dream of Travel Blog

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 2021 Travel Guide

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Complete Guide: North Rim and South Rim blog post cover graphic.  Text overlaying an image of the Black Canyon at sunset.

Just hearing the brooding moniker “the Black Canyon of the Gunnison” is enough to stir intrigue and curiosity for adventure-seeking travelers. This park is not for everyone, especially people with vertigo, but those willing to venture to the remote Gunnison region of Colorado will be rewarded with one-of-a-kind views of the sheerest, deepest, and narrowest canyon in the US.

Having visited every national park in the country, it means something when we say that the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the best. The allure lies in the small crowds, unique landscape, friendly rangers, and general experience one can expect to find.

This travel guide has been written to help with planning and expectations for your visit to the park. In it, you will find all pertinent information including what to see, where to stay, suggested itineraries, and more.

Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post likely contains affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂

Before We Get Started… Our 2021 National Park Lovers Gift Guide is Out!

As you’re here, we know you love the National Parks as much as we do! With the holiday season drawing near we’ve put together a guide of over 60 incredible and thoughtful national park gifts. So whether you’re looking for a gift for a friend, family member, or something to treat yourself, open up our National Park gift guide in a new tab to check out when you’re done with this post!

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison Quick Overview

Zoomed in photo to the Gunnison River in Black Canyon National Park.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP is broken into two distinct regions: the North Rim and the South Rim. Despite being a stones-throw away, the two sections are separated by the roaring Gunnison River below with no bridges available. Accordingly, those who wish to visit both will have to drive 77 miles (1 hour 45 minutes) to get from one entrance station to the other!

Unlike most national parks, few hiking trails exist in the Black Canyon. Visitors should instead expect to take a few short walks to assorted overlooks along a short stretch of road. Each will provide a slightly different view of the sheer walls and roaring river for which the park is known.

Both sections of the park are very small and can easily be explored in a couple of hours. Be warned that the North Rim Drive is not paved, but the road is well maintained.

You can hike to the bottom of the canyon from both rims via one of several drop points, but there is no official trail. If you wish to do so, you will need to let the rangers at the visitor center know. Be warned that this is not for the casual visitor and while the distance is only about 1.5 miles, it is a completely vertical journey through unstable ground.

Black Canyon North Rim vs South Rim

It is tough to beat the sunset view from Cedar Point on the Black Canyon South Rim.
It is tough to beat the sunset view from Cedar Point on the South Rim.

The most common question we receive about visiting the Black Canyon is whether we recommend the North Rim or the South Rim.

The South Rim is the more popular option and receives substantially more visitors, though this entire park is relatively quiet by NP standards. The pros to visiting the South Rim are that there is far more camping available (including electric hook-ups!), greater assistance at the visitor center, paved roads, ranger talks, and more facilities.

Meanwhile, we found the North Rim to be the more photogenic option and enjoyed the total lack of crowds. However, the camping is very basic and limited to 13 small spaces which were full before noon, meaning we had to drive out of the park to camp. It is only 4 miles out to BLM land, but the unpaved roads make for slow-going.

As a photographer, I recommend the North Rim as the compositions proved far more pleasing on this side. For casual visitors, however, you may prefer to have paved roads, a helpful visitor center, and nicer / more plentiful camping.

Quick Facts About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

  • Location: Colorado, USA
  • Established: October 21, 1999
  • Size: 30,750 acres (124.4 km2)
  • Annual Visitors: 341,620 (2020), 432,818 (2019)
  • Visitor Centers: South Rim Visitor Center (year-round) and North Rim Ranger Station (open intermittently during the summer)
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle; $25 per motorcycle; $15 per individual; $80 Interagency Annual Pass
Fun Fact: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the sheerest canyon in North America!
Fun Fact: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the sheerest canyon in North America!

Map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

You will find useful maps for your visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP below. In my planning and adventuring, I found it helpful to break the park down into 5 regions. These regions, ranked by popularity, are:

Official Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Map

Below is the official park map showing both the South Rim and North Rim.

Official NPS park map for Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Interactive Google Map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

We’ve also put together an interactive Google Map of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, featuring all of the sights and places we mention within this blog post. Click here or on the image below to open the map in a new tab.

