Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We’d never heard of it. Have you? It’s in the southwest quadrant of Colorado between the towns of Montrose and Gunnison.
How to get there
We went in the South Rim entrance, which is closest to Montrose, along Hwy 50. The North Rim entrance is a couple hours away closer to the town of Crawford on Hwy 92 (off of Hwy 50).
We drove up from Durango on Highway 550, which takes you past the towns of Silverton and Ouray. Both of these towns warrant stays of their own, but we had a schedule to keep. The area is mountainous and beautiful, with a little snow along the way for good measure!
A side note for boondockers, there’s a free dump and water station at the Exxon in Montrose. It’s through town on Hwy 50 on your right hand side. It’s the opposite direction of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but it’s a must-stop kind of place for some of us! I think it costs $7 if you don’t fill up with gas, but why wouldn’t you? It’s an easy way to support a business who’s making our lives easier. They keep a lock on the fresh water faucet, but they come right out to unlock it. Super nice people, plus there’s a Weienershcnitzel attached in case you’re hungry!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Camping
Okay, so there are a couple of choices for camping. And we did both! We arrived mid-afternoon and were tired from driving, so we stopped on a BLM road a couple miles before the Park entrance. We went up a sketchy road that I definitely would not take if it’s raining (or snowing, obviously). But we had a great view and a fairly level spot. This option is free. We like that!
The other option for camping is to enter the Park and then stay at the only available campground, South Rim Campground. It’s got a few loops. One is first come, first served. The others are reserve-able and some in Loop B have electricity. Recreation.gov will hook you right up! Drinking water is available mid-May through October. So, during our visit, the campground was free because it was late April and considered winter still. It did snow on us a couple times, but nothing to write home about. Plus since they don’t have the best cell service, they still have a pay phone! What?!
Staying in the Park is nice because, well, you’re in the Park. It’s close to everything. But the BLM area was nice too, so I think it’s a win, whichever place you stay.
Seeing the Sites
The South Rim Road isn’t super long, about 7 miles. So this is literally a National Park that you can see in a day. We stayed in the Park one night and at the BLM area two nights. That’s because the cell reception is better at the BLM spots! We rough it, but let’s not get barbaric, haha. So, we spent about two and a half days in the Park, but we like to explore!
We drove here one day and then hiked here the next. Both are good options and the views are just as spectacular if you drive up or walk. We met a couple who parked at the Point and then hiked down a bit on the trail. It was actually great chatting with them. Seems like they were also from Oregon and were making a trip towards the East Coast, where they were moving his parents into assisted living. Since that’s been our lives for the better part of the past 18 months or so, we really enjoyed stopping to chat for a moment with others who are walking in our shoes. It’s a good reminder that part of what we love so much about travel is that we have the opportunity to share brief parts of our lives with others.
Remember Chad, Will and Natalie who we met in Louisiana? We’re connected with them on social media and it’s fun to see what’s going on with them. It’s neat to meet people, who we’d never come across in our daily lives. It’s such a beautiful reminder that we’re all more alike than we are different. On the trail or camping along a swamp, we’re all just explorers together.
Ok, before I start getting all weepy…I don’t know what it is today, but I’m feeling rather homesick. Missing our kids, grands and our community. So…let’s just travel down the South Rim Road in Black Canyon of the Gunnison to the next stop on our tour!
South Rim Visitor Center & Gunnison Point
The front of the center was open for asking questions of rangers, but of course the exhibits, movie and ranger guided chats and tours were not available for our visit. Here’s my shout out to Rona. Thanks you heartless dog! The backside of the center is the tourist shop, so you know that part’s open. We picked up more postcards and a book about beavers (which is actually quite good). We try to send postcards home to family & friends on a fairly regular basis.
Plus we’re sending monthly postcards to our Patrons in the $25 level. You may be wondering what I’m talking about…but it’s a way our readers and YouTube subscribers can help us keep cranking out content. We hope it’s quality content, we sure strive for that. So if you’re enjoying what we’re doing, we’d feel honored for you to join the Cupcake Club!
From the Visitor Center, take the short but sort of steep trail down to Gunnison Point for some amazing views. This is probably some of the best scenery in the Park and it’s so close! Check this out:
We stopped here for just a few moments. It’s another quick walk from the parking area to get to the lookout. I felt a little disappointed that the signage didn’t explain the naming of Pulpit Rock. But, you do get to see way down into the canyon and the river below. It’s a good spot for picnics too, since there are a couple tables near the parking.
