One of the nation’s newest national parks is located 250 southwest of Denver and offers some extreme hiking and backcountry adventures to those that dare come here. Dating as far back as written word, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison only shows evidence of human occupation on the rims and even the native Ute Indians avoided the bottom of the gorge from fear of its foreboding nature. It was named the “black canyon” by early explorers due to its steep walls and dark rock that let little light penetrate to the bottom. At only 9 miles wide, this canyon is the deepest and narrowest in the country, even more so than the famed Grand Canyon.
The South Rim lies 15 miles east from Montrose and is the more accessible and commercialized area of the park. You will need to buy a Day Pass or use your National Parks Pass (see fees). Take US 50 from Montrose and turn onto State Highway 347 which will give you access to a large portion of the South Rim via East Portal Road going east and South Rim Road going northwest. The eastern route is very steep and winding so long vehicles and trailers are not permitted and this road is closed in the winter. This allows for some more intimate camping at the East Portal campground for those with smaller vehicles and tents. The South Rim Road has the larger South Rim campground, a nice visitor’s center and multiple canyon overlooks. This is where the majority of the visitors come to do some “drive-by” viewing and short hikes. There are some beautiful access points on this side, but for the more adventurous types, take the longer way around and get to the North Rim. This side is much less crowded and few people are on the trails here.
The access for the North Rim is out of Crawford on State Highway 92 and then turning on North Rim Road. Several miles of this road are unpaved and closed during the winter months, so check with the local ranger station for road openings. The ranger station is also the place to get the required wilderness use permits and to speak with rangers about current trail conditions. One of the best trails for getting an overview of the park’s topography is the North Vista Trail that starts at the ranger station parking lot. The other is the Kneeling Camel trail at the most southern end of the North Rim Road. This hike is best done in spring or fall because of the open, exposed landscape.
But if you want to get down into the canyon, then you only have a few options to choose from. First, the aptly named S.O.B. trail which starts at the North Rim Campground and winds down 2 steep, rocky miles to the canyon floor below. This trail is for experienced hikers and will take several hours to complete if you are going down and up in the same day. For overnight trips, there are some impact campsites in the canyon along the river and Gold Medal fishing awaits you. Just watch out for poison ivy! Here you will have a spectacular view of the famed Painted Wall, catch a glimpse of a peregrine falcon or hear the eerie call of the canyon wren.
A slightly easier way to get down into the canyon is by way of the 1 mile Long Trail. The trail is shorter and less rocky, but affords only a few primitive campsites at the base. However, if it’s a challenge with some solitude as your reward, then you have sought out the right spot. You most likely will have the canyon all to yourself. There may be some other trail options available so speak to the knowledgeable people at the ranger station for some great advice and ideas.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: