Updated June 12, 2016
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison wields a big claim . . . the steepest, narrowest, deeper-than-two-Empire-State-Buildings-stacked-atop-each-other canyon on the North American continent, with some of the oldest known rocks and juniper trees.
Yet, ever changing.
It’s drama . . . at its extreme!
Visitors are curiously touched by the canyon’s extraordinary mystique and you will be too when you spend time in the splendor of this astounding national treasure.
That a cataclysmic geologic event created this formidable canyon is indisputable.
Native peoples and early explorers gave wide berth to the frightful chasm they could neither forge nor cross.
Though brave-hearted men of the late 1800’s dreamed of a narrow gauge railroad traversing the length of Black Canyon, and realized the making of it in the less daunting sections, the enduring success of their venture eventually failed.
Not until the early twentieth century was the canyon truly conquered.
Efforts to tap the natural resources of the mighty Gunnison River in order to bring much needed water to the settlers in the Uncompahgre Valley resulted in an historic diversion tunnel.
Recognized as a National Monument in 1933, it wasn’t until October 1999 when President William J. Clinton awarded the distinction of National Park to the most treacherous and scenic section of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Since that time, funds dedicated for park development, and the preservation and conservation of the canyon and surrounding habitat, have allowed visitor access to what was once, by nature, forbidden.
Today, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison draws thrill seekers from around the world who explore her depths and scale her heights, fish her waters and shoot her rapids, hike her wilderness and camp on her mesas, watch her wildlife and bask in her vistas.
We began our trip early in the day, timing our drive from Montrose, Colorado, where we’d stayed the prior night, to coincide with opening hours at the park. Our plan was to make a scenic loop with the national park as the highlight of our day trip.
From Montrose, take US-50 west toward Delta, Colorado, about 25 minutes. In Delta, US-50 turns into Main Street. Follow Main Street northbound and turn right onto CO-92 East. Travel about 40 minutes to Crawford, Colorado.
In the town of Crawford turn right toward 1st Street, which changes name to Badger Avenue, and then to Fruitland Mesa Road. The road changes name again to 7745 Road as it nears the national park boundary, just before it intersects with 7750 Road.
Turn right onto 7750 Road, and then take an immediate right onto Black Canyon Road. Travel to the park entrance. The North Rim Road is five miles of dusty, unpaved scenic bliss.
When you’re done visiting Black Canyon, consider extending your road trip to see more of the Black Canyon, the part outside of the National Park boundary.
In Crawford, we sighted an interesting pinnacle. Using the lone sentinel as a guide, we took a short side-trip cross country to get up close. With the mountains and ranch lands as backdrops Needle Rock is unforgettably picturesque.
We were warmly greeted at the North Rim entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park by a colorful resident who thoughtfully posed for a photograph, a Black-billed Magpie!
It was a fortuitous stop along the route, because when I fished for my car keys in my pocket, they were gone. We had to back-track several hundred feet to the park signage and search the shoulder of the road. It didn’t take long; we found my keys and were down the road, carefree and excited about what we might see next!
It's little misadventures like these that spice a road trip with memories. Needless to say, for the rest of our trip, my keys were securely zipped inside my travel pocket.
When I saw this bright flower, we had to stop again! Sharing nature's beauty is such a joy.
North Rim Road follows Grizzly Gulch atop scenic Mesa Inclinado. We veered right at the fork in the road. To say we were awed by our first view of the Black Canyon is putting it mildly; it kindled my anticipation to what was to come!
See the striped wall in the far distance of this photo? Painted Wall is the tallest, sheerest cliff-face in the park.
That's me, Cat McMahon having the time of my life hiking the Chasm View Nature Trail.
At its narrowest point in the Chasm View area, you can almost reach out and touch the other side, 40 feet away. Not so with the plunging depths!
The narrow confines of this abysmally deep canyon both frighten and fascinate! In gullies, crevices and canyon floor, ticks and poison ivy lurk.
A crazy quilt of colorful lichen covers many boulders along the North Rim.
Sunny Arrowleaf Balsamroot brightens the pathway in May.
Perched on a small wedge, Balanced Rock seems to hover in mid-air many stories above the canyon floor.
Like a gaping maw, the Black Canyon terribly divides Mesa Inclinado on the North Rim from Vernal Mesa on the South Rim.
The Gunnison River shoots through the gorge with ferociousness. So unfathomable is the depth, we couldn’t hear the rapids over the whistling wind.
Our hearts swelled in our throats and our limbs trembled when we spied this visitor dangling a leg over the canyon as he sat suspended on a pile of carefully balanced rocks hanging out in space. The wind was so stiff that day, we had to hunker down and lean in with each step we took. Why he didn’t fly off into the canyon is a wonder. I shudder at the vivid memory every time I look at this photo!
Spring wildflowers enhance visitor experience.
An ancient forest clings to canyon ledges . . . amazing!
The canyon widens the further south we travel giving us a better glimpse of the sheer drop and the character of this mystical place.
The geology of this incredible land is intriguing. Quartz and other rocks and minerals are everywhere. It’s a rock hound’s look-but-don’t-take, dream come true.
Like needles piercing the sky, towering spires jut from the dark nethermost of the canyon below. These looming giants are a favorite hangout for Peregrine Falcons.
