Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Less Than Three Hours
Rocky Mountains? Been there, loved it. Denver? I have a favorite dispensary. But Black Canyon of the Gunnison? This region of Colorado was foreign to me. In years past, we spent most of our time split between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, never going much further south than Garden of the Gods. For this visit to the mile-high state, we knew we wanted to see something different while still being able to visit with family. Plus, we always look for the opportunity to add a NPS badge to our collection.
The three hours to Gunnison from Colorado Springs is no joke. The first two hours are miles of fields outlined by mountains on the horizon, with very few turns to keep it all interesting. Eventually, we hit Gunnison National Forest where I spent most of the ride gripping my “oh shit” handle and telling The Beard to slow down (he wasn’t going fast, I’m just rather wimpy on cliffside roads with no guard rail).
Gunnison itself is a strange town nestled into a dry valley with one main road and a Walmart that hasn’t been updated since the late nineties. We offloaded our luggage at the hotel, grabbed a bite, and gave our family the option to come with us. They decided to relax after a day of travel, so it was just The Beard and I accompanied by a few more hours of sunlight.
We made it to the South Rim of Black Canyon in a little over an hour. Our mini adventure began at Tomichi Point - one of the best views of the canyon just off the first parking lot. I found it difficult to imagine just how deep the canyon cut into the earth, but the tingling and numbness in my fingertips were an effective indicator.
Though our schedule was limited, we still wanted to see as much of the park as possible. We got a map and a few pointers from a Visitor Center employee. As it turns out, most visitors experience the majority of the Black Canyon from their car. The South Rim has just two roads: East Portal and South Rim Road, the former of which is closed to cars that lack the capability to climb a 16% grade. So, of the few trails available to hike on the south rim, we opted for Rim Rock trail - just enough to get our blood pumping and remind us how spoiled we are with our oxygen-rich Pennsylvania air.
We visited in the slower season, so we had most of the park road to ourselves. The experience in this park is mainly touch and go. Drive your car to the next lookout, park, hike out to a vista, take a picture, hike back, repeat. It wasn’t something I was used to, but welcomed in light of our exhausting days of travel up until that point. In total, the length of accessible road is only 7 miles long, but the views carry the majesty of some of the better-known parks.
Encroaching darkness and a few sinister clouds told us it was time to wrap it up, so we turned our car around and headed back to Gunnison. I won’t lie, my expectations were a bit higher in terms of hiking options in the canyon, but you won’t find me complaining about a stellar view.
Though I always recommend visiting a National Park in the slower season, it may be truly advantageous to hit up Black Canyon of the Gunnison at the very beginning of the busy summer months. Not as many people to fight on the South Rim, and the option to experience East Portal Road.
Unless you’re camping, one day in the park is enough. Without traffic, you could realistically drive the length of the road and visit every lookout within a two-hour time frame.
Take your time on the trails. There are very few roped off points along the trails, so be certain in your footing take extra caution if your group has a few small adventurers.