Trip Itineraries – Top Things To Do At Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the least-visited and most under-appreciated parks in America. The canyon is so narrow and tall that the walls are almost constantly shaded and the rock face appears black.
When it comes to National Parks, this one is actually pretty small. Which means you can visit all of the highlights in just one or two days.
In this article we’re going to cover what to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park so you won’t miss out on the best activities.
One Day In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is split between two sides of the Gunnison River. There are no bridges across the canyon and it takes over two hours to drive from one side to the other.
For the best park experience, you should choose to spend your time on one rim.
If you only have one day to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison, then spending your time on the South Rim is the best way to view the park.
On day two, spend your time on the North Rim to experience everything the canyon has to offer.
- Read our complete guide: Black Canyon North vs. South Rim
The South Rim Visitor Center
Upon entering the park, the first stop you should make is the South Rim Visitor Center. Not only is this the starting point for several trails on the South Rim, but there are also 2 scenic overlooks within walking distance that you cannot miss:
- Tomichi Point
- Gunnison Point
Our favorite thing to do when entering a new park is to hit the restrooms, get a hard copy of the maps, and ask a ranger if they have any special recommendations for the day. (Sometimes there are trail closures to be aware of or crowds to avoid).
From there, we always like to start our day with a hike!
Hike The Oak Flat Trail
One of the most breathtaking hikes in the park is the Oak Flat Loop. It’s only 2-miles long but the scenery will keep you captivated for much longer than the standard 40 minutes.
For the best experience, follow the route counter-clockwise. There are a few switchbacks in the beginning but after you tackle those it’s easy walking the rest of the way. The trail is wide and well-maintained. Along the way you’ll see a variety of trees and outstanding views of the canyon.
South Rim Hiking Loop
If 2-miles is not nearly enough for you then consider hiking “The Loop” which combines three popular trails: Rim Rock Nature Trail > Uplands Trail > Oak Flat Trail
The Loop is about 4 miles total and will take roughly 2-hours to complete.
Once you’ve got enough hiking under your boots, hop in the car! It’s time for a scenic drive.
South Rim Scenic Drive
South Rim Road is only 7 miles long, but it takes you past 12 scenic overlooks, 5 hiking trails, and 4 inner canyon routes. This scenic drive is the highlight of Black Canyon, and an activity that cannot be missed.
Start from the visitor center and head northwest. Driving South Rim Road takes less than 30 minutes non-stop, but you can easily fill up your day enjoying the views.
South Rim Road Scenic Overlooks
- Tomichi Point
- Gunnison Point
- Pulpit Rock Overlook
- Cross Fissures View
- Rock Point
- Devil’s Lookout
- Chasm View
- Painted Wall View
- Cedar Point
- Dragon Point
- High Point
- Warner Point
Make your first stop at the Pulpit Rock Overlook. This is a great place to get views of the Gunnison River and both sides of Black Canyon. The overlook is only 100 feet from the roadside so it’s a quick stop.
Cross Fissures View
One of the most unique lookouts that you’ll encounter on the South Rim is Cross Fissures View. Unlike many of the other overlooks within the park, you cannot see the Gunnison River from this one.
Instead, the focus is on the amazing jagged rock formations that have developed within the canyon. The hike is only about 15 minutes from the road so it’s worth the walk.
One of the most iconic features in Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the Painted Wall. You can view it from many areas of the park, but the best place to see every striation is from the Painted Wall Overlook.
Two different types of rock merged together create the lightly colored bands that appear “painted” on the surface.
The Painted Wall is also one of the most popular areas in the park for nesting Peregrine Falcons which makes it even more interesting.
Cedar Point Nature Trail
The Cedar Point Nature Trail only takes about 10 minutes to complete, but it has some of the best views on the south rim.
From the trail you can frame a picture-perfect image of the Painted Wall, Gunnison River, and both sides of the canyon all in one shot.
The path is flat, wide, and dog-friendly, so there’s no excuses to miss this stop!
The turnaround location for the South Rim Road Scenic Drive is at High Point. In this spot you’ll find a parking lot, bathrooms, and small picnic area. It’s the perfect place to unwrap some sandwiches and get ready for the drive back.
