How to Spend a Day in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
If staring down into the black hole of Earth’s history sounds like a fun science outing, then a visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison should be at the top of your list of enticing destinations.
This long, narrow crevasse slices through the mantle of our planet in west-central Colorado with surgical precision, leaving steep rock walls that lie perpendicular to the surrounding landscape.
These canyons reveal rock faces that harken back to the good old days – almost 2 million years ago. They tell a story of geologic wonder, along with the history of people and wildlife that called the region home.
About Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon sits 15 miles east of Montrose’s western slope. Historically, it has presented a challenge to those wishing to explore its depths via the river.
The Gunnison cuts a mean path through the narrow rock faces, with rapids, boulders, and darkness presenting travel barriers. Moreover, in some spots, the sunlight only makes it to the river for 33 minutes a day, so steep are its walls. This evidences one reason the bottom of Black Canyon has never been inhabited.
Both the north and south rims harbored Ute Indians before European explorers discovered this anomaly in the late 1700s. But the canyon was not officially explored until 1853 by the man who would later lend his name to the river flowing through it, John Gunnison.
Many expeditions after his attempted to run the river that carved through its gneiss walls, but none had much success. It was soon discovered that the Gunnison dropped an average of 34 feet per mile through the entire canyon, therefore making it treacherous for river runners. To add to the danger, one section of water has a 240-foot drop over the course of one mile. This can be seen from Chasm View on the South Rim.
Today visitors can take in the astounding views from the top of the canyon by entering the North Rim (only open in summer season) or the South Rim, where several trails and overlooks are intertwined. Or make the trip down to the East Portal at the canyon bottom to get a stunning look up from the river’s edge.
Morning at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Get Fueled Up with Breakfast at The Coffee Trader in Montrose
Address: Two locations at 845 E. Main Street and 311 S. Fifth Street, Montrose, CO 81401
Get coffee by the cup with 9 different roasts from medium to dark blends, or enjoy an espresso, latte, or cappuccino. Specialty hot and cold drinks, like cocoa, tea, and Italian sodas are available. And don’t miss their signature offering, the “Black Canyon” Freezerz, a coffee concoction with chocolate and black cherry syrup!
Reasons to love it: Grab your preferred morning drink and kick back to enjoy people-watching in this locally-owned coffee house. With 20 years of service under their belt, The Coffee Trader has taken on favored status in Montrose.
Tour the South Rim Visitor Center
Don’t miss a stop at the South Rim Visitor Center, where rangers provide a much-needed overview of the canyon, its history, and geologic makeup. In addition, you’ll find a gift shop and displays of wildlife found at Black Canyon, along with the natural history of the region.
During the summer season, the visitor center is the departure point for ranger-led tours as well.
Afternoon at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Eat Your Packed Lunch at Chasm View on the South Rim Road
Take a scenic driving tour of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and fill your day with amazing views. The sheer rock walls drop over 2,000 feet straight down to the Gunnison River.
With 13 viewpoints along the South Rim Road, you won’t be lacking for awe-inspiring scenes.
About the overlook: Take a sack lunch to the Chasm View Overlook. Gazing downward will reward you with the stunning realization that the ribbon of water below falls over 240 feet in just one mile, carving through the ages-old granite. You might want to make the short walk to the overlook before eating.
You may be tempted to ‘lose your lunch’ when you realize how distant the bottom of the canyon is! Then retreat to a nearby picnic table in the juniper to satiate any appetite you have left.
Reasons to love it: With a peaceful setting, the South Rim of the canyon still offers scenic hikes that allow you to relish in Mother Nature’s handiwork. From overwhelming depths to raptors flying high overhead and the musky smells of sagebrush, Black Canyon is a destination that hasn’t changed much in the past million years.
Hike the Rim Rock Nature Trail
The Rim Rock Trail is the perfect opportunity to see all aspects of the South Rim in a one-mile-long hike. It meanders through arid landscapes, leading you right up to sudden canyon drop-offs and along paths from the campground to the Visitor Center. However, it’s a relatively easy jaunt.
The trail showcases shrubs and trees like gamble oak and sagebrush. You may be fortunate enough to see mule deer, elk, and even a yellow-bellied marmot!
Go Fishing on the Gunnison River
Designated as a Gold Medal Water river, the Gunnison River hosts many brown and rainbow trout. Limits for brown trout are four per day, with a total of 8 in your possession. Rainbow trout are strictly catch-and-release. Fishing within the park is usually done at the East Portal, via its steep winding road to the canyon’s floor.
But some hardy fishermen get a backcountry permit and scramble down to the water via an inner canyon route. As a result, they enjoy a more secluded fishing experience.
Evening at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Dinner at Camp Robber
Address: 1515 Ogden Road, Montrose, CO 81401
Camp Robber has something for everyone in your group with an eclectic menu, including burgers, salads, pasta, Mexican dishes, and even steaks and seafood. Outdoor dining can add to the ambiance at this location when the season allows.
Other reasons to love it: The desserts are to die for! And after a long day exploring the backcountry around Black Canyon, you’ll crave the great food and western hospitality found at the Camp Robber.
Dark Sky Viewing
Certified as an International Dark Sky Park in September 2015, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers prime real estate from which to explore constellations, planets, stars and astronomical occurrences.
Visitors can revel in sights not seen closer to urban areas because there’s virtually no light pollution. In fact, the Black Canyon Astronomical Society provides weekly programs during the summer season, many of which include telescope viewing of the night skies.
Where to stay at Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
South Rim Campground
Address: 102 Elk Creek, Gunnison, CO 81230
The South Rim Campground has space for vehicles of all types with a total of 88 campsites. Moreover, 23 sites have electric hookups and vault toilets are available. Electric sites are priced at $22 per night, while dispersed campsites cost $16 per night. The campground is located less than a mile from the park’s visitor center.
Why you’ll love staying here: Staying close to the action, the South Rim Campground gives its visitors front row seats to the canyon.
Certainly, the perfect nighttime skies over their campers allow people to enjoy ‘stellar’ views! It’s the best way to hang out in the park for a longer timeframe, especially without having to trudge to and from a hotel 20 miles away every day.
Pro Tip: When you’re in the area, check out these 11 free campgrounds in Colorado.
A Day in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Although it’s not on many travelers’ radar, the National Park’s Black Canyon is well worth a sidestep off the beaten path to take in its uncommon and fantastic landscapes. Nowhere else will you find such steep and sheer metamorphic rock walls, decorated with pink pegmatites dashing across their faces.
Peregrine falcons play in the uplifts above these cliffs, while the Gunnison River continues its slicing at the canyon’s bottom. And we, as mere mortals, get to document this entire process of creation for the short period of time that we are here. Take the opportunity to wonder at this stunning aberration in western Colorado.
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