The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is somewhat lean on backcountry hikes along its rim, but what it lacks in mileage it more than makes up for in cliff overlooks that drop several thousand vertical feet to the canyon floor and the roaring waters of the Gunnison River, which even late in the season is as loud as a freight train.
On the north rim of the Black Canyon there are six canyon overlooks. Only Chasm Overlook is far enough from the North Rim Road to require a trail longer than a quarter of a mile. The remaining trails (The Narrows, Balanced Rock, Big Island, Island Peaks, and Kneeling Camel Views) are spread along a 4-mile span of the North Rim Road south of the North Rim Ranger Station. Whether you are descending to the canyon floor via the Long Draw or Slide Draw, Black Canyon’s extremely steep access routes, or simply taking an afternoon drive around the canyon, any or all of them are worth the stop.
The approach from the north of the Black Canyon is the same as that traveled by early pioneers seeking passage to Los Angeles and better opportunities there, and it is a striking and surprising reminder of the incredible carving power of nature. The Gunnison River has carved into the metamorphic gneiss and schist of the Black Canyon for two million years. At many of these overlooks, visitors will see thin pink streaks in the rock—pegmatite, infused with muscovite mica and potassium feldspar that give it the characteristic pink hue. The composition of the rock that comprises the Black Canyon explains the narrow profile of the canyon’s course: primarily composed of quartz monzonite and resistant to erosion, the cutting power of the Gunnison River has dug ever deeper into the canyon, while the hardness of the rock prevented erosion that would have broadened the canyon.
Because of its great depth, parts of the canyon receive only about half an hour of sunlight per day, leaving the south rim shrouded in darkness and inspiring the name “Black Canyon.” Nevertheless, it is a thrilling counterpart to one of the biggest and most recognizable geological features to the south, the Grand Canyon, and the North Rim Road is an excellent way to experience the chasm.
Note: 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.