Who needs the Grand Canyon when we've got our own geological wonder right here on the Western Slope?
Two million years of geological and environmental changes have given us a chance to experience steep cliffs, craggy spires, and some of the oldest geology in the nation. Welcome to Black Canyon, which cradles the Gunnison River in deep, steep, and narrow rocky splendor.
Located about 20 miles from Montrose, Black Canyon is one of four National Parks in Colorado, and arguably the least visited throughout the year. Part of that is due to the treacherous terrain down into the canyon, which, according to the National Park Service (NPS), the canyon has been a barrier to humans since we first inhabited the area. In fact, its name is derived from the lack of sunlight in the depths of the canyon due to the steep walls. It's is about 2,700 feet deep after all.
"The canyon has been a mighty barrier to humans. Only its rims, never the gorge, show evidence of human occupation—not even by Ute Indians living in the area since written history began," says the NPS, adding that Spanish explorers and, later, expeditions looking to find a passage west explored the canyon bottom.
View from the Cross Fissures Overlook. Courtesy of NPS.gov.
While it's truly a formidable geological wonder, don't let that stop you! Today, you can follow in explorer's footsteps, or you can choose to explore the rim where there are trails for every ability around the canyon rim, camping, biking, hiking, and much more to do.
Hiking the Rim
Hiking on the South and North Rim offers you a beautiful view of nature at its finest. The South Rim has trails from less than a mile to 1.5 miles long. The Cedar Point Trail is rated as easy at 2/3 of a mile round trip. It is moderately sloped, offers tons of chances for plant spotting, and ends in two overlooks with awe-inspiring views.
The longest trail on the South Rim is the Oak Flat Loop Trail, which is rated as strenuous and is two miles round trip. It takes you below the rim and through some amazing forests.
"The Oak Flat Loop Trail (built by Student Conservation Association volunteers) offers variety to the hiker who would like to explore below the rim without taking on the challenge of hiking to the river. Parents should be aware that the trail is narrow in places and traverses some steep slopes," says the NPS.
The North Rim offers three trails to explore (and you might even run into some cattle on the trails, as they are allowed to graze in certain sections. Like wildlife, it's best to enjoy them from afar). The shortest of the trails is the Charm View Nature Trail, at 1/3 miles round trip. It provides two overlooks, the North Chasm View and a second location that offers breathtaking views of Painted Wall and Serpent Point.
The longest trail on the North Rim, Deadhorse Trail, is rated easy to moderate and is five miles round trip. Enjoy views of Deadhorse Gulch, the east portal of the Gunnison, and the presence of many species of birds.
Hiking/Climbing the Inner Canyon
This is a little tricky. There are no clearly marked or maintained trails into the canyon, and that's likely because the hike in is nothing to joke about, and you are pretty much on your own.
"Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes. Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue. While descending, study the route behind, as this will make it easier on the way up when confronted with a choice of routes and drainages. Not all ravines go all the way to the river, and becoming 'cliffed out' is a real possibility," says the NPS.
The Gunnison Route from the South Rim is the most popular, but still strenuous. It is recommended for experienced first-timers hiking into the canyon.
A section of the Gunnison Route to the inner canyon. Courtesy of NPS.gov.
The climbs aren't for beginners, either. There are several guide companies that offer climbing adventures, which you can find by googling "Black Canyon Guides," and this is the best place to start if you wish to experience the inner workings of the canyon.
If hiking isn't your jam, you can see so much of the canyon's splendor! The South Rim Road takes you on a seven-mile stretch from Tomichi Point to High Point, with 12 overlooks in between (some short walks required to get to overlooks). The North Rim Road will offer six overlooks and impressive views into the almost vertical canyon walls of the rim. If you are looking for a bit more adventure, and have the proper vehicle and experience, the East Portal Road provides access to Curecanti National Recreation area for camping and more. It is extremely steep, with 16 percent grades, with very tight curves, and there are vehicle length restrictions in place.
The Black Canyon is one of four National Parks/Monuments in Colorado that has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. Rangers and astronomers offer stargazing events from May through September, and you can gaze at the stars yourself, of course. A large astronomy festival is held in the fall, usually September, as well.
Courtesy of NPS.gov.
Camping and Other Recreation
Why not make the canyon your home base for an extended trip to enjoy all it has to offer? There are 88 South Rim, 13 North Rim, and 15 East Portal camping spaces available. RVs are allowed at the rim camping sites, and you can reserve a spot at the South Rim Campground if you want guaranteed space.
From there, the canyon is literally teeming with other activities. There is amazing fishing from the canyon floor and in the Gunnison River out of the canyon. You can't raft the Gunnison in the canyon, but you can take guided tours in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, which is west of the National Park. The gorge also offers a ton of other recreation options.
Of course, the Black Canyon is an amazing place to animal and bird watch. You can do this from your campsite or on one of the many hikes or drives available.
Plan Your Trip
The best place to start planning a trip is the Black Canyon is the NPS Black Canyon of the Gunnison website. It offers information on trails, camping, recreation, winter activities, local amenities, and much more! In the meantime check out the webcam view from the South Rim.