In a region characterized by canyonlands, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has a hard time sticking out. In a state known for its Rocky Mountain terrain and dwarfed by the Grand Canyon to the southwest, the Black has none of the star power of the National Park System’s 10th-most visited park. Indeed, the park is one of the newest additions, incorporated in 1999. In 2015, it welcomed a mere 200,000 visitors to its canyon walls, ranked 179th in the park system, edging out Cowpens National Battlefield by 4,000 visitors. By comparison, Smith Rock State Park in Oregon received nearly 750,000 visitors.
Don’t be fooled by the data. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park will take you by surprise, just as it surprises the adventurers who visit its rim. The chasms of the Black drop thousands of feet over 2 miles, including the tallest sheer cliff face in Colorado. The Gunnison River’s 48-mile journey through the Black descends through a canyon that is 2,700 feet deep at Warner Point, its greatest depth. At Chaos Overlook, a couple miles upriver, the canyon walls are just 1,100 feet apart.
Geologically composed of metamorphic gneiss and schist, the canyon walls here resist the weathering forces that shaped its big brother to the south. The Gunnison River is an erosive freight train, dropping 2,100 feet of elevation over its course through the canyon with a booming cacophony so loud that it echoes to the rim. But the quartz monzonite that forms the walls of the Black is hard, and it resists shearing. More critically, the Black rests above the surrounding countryside atop the Gunnison uplift, which sheds most precipitation away from the canyon.
The result is a canyon unlike any other in North America. Raised above the Uncompaghre River valley to the southwest and obscured by the mountains to the north, visitors could pass by the Black without noticing its presence. “Several western canyons exceed the Black Canyon in overall size,” wrote USGS geologist Wallace R. Hansen. “Some are longer; some are deeper; some are narrower; and a few have walls as steep. But no other canyon in North American [sic] combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness, and somber countenance of the Black Canyon.”
Somber, yes: the Black Canyon is its name, and portions of the canyon are shrouded in darkness for all but 30 minutes of the day. The Native Americans, who knew of the canyon’s existence for thousands of years, were superstitious about the Black Canyon and avoided it. In 1883, members of the Bryant Expedition, led by Byron Bryant to conduct a railroad survey of the canyon, began talking in their sleep and reported visions of the Goddess of Liberty in the feldspar seams.
Nowadays, the spookiest thrill you’ll find at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison comes from the shadows cast by the flash of lightning over the canyon rims—which, it should go without saying, should be avoided during a lightning storm—or the whippers taken by climbers who brave the granitic canyon walls. Indeed, the Black is a climber’s park, and its routes have been well worn.* The Gunnison River welcomes fishers and whitewater enthusiasts. For the rest of us, the Black’s nature trails and rim roads offer breathtaking views over the chasm—or for the more adventurous, backcountry routes down the steep canyon walls to the Gunnison River below.
By far the easiest way to experience Black Canyon of the Gunnison is by its roads and overlooks. There are a dozen or so dispersed about the canyon walls along North Rim Road and South Rim Road. Many of the overlooks are repetitive, though some of them have distinctive features: Chasm View on the north rim has one of the more dramatic views of the canyon, and Cedar Point on the south rim features interpretive signs describing the plant life in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Kneeling Camel, back on the north rim, features a rock formation that looks like a kneeling camel. Some overlooks have large parking lots that serve nearby trailheads for inner canyon routes.
There are but three campgrounds in the Black:
Hiking in the Black is limited, if not in quantity, then in quality. Hikers who wish to stay on top of the canyon rims will have a limited selection of relatively homogeneous hikes. The Green Mountain Trail, which skirts the north rim and passes Exclamation Point, one of the Black’s many awe-inspiring canyon overlooks, ascends the summit of the predominate mountain and offers panoramic views of the canyon and the surrounding geography. Deadhorse Trail is a similar trail on the east end of the park that is rarely visited. On the south rim, Warner Point Nature Trail is the only trail longer than a mile, with the exception of trails circumnavigating the South Rim Visitor Center. All told, there simply isn’t much of a maintained trail network in the Black.
Emphasis on maintained. After all, the Black couldn’t exist as a climber’s park without hiking routes to the bottom of the canyon walls, although we understand our spidery compadres to be of fearless and facile ingenuity. Backcountry hiking routes in the Black have all the action, and the many trails that descend to the canyon floor are rugged, challenging, and sparsely visited. Should you decide to travel these canyon routes, be sure to check in at the appropriate ranger station, not only to pick up the required backcountry permit, but to check the whiteboard that lists the travelers who will already be on the route.
Many of the canyon routes have backcountry campsites at the Gunnison River, and checking in at the ranger stations is absolutely essential to avoid a logjam at the bottom of the canyon. In the case of the Long Draw, these campsites are little more than a place to pitch a bivy sac on grounds that are of multiple use—be advised to check in with a park ranger. The river itself, especially at high flows, is extremely, extremely loud; if you want to sleep, take earplugs and thank us later.
Other things to keep in mind: It is difficult to descend and ascend 2,000 feet over 2 or 3 miles, and one route requires a chain to assist your ascent. Poison ivy grows here in abundance, and long clothing and gloves are recommended for these journeys.
For all other issues, check in with a park ranger. They and those of their ilk are fantastic and forthcoming resources.
North rim draws:
South rim routes:
The route to Red Rock Canyon is also highly recommended, although unique from the dramatic, vertiginous claustrophobia experienced at the bottom of the Black. Access is highly restricted because the route requires passage across a private easement. Permits are available through the National Park Service.
Perched atop the Gunnison uplift in western Colorado, the climate in the Black of the Gunnison National Park is similar to that of the surrounding terrain. More arid, it receives around 20 inches of annual precipitation on average. However, the monsoon season brings afternoon storms during the summer months and into the fall, and adventurers are advised to be prepared for occasional downpours and lightning. This can be especially dangerous along the rims of the canyon. Despite its topography, flash floods are not a concern at Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, pets on leash may be walked on roads, in campgrounds, to the overlooks, and are allowed on the Rim Rock Trail, Cedar Point Nature Trail, and North Rim Chasm View Nature Trail. Pets are not allowed on any other hiking trails, inner canyon routes or in the wilderness area.
Owners are responsible for their pet's behavior and may receive fines if their animal creates problems with wildlife and/or other visitors.
*Check out Vic Zielman’s The Black, a comprehensive guidebook to the Black’s trad and aid routes that was released over the summer of 2016. It is the only of its kind.