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AARP’s Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Accessible overlooks offer jaw-dropping views from the North and South rims of the park

spinner image Sunrise at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, also including the Gunnison River.
Visitors can see some of the deepest canyons in North America at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
Patrick Leitz / Getty Images

​Charcoal-dark cliffs towering up to 2,700 feet above the Gunnison River frame one of North America’s deepest canyons, more than double the depth of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. But it’s the canyon’s walls, hewn from Precambrian basalt and marbled with veins of pink granite, that impress the most. Just 40 feet apart at the narrowest point, they enclose the river so tightly that parts of the canyon never see sunlight, lending the landscape the eerie darkness that earned the canyon its name: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

It’s not hard to understand why the U.S. government deemed this geological marvel in remote southwestern Colorado, 2 million years in the making, worthy of protection as a national monument in 1933 and elevated it to national park status in 1999. 

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“What makes the Black Canyon so stunning and singular is its steepness, deepness and narrowness combined,” says Lori Rome, the park’s chief of interpretation. “I don’t think most people are expecting it, and when they look over the rim for the first time, they’re just in awe.” 

spinner image a map showing where black canyon of the gunnison national park is in colorado
Getty Images/AARP

​​Facts Box

Location: Montrose County, Colorado

Acreage: 30,750

Highest point: 8,775 feet

Lowest point: 5,400 feet (at the river)

Main attraction: The canyon, as seen from several viewpoints

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go to avoid the crowds: Late August through mid-June

The Gunnison River earns its own superlatives, including for the steepness of its descent, which averages 43 feet a mile and accelerates to some 240 feet per mile in Chasm View. Compare that with the Colorado River’s average drop of 7.5 feet a mile and it’s easy to see why the gorge’s Class V rapids are a proving ground for expert kayakers and a draw for hikers seeking to hear its thunder. The roar of the river rising from the canyon is so loud it can be heard at any spot, providing a musical backdrop punctuated by the falcons, eagles and other birds that call the area home.

The 47-square-mile park is divided into two sections separated by the canyon — the more-traveled South Rim and the more remote North Rim. Most visitors head to the South Rim, which has more overlooks that jut out over the canyon. The drive between the two rims takes about 2 hours. Note: The last 7 miles of the road to the North Rim is unpaved gravel and closed in the winter. 

Relatively undeveloped, with few amenities beyond a visitor center, the compact park is an ideal alternative to the other more crowded canyon parks. 

It’s also easy to see and appreciate, with all its star attractions close to the main roads. “It’s a great park for older adults or those who don’t want to walk a lot, because you can see so much from viewpoints on the road and close to the car,” says Rome, noting that three are accessible for people who have mobility issues.

While the landscape is enough to keep camera-happy explorers riveted as they try to capture its angles and depths, there’s more to do here than look. Hiking, biking, fishing and winter sports are all popular. And adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area, which the park comanages, adds 42,000 acres for active endeavors.

spinner image Curecanti National Recreation Area with yellow wildflowers in the forefront
Many trails lead through the Curecanti National Area, which is located right next to Black Canyon.
Zachary Frank / Alamy Stock Photo

Plan your trip 

Given its remote location, Black Canyon takes some effort to reach from the region’s largest cities, with Denver 250 miles to the northeast; Albuquerque, 334 miles to the south; and Salt Lake City, 354 miles to the northwest. The small town of Moab, Utah, is about 186 miles to the west, so some national park fans tack Black Canyon onto a tour of the “Mighty 5” red rock national parks: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion.

Reservations are not required to enter the park. On the South Rim, rangers are stationed at a traditional national park kiosk between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer, Mountain Time (MT). Outside those hours, you’ll use a self-payment system (entry fee, $30). At the North Rim entrance, a kiosk is open only intermittently, with the self-payment system used most of the time. 

You’ll find the park’s only visitor center — the South Rim Visitor Center — about a mile from the entrance. Rangers are on hand to help orient visitors to the park, plus you’ll find a detailed topographic model and a well-curated bookstore. Don’t miss the documentary vividly depicting the geological forces that shaped the canyon. 

spinner image visitors at the Black Canyon National Park Visitor Center
The South Rim Visitor Center is located about a mile from the entrance into the park.
Bob Pardue - West USA / Alamy Stock Photo

With elevations ranging up to 8,775 feet, the park experiences significant seasonal weather and temperature variations. In summer, high temperatures range from 60 to 100, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. In winter, they range from 20 to 40 degrees and can dip below zero on especially cold days. Weather in the spring and fall is unpredictable; both seasons offer temperate daytime temperatures ranging from the high 50s through the low 80s, with nights that can drop into the 30s. 

Yarrow, paintbrush and other wildflowers line the trails in spring. Come fall, in a stunning show, aspens burnish the mountain slopes with bronze and crimson, and the cottonwoods line the river with molten gold. 

