july 12, 2019

Named for its deep, sunless chasms descending 2,722 feet from rim to river at its greatest depth, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is regarded as one of North America’s most impressive canyons. It also might be one of the easiest to tour.

First things first. There is no bridge that spans this gorge. That means that unless more than a full day is planned and dedicated to exploring both sides of the park, visitors must choose wisely on which side to begin as drive time between the two rims averages around 2 hours each way. 

The northern rim is quieter, the access road is unpaved and closed entirely in the winter, and visiting campers are subject to first-come, first-served availability at a 13-site primitive campground. There’s also no option to reserve in advance. For us, this was a bit of a deal-breaker. We knew we wanted to camp, and unfamiliar with other options near the park, we didn’t want to risk not getting a spot.

If that’s of similar concern, then the southern rim might be a better option for a first-time visit. The campground is right inside the entrance to the park. It’s much larger, 88 sites, and they have fire rings, picnic tables, and nearby toilets. Plus, the sites are reservable online. Also, the road traveling through this side of the park is paved and features numerous lookouts that only require a short walk each, in some cases right up to the rim’s edge. And if traversing a few hundred extra yards at an 8300-foot elevation sounds daunting, it’s important to note that one would still get a pretty amazing view right outside the car window.

With that said, the extra jaunt at each overlook is well worth it, and unless you’re in a serious hurry there’s plenty of time to soak in a worthwhile and leisurely experience. The drive from the South Rim Campground to High Point, essentially the end of the road, is only a handful of miles. Even stopping at almost every single lookout and walking their full distances, we spent about two hours roaming between the Visitor’s Center and High Point, ultimately ditching the two-mile hike to Warner Point at the end. I blame the extra elevation + insomnia fatigue.

It’s funny to claim exhaustion after driving five hours from Denver, opening some wine, and grilling under the stars while setting up camp. But temperatures bottomed out around 28 degrees Fahrenheit that night. And while our Coleman double sleeping bag is cozy and all, it’s not quite warm enough to combat sub-freezing weather… in the wind. An upgrade is already on the list. 

I’ll add that when I say that Black Canyon is easy to tour, I genuinely mean that. But I’m speaking only of an experience at the rim. For the more adventurous traveler (here’s to hoping, right?), there’s several trails that descend into the gorge. Physical ability plays a critical role though in hiking the inner canyon. There are numerous restrictions—a free wilderness permit is required, for instance, you can’t bring your dog, and fires are prohibited—and for good reason. The trails are not maintained or well-marked, the water current of the Gunnison River is swift, causing hikers to be swept to their death, and all of the vertical drops exceed 1,600 feet. Visitors to the inner canyon are cautioned to prepare for self-rescue. An exhaustive list of necessities and prohibitions can be found here.

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