The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which had been a national monument since 1933, became a national park on October 21, 1999. In a statement issued after the bill-signing ceremony, President Bill Clinton called the Black Canyon a "true natural treasure" and added, "Its nearly vertical walls, rising a half-mile high, harbor one of the most spectacular stretches of wild river in America."
The canyon was avoided by early American Indians and later Utes and Anglo explorers, who believed that no human could survive a trip to its depths. The entire thing measures 48 miles long, and the 14 miles that are included in the national park (which, at 30,385 acres, is among America's smallest) range in depth from 1,730 to 2,700 feet. Its width at the narrowest point (cleverly called "the Narrows") is only 40 feet. This deep slash in the earth was created by 2 million years of erosion, a process that's still going on -- albeit slowed by the damming of the Gunnison River above the park.
Most visitors view the canyon from the South Rim Road, site of the visitor center, or the lesser-used North Rim Road. Short paths branching off both roads lead to splendid viewpoints with signs explaining the canyon's unique geology.
The park also has hiking trails along both rims, backcountry-hiking routes down into the canyon, and excellent trout fishing for ambitious anglers willing to make the trek to the canyon floor. It also provides an abundance of thrills for the experienced rock climbers who challenge its sheer canyon walls. In winter, much of the park is closed to motor vehicles, but that only makes for a peaceful delight for cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
The Black Canyon shares a portion of its south boundary with Curecanti National Recreation Area, which offers boating and fishing on three reservoirs, as well as hiking and camping.
Entry Points -- The park is located northeast of Montrose. To reach the south rim, head east on U.S. 50 for 8 miles to the well-marked turnoff to the entrance, where you will turn north (left) onto Colo. 347 for 6 miles. To reach the north rim from Montrose, drive north 21 miles on U.S. 50 to Delta, east 31 miles on Colo. 92 to Crawford, then south on the 11-mile access road.
Fees & Regulations -- Admission for up to 7 days costs $15 per vehicle or $7 for those on foot or two wheels. Required backcountry permits are free. Visitors are warned not to throw anything from the rim into the canyon, since even a single small stone thrown or kicked from the rim could be fatal to people below; and to supervise children very carefully because many sections of the rim have no guardrails or fences. Unlike at many national parks, leashed pets are permitted on several trails (check with rangers), but they are specifically prohibited from wilderness areas.
Visitor Centers & Information -- The South Rim Visitor Center is open daily year-round, except winter federal holidays, with hours from 8am to 6pm in summer and from 8:30am to 4pm the rest of the year. For information on both the national park and the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area, contact Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park/Curecanti National Recreation Area, Park Headquarters, 102 Elk Creek, Gunnison, CO 81230 (tel. 970/641-2337; www.nps.gov/blca).
Seasons -- Temperatures and weather conditions often vary greatly between the canyon rim and the canyon floor, and it gets progressively hotter as you descend into the canyon. Average summer temperatures range from highs of 60° to 100°F (16°-38°C), with summer lows dropping to 30° to 50°F (-1° to -10°C). During winter, highs range from 20° to 40°F (-7°C to -4°C), with lows from -10° to 20°F (-23° to -7°C). Brief afternoon thunderstorms are fairly common in the summer. The South Rim Road usually remains open to the visitor center through the winter, but the North Rim Road is often closed by snow between December and March. The elevation at the South Rim Campground is 8,320 feet.
Ranger Programs -- Ranger-conducted nature walks, geology talks, and astronomy programs are presented daily from Memorial Day through late September on the South Rim. (A schedule is posted at the visitor center.) During the winter, guided snowshoe walks and cross-country ski tours are sometimes offered on the South Rim. (Stop at the visitor center or call ahead for information and reservations.)
Seeing the Highlights -- It's fairly easy to see a great deal here in a short amount of time, especially if you stick to the South Rim. First stop at the visitor center to see the exhibits and get an understanding of how this phenomenal canyon was created. Then drive the 7-mile (one-way) South Rim Drive, stopping at the overlooks. There are about a dozen overlooks along the drive, and in most cases you'll be walking from 140 feet to about 700 feet to reach the viewpoints from your vehicle. Among the not-to-be-missed overlooks are Gunnison Point, behind the visitor center, which offers stunning views of the seemingly endless walls of dark rock; and the Pulpit Rock Overlook, which provides a splendid view of the rock walls and about 1 1/2 miles of the Gunnison River, some 1,770 feet down. Farther along the drive is Chasm View, where you can see the incredible power of water, which here cuts through over 1,800 feet of solid rock. Near the end of the drive, be sure to stop at Sunset View, where there's a picnic area and a short (140-ft.) walk to a viewpoint, which offers distant views beyond the canyon, as well as of the river, now 2,430 feet below your feet. And if your timing is right, you might be treated to a classic Western sunset, in all its red and orange glory. Finally, take off on one of the rim hiking trails, such as the easy Cedar Point Nature Trail or the somewhat more challenging Warner Point Nature Trail. If you'll be camping in the park or staying nearby, you might plan to attend the evening ranger program.
