Nestled on the canyon floor of one of the deepest canyons in America, the East Portal Campground should be the first option for tent campers who visit the Curecanti National Recreation Area and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
There are two main problems confronting campers at the East Portal: size and access. There are just 15 sites at East Portal, and the secret is out—on holiday weekends, don’t expect to find a place to pitch your tent at this first-come, first-served campground. Additionally, the East Portal Road and its 16% grade, which leads to the canyon floor, is too steep for towing or RVs as it winds down several thousand feet over its 5-mile span. Vehicles longer than 22 feet are prohibited. Be sure to stock up on supplies beforehand.
In all other respects, the campground is the finest that the park has to offer. Intimate and well-shaded, the campsites are divided between an upper tier closest to the entrance station, where rangers offer seasonal tours, and a lower tier, situated in a basin among the box elder that cover nearly every site. The lower basin is where you want to be. The box elder murmur in gentle breezes, and while the campsites themselves offer little privacy between them, there is a cloistered intimacy that seems to draw campers together.
Sites are equipped with picnic tables, level tent pads, and barbecues. The campground’s relatively remote location encourages animal visitation—otters, ground critters, the occasional bear—and bear boxes are shared between campsites. Be wary about storing food in cars, as small critters will have an easy time infiltrating your supplies.
The campground is open between May and mid-October. The nearby Gunnison River offers abundant fishing in its waters. The Crystal Dam is just east of the campground and offers a day use area for picnicking. The Gunnison River Diversion Tunnel is also nearby, an important piece of the canyon’s early history and the source of water for nearby communities like Montrose.