This past weekend I had the pleasure of going on a trip that I did not plan. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (that one is a mouthful!) is only six hours from our home. Kenon and I had put it on the back burner in our quest to hit the the national parks before I turn 30 because we knew we could kind of fit it in last minute if we had to. As fate would have it, my in-laws were getting together with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend for Memorial Day weekend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Kenon and I had other plans and weren’t going to be able to join them but then our plans changed! By the time we jumped on the trip, it was already fully planned. All I had to do was pack my bags and get in the car.
I had no idea what I was getting into with Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I had researched it a little but never really dug into what made it so great. I was going in pretty blind but I learned a lot while I was there. If you are looking for a park with striking views but very little crowds, put Black Canyon at the top of your list!
The canyon is essentially broken into two parts: The rim (north and south) and the wilderness of the inner canyon.
The hikes along the rim are generally pretty easy and accessible. There is very little elevation change and there are a lot of them under four miles. They are also absolutely stunning! Along the main drive are a plethora of pull-offs and overlooks with short little walks to the canyon’s edge. Visit the map here.
About halfway through the drive we were all kind of sick of constantly getting out of the car. We were also pretty sure the overlook 500 feet up the road would look a lot like the one we just stopped at. Every time, though, the canyon proved us wrong! Every turn has something new. I am still craving more even as I sit here.
The inner canyon is all primitive trails. These drop dramatically in elevation, are steep and rocky, and full of wildlife. Wilderness permits are required for ALL inner canyon day use hiking, climbing, and camping. The permits are free but they are also limited. If you are planning on camping, note that many of these trails only have one or two campsites at the bottom. According to the park ranger on duty, these routes are unmarked and difficult to follow. Inner canyon activities should be treated with caution and careful planning. If you are interested in learning more about the inner canyon wilderness, visit nps.gov. I cannot wait to go back to Black Canyon and explore the inner canyon!
There is no kayaking, rafting, or other water activities offered inside the park since this part of the Gunnison River is classified as Class V rapids, with many portions reaching Class VI and requiring laborious portages through Poison Ivy-laden, primitive trails (if there even is a trail). According to nps.gov, this stretch of river has claimed the lives of even the most experienced rafters. However, there are plenty of opportunities to get out on the Gunnison and Compahgre Rivers in the surrounding recreational areas!
This park is great for kids. The wildlife is abundant and comfortable around park guests. Their proximity is a wonderful opportunity to talk about how to awe-fully respect wildlife and share the space. The land formations inside the canyon provide endless opportunities for lessons in geology. There are plenty of easy hikes.
The town of Montrose, Colorado is the main gateway to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is just a short drive from the South Rim. It offers a lot of dining options, both local and chain. There is a lot of good, local shopping downtown. The town as a whole is easy to navigate and very friendly.
1. Primitive Camping in the wilderness of the inner canyon. Look it up here. This option requires a permit, backpacking gear, and the ability to conquer difficult trails.
2. There are three campgrounds inside the park: The South Rim, North Rim and East Portal campgrounds. The South Rim is the only campground with electrical hookups and reservable spots. The North and South Rim campgrounds have RV accessibility. None of the campgrounds offer showers.
3. We stayed in the town of Montrose at Cedar Creek RV. Kenon’s parents rented an RV, including the full hookup, for right around $80 a night. The campground was clean, quiet, and complete with showers. It also offers a free mini-golf course. It is not the most scenic of campgrounds but I really enjoyed staying here! There are also other campgrounds and hotels in the area of Montrose.
1. If you are hiking or climbing in the canyon, beware of Poison Ivy. The canyon provides perfect conditions for this plant to thrive. Along the river it can grow up to around 5 feet tall.
2. The wilderness of the inner canyon provides amazing recreation, dark skies (if you stay to camp) and a fantastic hiking challenge. Only choose this adventure if you are equipped, both skill-wise and gear-wise.
3. If you are not planning any inner canyon recreation, look for recreation outside of the park. There is so much to do in the surrounding towns and the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.