This summer, our adventures took us to Colorado to visit four US national parks. Three of them were new to us, and got us closer to our goal of visiting all 59 US national parks. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was a pleasant surprise with its amazing views and adventurous trails.
Just as with its more famous cousin, Grand Canyon National Park, visitors are faced with the choice of visiting either the north rim, the south rim, or both. Visiting both rims is not easy to do, so we opted for spending our time on the more visitor-friendly south rim.
The quaint city of Montrose sits a few miles below the park, and we really enjoyed its well-maintained historic downtown area as well as the fantastic water sports park along the Uncompahgre River. From Montrose, the roads wind up (and up) almost 2,500 feet (760 m) to the South Rim. As one of the rangers pointed out, it’s not often you have to drive uphill to peer down into a canyon, but that is precisely what you have to do to see the Black Canyon due to the volcanic nature of the rock it cuts through.
After entering the park, you’ll first encounter a turnoff to the East Portal Road, which drops at a 16% grade through the west end of the Curecanti National Recreation Area to the river.
Shortly after that is the campground, with an outdoor amphitheater that hosts ranger talks in the evenings. We were lucky enough to attend a program about the night sky — the park has been recognized as an International Dark Sky Park — and the local astronomy society had telescopes set up to view Saturn and its rings, star clusters, and more! (Check out Iridium Flare satellites — very cool, and no telescope needed!)
We ventured on to Tomichi Point to try some night sky photography; the moon illuminated the canyon, and after it set, the Milky Way was out in full force — and we were rewarded with some spectacular shots. By day, Tomichi Point offers most visitors their first glimpse into the canyon.
The small visitor center at Gunnison Point is well worth a stop — it offers water (important to fend off altitude-induced headaches, as the South Rim sits at over 8,200 ft (2,500 m)), restrooms, and information about the park’s geology, wildlife, and local history. A short film shows park highlights, and a short trail leads to an overlook with dramatic canyon views (a recurring theme along the South Rim Road!).
Heading west along the road, there are many more viewpoints, each one unique and, if off the road a bit, accompanied by a parking area and a sign detailing exactly how many yards away the viewpoint is from the road (usually 100-300).
Our favorites: seeing the huge cliff with a 2,300 foot (700 m) drop from the north rim to the river, Painted Wall View, and Dragon Point (you really can see dragons in the canyon wall!).
The road ends at High Point, which offers picnic areas and a restroom as well as the the Warner Point Trail trailhead. This 1.5 mile (2.4 km) out-and-back trail leads out to — you guessed it — Warner Point, which offers views of the canyon as well as the hills and plains below.
An excellent trail guide can be picked up at the Warner Point trailhead, and benches are placed strategically along the trail for those who’d like a short break from the hike and/or the heat. Birders will want to carry binoculars, as this is the birding hotspot of the park!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the least developed US national parks, and we really enjoyed its slow pace, beautiful vistas, nearby boat tour, and lack of crowds. While we didn’t have the place completely to ourselves (with the exception of our night sky photography adventure at Tomichi Point), it always seemed peaceful and far from crowded.
All in all, the park and the surrounding area were a pleasant surprise! We really enjoyed our visit and we recommend a stop at Black Canyon to anyone visiting Colorado.
Have you been pleasantly surprised by a park visit? Share your experience in the comments, and enjoy your next national park adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!