Google map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

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Black Canyon FAQs

How much time do I need to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP?

The entire South Rim drive is only 6-7 miles, and the North Rim drive is only 4 miles. Minimal walking is required at each viewpoint, so each rim can be thoroughly explored in just a few hours. However, those wishing to visit both rims must add about 2 hours of drive time between them, and hikers wishing to go to the bottom should add 4-6 hours minimum as well.

Is the Black Canyon North Rim worth visiting?

Absolutely! The North Rim enjoys similar but better views and is much quieter.

The views from the North Rim are preferred by most who actually visit.
The views from the North Rim are preferred by most who visit.

Which rim is better?

While the Black Canyon South Rim is more popular, most agree that the vistas from the North Rim are more photogenic. The one major disadvantage, for some, is that the North Rim is not paved and has less facilities and ranger presence. If you are hoping to do some ranger talks, require electric hook ups, or want a shorter detour, the south rim is the better option.

Can you stay overnight?

Both the North Rim and South Rim of the Black Canyon NP have camping available, but it is limited. The North Rim offers 13 small, minimal spaces. The South Rim has 3 loops of a similar size, one of which also provides electric hook ups. If these are full, you are required to leave the park to camp.

Can you hike to the bottom of the Black Canyon?

You can hike to the bottom of the Black Canyon via several drop points, but there is no official trail. Notice is required if you wish to attempt the journey, and survival / navigational skills are strongly recommended due to the lack of official trails.

A view from near the bottom of the Black Canyon.
A view from near the bottom of the Black Canyon.

How long is the hike to the bottom of the Black Canyon?

The hike is only 1.5-2 miles down, but it is a vertical descent! Most hikers require 4-6 hours to complete the journey.

Are dogs allowed?

Yes! This is one of the more dog-friendly national parks. Though they still will not be able to go on some of longer hiking trails, they can join you at all of the major viewpoints.

Is there a bridge across the canyon?

Unfortunately no; the only way to get from the north rim to the south rim is via a 77 mile, approximately 2 hour drive.

Is the park open year-round?

The South Rim is open all hours, all days. The North Rim, however, closes in the winter. This typically occurs in late November and reopens in mid-April. The South Rim also closes for vehicle traffic beyond Gunnison Point in the winter, but can be access by snowshoeing or cross country skiing.

What is the best place for sunset at Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Sophie enjoying sunset at Cedar Point on the Black Canyon South Rim.
Sophie enjoying sunset at Cedar Point on the Black Canyon South Rim.

The best places to watch sunset on the South Rim of Black Canyon are at Cedar Point or Dragon Point, though Sunset Point is the most popular option and provides picnic tables.

We also loved Dragon Point and Painted Wall if you have multiple nights to photograph. However, if you are limited to just one sunset, we highly recommend spending it at Cedar Point.

A very short trail from Balanced Rock Viewpoint provides arguably the best sunset view in all of the Black Canyon.
A very short trail from Balanced Rock Viewpoint provides arguably the best sunset view in all of the Black Canyon.

Good western views are more limited on the other side of Black Canyon National Park. The best place for sunset on the North Rim is at Balanced Rock View, but you will need to walk a short way to the right of the official viewpoint for the best view.

The views from the man-made viewing platform leaves a lot to be desired. From there, look to your right and find the small primitive trail leading along the rim. Within a minute or two, you will discover the incredible vista above which features the Gunnison River running directly through the scene.

What is the best place for sunrise at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?

Chasm View on the North Rim is the best place to photograph sunrise in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP.
Chasm View on the North Rim is the best place to photograph sunrise in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP.

Sunrise is a magical time at the park, and the best place to view it is Chasm View on the North Rim. Fortunately, this is also where the campground is which makes it a beautiful and convenient location.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim Viewpoints

The distance from the entrance gate to High Point (the final viewpoint on the South Rim drive) is only 7 miles. Along the way, you will encounter a small campground, the visitor center, and 12 canyon overlooks. Most of the viewpoints require less than a quarter mile roundtrip walk to visit, and none more than half a mile.

The best viewpoints on the South Rim are Painted Wall and Pulpit Rock, though we also specifically recommend Cedar Point or Dragon Point for sunset.

