Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

The Black Canyon is completely unexpected.  For miles you drive through a rolling landscape, then suddenly, you’re standing at the edge of a 2,000 foot deep gash in the earth.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, South Rim

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can be accessed from two sides.  The road to the south rim turns off of US Rte. 50, 15 miles east of Montrose.  To reach the less visited–and more remote–north rim, continue on US 50 to Blue Mesa Lake, and turn left on CO Rte. 92 (the West Elk Byway.  Then, watch for North Rim Road (closed in winter).

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, South Rim

The Gunnison River flows through the bottom of the canyon.  The rock walls rise so steeply on either side, that there’s no easy way to hike through the canyon on foot.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, South Rim

In some places, the distance between the granite walls of the Black Canyon is less than the distance to the bottom of the canyon.  Since the opening is so narrow and deep, sunlight reaches the bottom for just a short time every day, helping give the canyon its “black” appearance.

As you drive the scenic route along the south rim, there are roughly 10 overlooks where you can stop and gaze over the edge.  Most don’t require a long hike.

The best way to see the canyon may be aboard a boat.  The National Park Service runs pontoon tours of the upper canyon twice a day during the summer.  You have to hike to the boat dock, and reservations are required, but prices are reasonable. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, South Rim

I found the best views of the canyon, and the surrounding mountains, at “High Point”–the final stop on the scenic drive.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, South Rim

The view up the canyon, where roads and trails don’t reach.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, South Rim

I’ve gotta be honest.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison Park wasn’t very impressive.  Perhaps it was due to the time of day, late afternoon, and the lack of sun illuminating the canyon.  For the most part, though, I was disappointed with the variety of things to see and do.  There was the canyon, and that was about it.  No interesting hiking trails (there are some trails that lead into the canyon, but these aren’t for casual hikers), and nothing much else to do besides stare off an overlook.

I visited this area again in 2010, and spent more time in Gunnison, Salida, and Canon City, so be sure to check out those pages, too!

After leaving the Black Canyon, continue driving east on US Rte. 50 towards the town of Gunnison.

West Elk Loop Byway

As you make your way to Gunnison you’ll drive for miles at the side of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, which is part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.  You’re also on the southern edge of the West Elk Loop Byway.

  In the distance, you’ll notice an oddly eroded mountainside (sorry, it was getting dark when I took the picture).  The formation is known as the Dillon Pinnacles, and are made of eroded columns of ancient volcanic ash.

The Blue Mesa Reservoir is Colorado’s largest body of water, with 96 miles of shoreline.

sunset near blue mesa reservoir

You’ll climb one more hill between the reservoir and Gunnison, giving you one more chance to look back on the lake, and the sunset.

sunset near blue mesa reservoir

You will find several clean and reasonably priced chain motels on the western edge of town, which provide a good place to break for the night.

If you feel like treating yourself to a great, albeit expensive meal, Gunnison has the perfect place.  It’s called the Trough, and you’ll drive past it on Rte. 50 on the way into town.  The Trough is famous for its steaks and prime rib, as well as some more exotic wild game meals (if you don’t know what you want, order the sampler!).  Expect to pay at least $25 per person.
Consider a morning side trip to the town of Crested Butte, about 25 miles north of Gunnison on CO Rte. 135.  This small western town (with a population under 1,000) has great skiing in the winter, and excellent mountain biking paths in the summer.  You’ll also find some of the area’s best restaurants here.

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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