Did you know the Peregrine Falcon is the fastest bird in the world? When diving from high altitudes, these aerial artists can attain speeds over 200 miles per hour! We enjoyed watching them swoop and catch updrafts swirling up from the Black Canyon.
Here, captivating light play transforms the canyon, highlighting incredible sheer precipices and impressive outcroppings.
Gorgeous birds, like this Great Crested Flycatcher, add to the magic of this marvel . . .
. . . an dainty unknowns paint the scene.
A wealth of knarled monuments fills the Black Canyon of the Gunnison lending character to the palatial panorama.
Can you find the kneeling camel?
Here's a hint!
It's life on the edge in the wilderness . . . part of the adventure!
Watching wildlife is one of the more exciting aspects of a road trip and one of my favorite travel pastimes.
Considered a threatened species, efforts are underway to list the Gunnison-Sage Grouse on endangered species list, and to protect their habitat in Colorado.
Mule Deer are a common sight in the park. We saw these does browsing through a pasture on our way to the park.
Some of the more common wildlife you might catch glimpses of include: Mountain Cottontails, squirrels, chipmunks, non-poisonous snakes, various, salamanders and lizards.
Larger wildlife are usually more elusive: coyotes, big horn sheep, elk and bobcats.
Mountain Lions are beautiful, clever predators frequenting this harsh wilderness. Stay alert as they blend in with the landscape and their calculated stealth is silent. While they generally avoid visitors and scurry at night, I have experienced day sightings and heard their blood-curdling screams.
In our neck of the woods, we call these creatures, Cougars. When one slinks through, the forest goes dead silent (including the insects); it's very eerie. The hair on the back of my neck and on my arms stands on end, while the hair on my scalp prickles uncomfortably.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Bear sightings are wonderful wilderness experiences, but bear encounters are potentially life threatening. I know, because I've escaped numerous bear aggression and wish to never repeat those vivid memories! My senses are always on red alert when in bear country!
When tromping through the wilderness it's important to pay attention to how your body responds, often warning you of danger before you are consciously aware of impending threat.
Don't be lulled into complacency by a seemingly peaceful, pastoral scene.
Pay attention to your gut instinct and act on it immediately . . . it will be right 99% of the time. You can beg forgiveness later for the other 1% you might be wrong.
Always, always practice safety first!
Do you want to know about the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Click on an image or link below to check out these books!
Every once in a while we come across an exceptional foodie experience.
A meal at the award winning Camp Robber restaurant in Montrose, Colorado deserves more than just a mention here at Road Trip Explore!
I was delighted to spend some time with owner, Chef Kim Volk, discussing the restaurant concept and the delectable certified gluten-free menu items (you know my passion for great gluten-free recipes; see my website, GlutenFreeHomemade.com).
While her husband, Chef Bill Volk, rules the grill, Kim makes the rounds to each and every customer, making them feel extra special.
I can’t rave enough about their addictive, "Grilled Chicken Spinach Salad with Strawberry Balsamic Dressing” with “Chocolate Raspberry Cake” for dessert!
My mouth waters at the memory of this delicious culinary adventure!
Unbelievably great food, outstanding service with a personal touch in a fun Rocky Mountain ambiance make the Camp Robber a must-do on your next road trip to Colorado. $$-$$$ CampRobber.com
Click here for a list of other dining choices near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
With rustic campsites and a pastoral view of the Crawford Reservoir, Clear Fork Campground is a pleasant stay inside Crawford State Park.
The Curecanti National Recreation Area is home to ten campgrounds accommodating most everyone’s camping needs. Visit the website for more information.
At the east end of the Black Canyon, a couple of miles down from Crystal Dam, in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, is a campground best suited for tents. Potable water is available. Because this campground is remote and very rustic, check the website for the latest park alerts.
Located on a peninsula at the nearby Crawford Reservoir inside Crawford State Park, Iron Creek Campground features disabled accessible sites, hot showers, flush toilets, water, electrical hookups and a dump station. A wildlife kiosk and a boat ramp are nearby. Reservations are available.
Camping in the outback of the less visited north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison appeals to the more adventurous, off-road travelers. A fragrant Pinyon-Juniper forest shades the 13 campsites that accommodate tents and small RVs. Potable water is trucked in, so supply is extremely limited. Consider carrying your own water. Because this campground is remote, check the website for the latest park alerts.
Set in a scrubby oak-brush forest, South Rim Campground is the only campground in the area allowing reservations. Some electrical hookups are available. Two sites are disabled accessible. Water is trucked in, so supply is very limited. Check the website for park alerts before visiting.
Frozen treachery at Gandalf’s Beard attract professional ice climbers from around the world to triumph over the unconquerable.
High adventure seekers who are advanced rock climbers will love challenging various vertical routes.
"With an unparalleled wilderness setting, complex and committing approaches, and routes from 6-15 pitches in length--The Black Canyon is a 'must' for an avid climber."
"The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of Colorado’s finest multi-pitch adventure climbing destinations . . . no other canyon in North America combines the narrow opening, sheer walls, and humbling depths found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison."
"There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. 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." Click on the link for more information about routes.
For more information click on the following link: NPS.gov
A Walk with Mark Warner, downloadable PDF brochure
Click here for a list of other places to stay near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.