Below is a list of each viewpoint in order, along with a gallery to show what you will see at each stop along the drive.

  1. Tomichi Point
  2. Gunnison Point (Visitor Center)
  3. Pulpit Rock Overlook
  4. Cross Fissures View
  5. Rock Point
  6. Devil’s Lookout
  7. Chasm View (South Rim)
  8. Painted Wall View
  9. Cedar Point
  10. Dragon Point
  11. Sunset View
  12. High Point

*Click the photos below to view them at full size*

Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim Viewpoints

The entire North Rim Drive is only 4 miles end to end, beginning at the Chasm View trail and ending at Kneeling Camel view. The road is not paved but is well maintained and standard vehicles are fine. Below is a list and photos from each of the six overlooks, none of which require more than 100-300 yards of walking (less than a quarter mile roundtrip.)

As the distance is so short, we recommend visiting each just to see something different. However, our favorites are Chasm View (sunrise) and Balanced Rock View (sunset).

Below is a list of the viewpoints you will find on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim drive along with a photo gallery showcasing what you can expect to see at each.

  • Chasm View (North Rim)
  • The Narrows View
  • Balanced Rock View
  • Big Island View
  • Island Peaks View
  • Kneeling Camel View

*Click the photos below to view them at full size*

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hiking

Most of the park is a collection of scenic overlooks of the sheer canyon walls and Gunnison river. There are a few hikes available, however, some of which absolutely deserving of a spot on your itinerary.

Be aware that each viewpoint requires a very short walk, but those have not been included as hikes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (they are listed above instead in the “Black Canyon Viewpoints” section).

Below is a list of each of the trails, sorted by distance, along with photos and recommendations.

Black Canyon South Rim Hikes

Warner Point Nature Trail

A view from High Point at the beginning of Warner Point Nature trail.
A view from High Point at the beginning of Warner Point Nature trail.

Distance: 1.5 mile roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate

Despite the short distance, the Warner Point Nature Trail is a fairly steep and strenuous trail that begins at High Point. It is easily achievable at only 3/4 mile each way, but the views are not as good as most that you will discover throughout the rest of the park.

The primary reason to hike this short trail is to discover views more panoramic of the distant mountains than usually found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Rim Rock Nature Trail

Follow the rim trail from Tomichi Point to the Visitor Center for an easy stroll near the South Rim entrance.
Follow the rim trail from Tomichi Point to the Visitor Center for an easy stroll near the South Rim entrance.

Distance: 2 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

This short trail is exactly what the name suggests: a quick jaunt following the rim. It begins in the campground (Loop C) and follows the rim 1 mile, ending at the Visitor Center. If you have two cars, you can cut the hike in half by leaving one at each place!

Oak Flat Trail

The views from the Oak Flat Trail are especially picturesque in the autumn season.
The views from the Oak Flat Trail are especially picturesque in the autumn season.

Distance: 2 miles roundtrip (loop)
Difficulty: Moderate

Probably the most popular and certainly the most unique hike in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim is the Oak Flat Trail. Expect some elevation gain as you ascend and descend a short way into the canyon.

This is the only trail in the park that allows visitors a glimpse of what things look like below the rim without descending all the way to the river below. Despite the name, it is not flat!

The trail begins at the Visitor Center. We recommend beginning by going LEFT at the fork, climbing only slightly up. The best views were a short distance from this point so those who do not wish to battle the steep up and down can simply turn around after enjoying the view.

Black Canyon North Rim Hikes

Chasm View Trail

The trail to Chasm View is known locally as the prettiest quarter mile trail in Colorado.
The trail to Chasm View is known locally as the prettiest quarter mile trail in Colorado.

Distance: 0.3 mile loop
Difficulty: Very easy, disability-friendly

The ranger at the visitor center described the Chasm View trail as “the best quarter mile hike in Colorado.” I’m not sure I quite agree, but it is certainly worth the short walk!

Find the trailhead in the North Rim campground. It is well-signed and there are plenty of parking areas to choose from.

After a short walk, you will encounter two fenced viewing platforms offering dramatic views of the Painted Wall and the Gunnison River below. This is the best place for photographing sunrise in the park and is popular for stargazing as well.