The High Point Overlook is also the starting location for the Warner Point Nature Trail. This footpath won’t give you a view of the canyon, but you’ll get a bird’s eye view of Montrose nearby.
Drive East Portal Road
Depending on how quickly you travel, the activities listed above could take you the entire day, or just a long morning. We recommend spending your afternoon in the city of Montrose, where there are several bars, restaurants, and hotels to unwind.
BUT, if you’re not quite done exploring in one day, then drive down East Portal Road to the base of Black Canyon.
East Portal Road is 5-miles long and accessible from the South Rim. It takes about 2-3 leisurely hours to travel to the bottom and back. The road is extremely steep and windy with 16% grades in some spots so you’ll have to take it slow, but the trip is worth it.
At the bottom of the canyon you can dip your toes in the Gunnison River and look UP the canyon walls for an entirely new perspective.
Two Days In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Day two of your trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison will allow you to experience the North Rim of the canyon. This side of the canyon is much quieter, and more secluded.
If you spent the night in Montrose, then it will be a 2 hour drive to the North Rim Ranger Station.
There is no visitor center on the North Rim, so pack your maps and get ready to spend some time with nature!
Chasm View Overlook
Right from the start, your first stop on day two is going to be one of the most breathtaking. Park at the Chasm View Overlook. The short, looped trail takes just a few minutes to complete but you’ll get picture perfect views of Painted Wall and Serpent Point.
While you’re there, peer across the canyon and you’ll be able to see tourists on the South Rim looking at the painted wall from another angle.
North Vista Trail
After a quick stop at Chasm View, get ready for the longest and best hike in the park–the North Vista Trail. Tourists who travel to the North Rim and hike the North Vista Trail are part of just a small group of visitors who get to see an aerial perspective of Black Canyon.
The first 1.5 miles of the North Vista trail are mostly flat and very easy. You’ll be walking along a pinyon and juniper forest beside the rim. Turn off towards the exclamation point overlook and prepare to be amazed.
From here, you get a direct view of the Gunnison River surrounded on both sides by the canyon walls. After you take it all in, continue down the trail to Green Mountain.
The highest hike in the park is Green Mountain. The path gets more strenuous the further you go, but at the end you’ll be rewarded with the best panoramic views in the park.
From the end of Green Mountain you can see the San Juan Mountains, West Elks, Grand Mesa, and the Uncompahgre Plateau. It’s an amazing panoramic view that you can’t experience anywhere else.
Hiking all the way to Green Mountain and back can take over 3 hours so it will take a good chunk of your morning. Fortunately, the way back is much easier and more relaxed.
North Rim Campground
Returning from the Green Mountain hike, consider grabbing a bite to eat at the North Rim Campground. This is the only area on the North Rim with picnic tables so it’s a good place to rest before your scenic drive.
The campground is shaded among Juniper and Pinon Pines so it’s a great place to relax.
North Rim Scenic Drive
Finish up day 2 of visiting Black Canyon by taking a leisurely drive along North Rim Road. There are only 5 scenic overlooks along the route so you can take your time and stop by all of them.
North Rim Road is 4.5 miles long and unpaved. You should plan to spend about 2-3 hours on the drive if you want to see everything. But if you’re getting tired, we recommend visiting the following three overlooks: The Narrows, Island Peaks, and Kneeling Camel.
North Rim Scenic Overlooks
- The Narrows View
- Balanced Rock View
- Big Island View
- Island Peaks View
- Kneeling Camel View
Right on the side of the road, you’ll be able to pull off and see the Narrowest section of Black Canyon. This overlook proves that you don’t need to walk far to see spectacular views of the Gunnison River.
You won’t see the Gunnison River from Island Peaks, instead you’ll get a new perspective of the park. From here, jagged rock spires rise towards the sky forming sharp “peaks” that spread across the landscape.
Looking across the canyon, you can also see the Gunnison Route which leads from the South Rim all the way to the river below.
The last stop on North Rim Road is the Kneeling Camel Overlook. This is another viewpoint located right next to the road that gives you incredible views of both the river and the steep canyon walls.
Turn around just past kneeling camel view and head back. You can grab a bite to eat in the small town of Crawford, Colorado or journey onto Montrose for the evening.
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