While South Rim Drive is closed from mid-November to late April, it’s plowed as far as Gunnison Point, where the South Rim Visitor Center remains open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There is no cell service in the park.

Where to stay and eat 

While there are no lodges or hotels in the park, it does have two campgrounds, one on each rim.

Just a mile before the visitor center, oaks and thickets of serviceberry partially shade the South Rim Campground, the larger of the two, with 88 sites for tents, trailers and RVs, all equipped with tables and fire rings. Bathrooms have toilets, and 23 sites have electrical hookups, but only in summer. You can make advance reservations ($22 per night with electric hookups or $16 without, recreation.gov) from mid-May through mid-September.

The 13 campsites at the North Rim Campground are situated among tall pines and junipers at the canyon’s edge and are a bargain at $16 per night, or $8 with a valid senior or access pass. The downside? The remote location makes them more difficult to reach, and they’re first come, first served year-round, so you could be disappointed after the long drive if the campground is already full. Also, given its proximity to the canyon’s steep cliffs, it may not be a good choice if you’re traveling with children. Pit toilets have paved ramps and floors.

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Another campground with 15 minimally developed sites, East Portal, is in the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area but is accessed through and managed by the park. Located at river level and shaded by tall cottonwoods, it has pit toilets and gravel roads.

There are no dining options in the park, but there are picnic tables for visitors who want to bring in food. The park shuts off water from October through May because of cold temperatures in the winter.

spinner image two visitors observing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Western Colorado.
Visitors can stop at multiple overlooks along the North and South rim for views of the canyons.
Tim Clark / Alamy Stock Photo

Things to do

Drive the South Rim: This park is all about the stunning canyon views, with overlooks along South Rim Road showing off the plunging vistas and etched canyon walls from every angle. You’ll pull over in disbelief as the chasm drops off below you at Tomichi Point, the first overlook on South Rim Drive and located right on the road with accessible parking. See the river glinting silver as it snakes in from the east; it’s particularly dramatic when illuminated by the morning light. From here you’ll continue on to the visitor center, which delivers one of the most dramatic views from a large deck. From the center, a stone path and series of stairs take you to Gunnison Point, where an octagonal viewing platform atop a rock outcrop juts far enough over the canyon to provide both west- and east-facing views. 

As you continue along the road, each viewpoint offers a new perspective or geological wonder, such as the expansive river view from the promontory of Pulpit Rock, the craggy depths below Rock Point, and Devil’s Lookout, where you peek over the rim above the canyon’s narrowest stretch. Be aware that several viewpoints require short hikes (up to a third of a mile) to reach the rim-side overlooks. 

An absolute must is Chasm View, angled to offer the best view of the Painted Wall, named for the mosaic of crystalline veins that zigzag across the dark schist like brushstrokes. The tallest cliff in Colorado, it drops an almost vertical 2,250 feet and is best seen from a railing-enclosed viewpoint along the cliff’s edge. 

A second viewpoint, aptly named Painted Wall, provides another angle on nature’s rock painting. Both are accessible for people with mobility issues, with parking and paved paths. 

Drive the North Rim: North Rim Road features five of the park’s best overlooks, including the Narrows, which is positioned so you can see into the gorge at its skinniest point. The rim’s 0.3-mile Chasm View Trail packs perhaps the greatest punch of any hike in the park, leading to the North Chasm View overlook 1,800 feet above the river. Fenced and paved, it’s an easy loop with additional overlooks showcasing the Painted Wall. Like the last portion of the drive to the North Rim entrance, North Rim Road is an unpaved, well-graded dirt road. 

Go hiking: Black Canyon of the Gunnison is rich in short to medium-length hikes of varying difficulty. The easy 2-mile round-trip Rim Rock Nature Trail follows a relatively flat route. Breathe in the scent of piñon and juniper as the trail passes through stands of trees that open to provide frequent canyon views from which you might catch a glimpse of peregrine falcons soaring on an updraft.

The trail to Warner Point, a 1.5-mile round trip starting at High Point, the terminus of South Rim Road, leads to a dramatic rock peninsula with hard-to-beat canyon views on three sides. The trail requires some climbing, so it’s considered a moderate hike despite the short length. 

Getting down to the river is no easy feat in Black Canyon due to the cliffs and the depth of the drop, and there are no official access trails. While there is a wilderness route requiring a permit from the visitor center, rangers discourage anyone but the hardiest and most experienced hikers from attempting the descent.

Go stargazing: The park’s remoteness means there’s little ambient light to dull the stars, which burn exceptionally bright in the thin, clear mountain air. This combination earned Black Canyon of the Gunnison certification as an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015. Today the park stays open all night so that stargazers can see the spectacle. Stargazing programs are regularly scheduled during summer; some are listed in the park calendar, but it’s best to check the website before you go and the visitor center once you’re there for updated activities. More stargazing takes place in Curecanti National Recreation Area, also an International Dark Sky Park.

“There’s actually a fair amount of activity all the way through the nighttime, with people putting up telescopes and cameras,” Rome says. “I tell people to go to Chasm View or one of the other viewpoints where you’re off the road. You’re looking down over this dark canyon with the huge sky overhead — it’s really something.” She also recommends camping in the park to see the star-packed sky all aglow.

The park holds an annual astronomy festival, Astro Fest, over a three-day weekend in September. Leading scientists introduce you to constellations, galaxies and nebulae, which are captured live through a telescope and projected onto a big screen at a park amphitheater for easy viewing.

Enjoy winter sports: Winter is a popular season to visit for cross-country skiers and snowshoe trekkers. You can bring your own equipment or join a ranger-led snowshoe hike; snowshoes are provided for free. When there’s enough snow, park staffers put in a groomed trail for ease of use. “The snow really sets off the canyon, with the dramatic contrast between the white and black,” Rome says. ​

Ride bikes: Cyclists like to ride South Rim Road, as well as the longer and more challenging routes around Blue Mesa Reservoir and through Taylor Canyon. An e-bike is the perfect way to explore Black Canyon on two wheels if you’re not accustomed to cycling at 8,000 feet; there are multiple bike shops in Gunnison where you can rent one.

Gateway towns

For convenient access to the full recreational region, stay in Gunnison, even though it’s about 60 miles east of the park entrance. The former silver-mining camp grew into a bustling rail hub when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad connected the town to the state capital in 1881. Sandwiched among mountains, a national forest and various waterways, the town has long been a popular outdoor hub for fishing, mountain biking, camping, you name it. It’s also become a foodie destination for restaurants helmed by ambitious young chefs. At 1880 Tapas & Spirits — an airy, art-inflected space — choose from a wide selection of Spanish-influenced small plates, like blistered shishito peppers. The Dive aims considerably higher than the average brewpub with offerings like buttermilk chicken sandwiches and an impressive selection of whiskeys from Colorado distilleries.

To stay, the Island Acres Resort Motel is a renovated 1950s motor lodge just west of town that weds the postwar ambience of knotty pine paneling and Formica counters with high-thread-count sheets and modern furnishings. Its 17 rooms and suites come with kitchenettes or full-size kitchens and are located at ground level with individual parking spots directly in front of the units, making for easy accessibility. It’s open seasonally, from Memorial Day to early October. 

Many people visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison from the trendy ski town of Crested Butte, about 30 miles north of Gunnison. Here the colorfully painted storefronts of the walkable downtown historic district house a slew of coffee shops, galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Head to Bonez, a popular tequila bar and grill, for fajitas, or try the Secret Stash for innovative pizzas.

The 33-room Old Town Inn has wheelchair-accessible rooms and provides quick breakfast options such as muffins and bagels. 

The casual, European-style Cristiana Guesthaus is best for those comfortable with stairs. Its 21 rooms are simple, with no TVs. Guests can unwind in a Swedish-style dry sauna and an outdoor Jacuzzi with mountain views.

Visitors coming from the west who just want to see the park typically stay in Montrose, about 12 miles away from the park. Its budget-friendly hotels include a Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express. The 49-room Black Canyon Motel has a seasonal pool. All three properties have ground-floor and accessible rooms.

Activities outside the park

Whichever direction you come from, you’ll find plenty of worthwhile diversions on the drive to Black Canyon.

Explore Curecanti National Recreation Area: Many Black Canyon visitors remain in the area to swim, boat, fish, and hike and bike the many trails in this recreation area, which is adjacent to the park and encompasses 45 miles of the Gunnison River. Also popular is Curecanti’s Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit. It features remnants of the Denver and Rio Grande narrow-gauge railroad that carried miners and later tourists and freight through the upper Black Canyon from the 1880s until it was abandoned in 1949. 

Visit farm country: Drive the back roads of the Uncompahgre Valley, about 10 miles northwest of Montrose. Stop at farm stands, orchards and new wineries with refreshingly rustic tasting rooms. Fall is particularly festive, with produce in abundance and towns hosting harvest-themed events such as Olathe’s Sweet Corn Festival. 

It’s all about the fruit in spring and summer, with orchards ripe with apples, cherries and peaches. Coming from Salt Lake City or Moab, you’ll pass through Colorado’s famed Palisade peach country, where farmers in Orchard Mesa and Palisade sell the flavorful fruit at farm stands or invite visitors to pick their own.

Drive the Skyway: Starting from Ridgway, less than an hour south of the park, the San Juan Skyway loops around Ouray, Telluride, Silverton and other historic mining towns, affording a panorama of fall color from 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass.

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