North Vista Trail (Exclamation Point & Green Mountain)

Exclamation Point is a scenic lookout on the North Vista Trail.
Exclamation Point is a scenic lookout on the North Vista Trail.

Distance (roundtrip): 3 miles to Exclamation Point, 7 miles to Green Mountain
Difficulty: Moderate to Exclamation Point, Strenuous to Green Mountain

The North Vista Trail begins at the North Rim ranger station, which is more of an information point than true visitor center. It provides a fairly gentle stroll to two viewpoints in Exclamation Point and Green Mountain.

We would recommend most visitors take the time to visit Exclamation Point as this is one of the better views in the entire Black Canyon National Park. This should only require about two hours or less in total to hike and enjoy. The additional hike to Green Mountain will add an additional 2-3 hours and some elevation gain.

If you are an early riser, consider Exclamation Point for sunrise! It looks straight down the canyon walls and Gunnison River to where the sun will be rising.

Golden Hour from Exclamation Point in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP's North Rim.
Golden Hour from Exclamation Point in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP’s North Rim.

Deadhorse Trail

Distance (roundtrip): 5.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

We do not generally recommend the Deadhorse Trail unless you just have more time than you know what to do with on your visit to the North Rim. Rather than hiking along the rim, the path takes you about 2.5 miles through scrub brush and desert before finally arriving at an apologetically mediocre viewpoint.

For those who need to see it all, the trailhead for Deadhorse Trail begins in a parking area at the far end of the North Rim, just past Kneeling Camel View.

Hiking to the Gunnison River (the bottom of Black Canyon NP)

A view from near the bottom of the Black Canyon.
A view from near the bottom of the Black Canyon.

For some, peering down into the vast Black Canyon of the Gunnison is just not enough. The adventurous hikers have the option to leave the rim behind and venture down into the inner canyon.

Be aware that despite a relatively short distance, this hike is not to be taken lightly! Visitors are expected to be very physically fit, experienced, and prepared. Part of this preparation is acquiring a permit before entering the depths of the Black Canyon.

Hikers beginning on the South Rim need to go to the South Rim visitor center to receive their permit. These are given on a first come first serve basis, and numbers are limited. North Rim hikers need only fill out a self-registration form at the North Rim visitor center. All permits are free.

If you are thinking of hiking to the bottom, be sure to visit the official Black Canyon of the Gunnison NPS site for all information regarding permits and preparation.

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Best Things to Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

Photography at the Black Canyon National Park is our favorite activity, but there is much more to do!
Photography at the Black Canyon National Park is our favorite activity, but there is much more to do!

The majority of visitors will simply poke in and out at each of the overlooks, marveling at the sheer drops and narrow canyons for which Black Canyon is known. However, those with the time and interest will discover a handful of other adventures to be had on their visit.

Drive the scenic Rim Road

The road itself is not so impressive, but the views dotting the short drives from both rims demand your attention! Even on a short visit, you should have time to explore every viewpoint.

Explore the inner canyon

An incredible view of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Painted Wall on a hike to the bottom of the canyon.
An incredible view of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Painted Wall on a hike to the bottom of the canyon.

For the adventurous readers, gawking at the vertical canyon walls will not be enough; they need to explore the depths! Rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking have all become popular options for exploring the inner canyon for the adrenaline junkies among us.

If this is you, be sure to read up on the required permits and preparations on the official NPS page before visiting.

Watch for wildlife

At the South Rim visitor center, you will find a board listing recent wildlife sightings and locations for each. Due to the remote location of the park, animals have made themselves very at home.

Most of the wildlife you will discover will be winged, including several species of birds. Listen for the unmistakable sound of the swifts and swallows as they speed through the echoing canyon! You are also likely to encounter mule deer, peregrine falcons, and several small species of rodents. The truly lucky may even spot a mountain lion or ringtail.

Go stargazing at a dark sky reserve

The Milky Way rises over the Painted Wall in this night photo of the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP.
The Milky Way rises over the Painted Wall on the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP.

Discover some of the darkest skies you will see anywhere at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was recently recognized as an International Dark Sky Reserve and is an amazing place to watch the Milky Way rise over the sheer black walls.

Watch the sunset, stay for twilight

A golden hour pano from Cedar Point reveals why sunset is worth staying for in Black Canyon NP.
A golden hour pano from Cedar Point reveals why sunset is worth staying for.

While the camera may struggle trying to capture the dark canyon floor as the sun sets into the horizon, your eyes are in for an absolute treat! After the sun goes to rest, the colors of the canyon become somehow more vibrant in the now-even light.

Planning Your Visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

This section of the guide is aimed at the logistical portion of planning a trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. In it, we will cover the when, where, and why for creating a fun itinerary for your visit.

When to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The Oak Flat Trail is particularly beautiful in the September when the fall colors arrive.
The Oak Flat Trail is particularly beautiful in the September when the fall colors arrive.

The South Rim is accessible year round, though winter can make for challenging conditions at such a high elevation. Be aware, however, that the North Rim road closes entirely in the winter as does the South Rim road beyond! Typically, this means that access will be extremely limited from November until mid-April.

How Many Days to Spend in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

As you may have noted by now, the park is impressive but not particularly large. We typically recommend one night at each rim if time allows, providing opportunities for multiple sunsets and at least 1 or 2 nights of stargazing. With that said, two days / one night is enough to see the entirety of both rims including the drive in-between, as long as you are not planning to hike to the canyon floor.

Where to Stay in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

There is no lodging within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. However, camping is available at both rims but is extremely limited on the North Rim. Additionally, there is ample BLM land for dispersed camping just outside the entrance gate.

The closest town to the South Rim is Montrose where you can find a variety of lodging options. The Super 8 by Wyndham is an affordable option with excellent reviews in the heart of Montrose, just 20 minutes from the South Rim visitor center. If you’re traveling with family, or just prefer your own space, The Blue Bungalow is a delightful holiday home in Montrose and comes at a great rate. Although a little further away, the Double G Ranch & Guest Lodge is a great option, offering a wonderful bed and breakfast with mountain views and a personal feel.

There are fewer options for accommodation for the North Rim, with Crawford being the closest town. Stonehouse Inn and The Hitching Post both have excellent reviews and are within 25 minutes drive of the North Rim ranger station.

Services near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

A historic town is preserved just outside the park boundaries.

The park itself has minimal services outside of drinking water and toilets. The South Rim does have a full visitor center with a gift shop, but no food or supplies are available anywhere on either rim. Prepare accordingly!

The nearest town to get gas, groceries, and supplies is Montrose for South Rim visitors, or Crawford for the North Rim.

Fun Facts About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Fun Fact: The interesting textures found in Black Canyon of the Gunnison, particularly in the Painted Wall, is a mineral called pegmatite and is caused by magma.
  • The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not named for the color of its rock, but rather because its steepness means that some parts of the canyon receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day.
  • The Black Canyon’s Painted Wall is the biggest cliff in Colorado.
  • The lowest elevation within the canyon is 5,440 feet at the Gunnison River and the highest elevation is 8,775 feet at Signal Hill.
  • Prior to becoming a national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was first established as a national monument on March 2, 1933.
  • At its deepest, the canyon reaches a depth of 2,722 feet (829 m) at Warner Point.

Other Regional Travel Guides

For many of you reading, your visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park will be part of a greater adventure. If you enjoyed the photos and descriptions of this guide, browse our other regional blogs as well for further inspiration and information:

Final Thoughts

Fall colors add a pop of color to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison's dark walls.
Fall colors add a pop of color to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s dark walls.

We arrived at the park with ironically shallow expectations. Most of the photos we found during our research were dull and uninspired. By the time we went to bed that first night, the Black Canyon had found itself a spot on our Top 10 National Parks list! There is truly no place quite like it anywhere else on Earth.

We hope you have found this guide helpful, comprehensive, and inspiring. If there is anything that is not accurate or out of date, please kindly let us know in the comments below. Likewise, we would love to hear about your experience and welcome all tips and insights to help us improve!

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**All photos contained in this photography-based travel blog are copyright of Adam Marland & Sophie Clapton. 
They are not to be used for any purpose without the expressed, written consent of their owners.**