Cross Fissures View
So I know you’re thinking how many different times do we need to look down into the same Black Canyon?! But this stop actually is pretty cool. Also, I’m not sure I mentioned it but each overlook has a sign at the top, which tells you how far you’ll need to walk to see the view. So, you can pick and choose by how far you want to walk! The weird part is that the distances are in yards. I kept asking Steve how long is a football field again? Then I tried to imagine that distance in the stated “yards”. It’s a little odd.
What I like about this spot is that views of the cross sections of rock. They just jut right out at you and it’s a different way of seeing the structure of the canyon. It’s a little more up-close and personal, if that makes any sense.
Rock Point and Devils Lookout
I think we might have skipped these two. I’m sure the views are great, but we can’t always fit in the overlooks with smaller pull outs. Two or three cars ahead of us and Cupcake is simply too large. Check them out though!
Chasm View and Painted Wall
Chasm view is 1,100 feet wide at the top and about 40 feet wide at the base. This is the most narrow part of the canyon. Painted Wall is 2,250 feet tall and that’s like two Empire State Buildings stacked one atop the other! So you can see that this entire section is steep, deep and narrow. It’s spectacular and both stops are definitely worth a walk out! These two overlooks are kind of what sums up the entire Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Black rock, steep canyon, river far below and a painted wall. It was formed over a billion years ago, when molten rock squeezed between fissures in the black rock. You’re staring at a billion year old Jackson Pollock! Wild!
We skipped Cedar Point before this stop and Sunset View after it. Sunset View does have picnic tables, so if you’re hungry AND you brought your lunch, this one’s a good stop. We did stop at Dragon Point and once again were left wondering how it got its name. Just a small detail that I would enjoy learning. Anyway, we got our steps in today, just a little at a time. And we got to see a bunny along this trail. Bonus for any wildlife sightings.
High Point is the last stop at the end of the road in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. There are restrooms and picnic tables and even a bigger parking lot than most of the stops along the way. From here, we hiked along the Warner Point Trail where the views are to die for. You can see into the canyon but you can also see out towards Montrose, where there are farm lands and even small sand dunes. Well, small compared to those at the Great Sand Dunes!
Hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Rim Rock Trail
From the South Rim Campground, we walked to the Rim Rock Trail and then followed it past Tomichi Point and to the Visitors Center. It’s about a mile one way and the views are stunning. It’s a moderate and mostly level trail along the canyon’s rim, just like its name implies. The path is a bit rocky, but nothing too strenuous.
Oak Flat Loop Trail
From the Visitor Center, we took the Oak Flat Loop Trail. We passed it at first thinking we’d just head back to the campground on the connected Uplands Trail, but then turned around to hike it. Luckily we met a ranger, who suggested we continued going forward to the next turn for it and then taking the Loop clockwise. He suggested that direction because of the remaining snow and ice, saying it’d be easier for us to climb the snowy parts up, rather than slide down them. Turns out he was right!
We passed another hiker, coming from the counter-clockwise direction and they told us we definitely were going the right way. No one had told them about the snow and they were a little shaken up. The Oak Flat Loop is labeled “difficult”. It’s a two mile loop that’s short but steep. It drops and then regains about 400 feet going through aspen and Douglas fir. This loop surprised me, as I wasn’t expecting to see fir trees, in what seems like a desert kind of area to me.
We came back around to the Uplands Trail and then continued on it for about a mile back to the Rock Rim Trail and then the campground. It’s an easy stroll through the oakbrush, crossing over the road a couple times. There’s not a lot of shade in this section, so it’s likely pretty warm in the summer.
Warner Point Nature Trail
The next day, we drove up South Rim Road to the end at High Point. There, we parked and took the mile and a half Warner Point Trail. It’s named after Mark Warner, a Montrose minister, who spurred local communities to protect Black Canyon of the Gunnison back in the 1920s and 30s. He was fascinated by the trees in this area of the Park. Apparently, the junipers and pinons live very long lives. I’m partial to the junipers myself, because I do appreciate a good gin!
We saw a woodpecker here, which was a lot of fun. We also ran into the ranger from yesterday’s Oak Flat Loop hike and he told us that the woodpecker is one they don’t see very often. I wish I could remember its name. If you know it, drop me a note in the comments, please.
It snowed on us as we made our way back to our truck along this path. That sure made our walk back a bit quicker! We ate some noodles once back in Cupcake before making our way back to camp. We stayed in the Park one night and at the BLM area two nights. That’s because the cell reception is better at the BLM spots! We rough it, but let’s not get barbaric, haha.
You can spend a few hours or a couple days in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and still feel like you could see more! There is a trail down into the canyon and along the river for the very hardcore enthusiasts. That wasn’t us though. As we enjoyed our time here at the top! Hope you enjoy it too.