Sports & Outdoor Activities
Climbing -- The sheer vertical walls and scenic beauty of the Black Canyon make it an ideal and popular destination for rock climbers, but -- and this cannot be emphasized too strongly -- this is no place for on-the-job training. These cliffs, known for crumbling rock, dizzying heights, and very few places to put protective gear, require a great deal of experience and the best equipment. Free permits are required, but prospective climbers should discuss their plans first with park rangers.
Fishing -- Dedicated anglers can make their way to the Gunnison River at the bottom of the canyon in a quest for brown and rainbow trout. The Gunnison within the park has been designated as Gold Medal Waters. Only artificial lures are permitted, and other special rules apply (check with park rangers). A Colorado fishing license is required.
Hiking & Backpacking -- Trails on the park's rims range from short, easy walks to moderate-to-strenuous hikes of several miles. Hiking below the rim is mostly difficult and not recommended for those with a fear of heights. Permits are not needed for hiking rim trails, but are required for all treks below the rim.
Trails along the South Rim include the easy Cedar Point Nature Trail. From the Cedar Point trail head, along South Rim Road, this .7-mile round-trip walk has signs along the way describing the plants you'll see and provides breathtaking views of the Gunnison River, 2,000 feet down, at the end. The moderately rated Rim Rock Nature Trail, which is 1 mile round-trip, is accessed near the entrance to the campground's Loop C. Following the rim along a relatively flat path, this trail leads to an overlook, providing good views of the Gunnison River and the canyon's sheer rock walls. A pamphlet available at the trail head describes geology, plant life, and other points of interest.
The moderate Warner Point Nature Trail begins at High Point Overlook at the end of South Rim Road. It's 1.5 miles round-trip and offers a multitude of things to see, from flora such as mountain mahogany, piñon pine, and Utah juniper, to distant mountains and valleys, as well as the Black Canyon and its creator, the Gunnison River. A trail guide is available at the trail head. The trail head for the 2-mile round-trip Oak Flat Loop Trail, rated moderate to strenuous, is near the visitor center. Dropping slightly below the rim, this trail offers excellent views into the canyon, while also taking you through a grove of aspen, past Gambel oak, and finally through a forest of aspen, Gambel oak, and Douglas fir. Be aware that the trail is narrow in spots and a bit close to steep drop-offs.
Trails along the North Rim include the moderate Chasm View Nature Trail (.3 miles, round-trip), with a trail head at the end of the North Rim campground loop. Beginning in a piñon-juniper forest, this trail heads to the rim for good views of the canyon and the river; you'll also have a good chance of seeing swallows, swifts, and raptors here.
A longer North Rim trail is the 5-mile round-trip Deadhorse Trail, rated easy to moderate, which begins at the Kneeling Camel Overlook. Actually an old service road, this trail offers a good chance of seeing various birds, plus views of Deadhorse Gulch and the East Portal area at the southeast end of the park. The 7-mile North Vista Trail, which begins at the North Rim Ranger Station, is moderate to strenuous. It offers some of the best views into the Black Canyon and also rewards hikers with a good chance of seeing such birds as red-tailed hawks, white-throated swifts, Clark's nutcrackers, and ravens.
Experienced backcountry hikers in excellent physical condition may want to hike down into the canyon. Although there are no maintained or marked trails, there are several routes that rangers can help you find. Free permits are required. There are also a limited number of campsites available for backpackers. The most popular inner canyon hike is the strenuous Gunnison Route, which branches off the South Rim's Oak Flat Trail and heads down to the river. Eighty feet of chain help keep you from falling on a stretch about a third of the way down. This hike has a vertical drop of 1,800 feet and takes 4 to 5 hours.
Watersports -- Although the river may look tempting, my advice for watersports enthusiasts is: Don't do it! The Gunnison River through the park is extremely dangerous, for both swimmers and rafters. (It's considered unraftable.) There are sections of the river west of the park that are more suitable; information is available from the Public Lands Center, 2505 S. Townsend Ave., Montrose, CO 81401 (tel. 970/240-5300). The only exception is for experienced kayakers, who find the river an exhilarating challenge. Free permits are required.
Wildlife Viewing -- The park is home to a variety of wildlife, and you're likely to see chipmunks, ground squirrels, badgers, marmots, and mule deer. Although not frequently seen, there are also black bears, cougars, and bobcats; and you'll probably hear the lonesome high-pitched call of coyotes at night. Peregrine falcons can sometimes be spotted along the cliffs, and you may also see red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, golden eagles, and white-throated swifts.
Winter Sports -- When the South Rim Road is closed by winter snows, the park service plows only to the South Rim Visitor Center, leaving the road a perfect cross-country ski trail. There are also several areas in the park that are good for snowshoeing; get directions at the visitor center.
There are campgrounds on both rims, with pit toilets and no showers, but there are electric hookups available on Loop B of South Rim Campground. Cost per site is $12, $18 with electric hookups. The South Rim Campground, which is open year-round and is rarely full, has 88 sites, but the North Rim Campground, open from spring through fall and with only 13 sites, only occasionally fills up. Reservations can be made for some sites in the South Rim Campground from late May through early September through the park website or www.recreation.gov, or by phone (tel. 877/444-6777).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.