In this article...
After an amazing visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, it was time to move straight to our next stop: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Since Diana's brother, Jānis, was visiting us, we were moving quickly to fit as much into his 2-week vacation as possible. That meant a drive of almost 350 miles from Glacier Basin campground in Rocky Mountain National Park to South Rim Campground in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
While that's further than we normally tend to drive in a day, it's not exceptional. Since we tend not to exceed 55mph while towing (fuel economy is terrible at higher speeds), we were happy that Google Maps decided to take us along some smaller roads through Granby, Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling, CO.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was our 28th stop on our quest to visit ALL the National Park Units in the US.
The South Rim Entrance is located is about 15 miles east of Montrose, CO while the North Rim Entrance is about 11 miles south of Crawford, CO. While they are separated by a short distance as the crow flies, driving between them is almost 80 miles and takes nearly 2 hours.
The entire area around Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is beautiful, but the 12 miles of the Black Canyon inside the park is truly stunning.
At the heart of the park is the Gunnison River, Colorado's largest tributary of the Colorado River. From its source at the confluence of the Taylor and East rivers to the east of the park, the Gunnison River flows northwest through the Black Canyon.
The upper section of the Black Canyon actually contains two reservoirs on Gunnison River - Morrow Point Reservoir and Crystal Reservoir. These produce hydroelectric power and supply water to the surrounding area.
It continues its journey to Grand Junction, CO where it joins the Colorado River - hence the Junction in Grand Junction. Incidentally, the Grand part of its name comes from the old name for the Upper Colorado River - the Grand River.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the longest, narrowest and deepest gorges in the world. At its narrowest, it is just 40 feet wide at the bottom! It's named not just for its black walls, but because parts of the canyon only receive 33 minutes of sunlight in a day due to the extreme depth and narrowness, accentuating the darkness.
The Gunnison River flows for 12 miles through the National Park, and drops an average of 34 feet per mile through the entire canyon! To put that in perspective, that makes it the 5th steepest in North America, and about 4 times steeper than the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon which drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile.
The walls of the canyon are made of Precambrian gneiss and schist that formed 1.7 billion years ago during a time of intense volcanic activity. The lighter lines crossing the black walls are pegmatite dikes - sheets of pale-colored igneous rock.
Around 40-70 million years ago, the entire area was raised up, high above the surrounding area, and volcanic activity around 30 million years ago buried the area in thousands of feet of volcanic ash and rock. About 15 million years ago, the Gunnison River set its course - cutting through this top layer of relatively soft volcanic deposits.
About 2-3 million years ago, the area was lifted up yet again. Ordinarily the river would have changed course, but since its course had already been set in the softer top layer of rock, it was stuck. The river was much more powerful than it is today, and it began cutting through the extremely hard metamorphic rock layer that formed 1.7 billion years ago at a rate of about 1 inch every 100 years.
While that sounds slow, in geological terms that's fast! With its course locked, it had nowhere to go and just carried on carving down into the rock. And that fast cutting speed is what gave the Black Canyon of the Gunnison the steep walls we see today.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was known to the Ute people as "much rocks, big river", but they largely avoided the area due to superstition.
The first Europeans to visit the area were Spanish expeditions - the first led by Juan Rivera in 1765, and another led by Franciscan priests Domínguez and Escalante in 1776. They were looking for routes to the California coast and passed by (but not through) the canyon.
The first official account of the canyon came from Captain Gunnison when, on September 7, 1853, his expedition arrived at the Black Canyon at Lake Fork. The report described the river as "a stream imbedded in [a] narrow and sinuous canyon". After exploring the area further, he described it as "the roughest, most hilly and most cut up" country he had ever seen!
Gunnison was killed less than 2 months later on October 25, 1853, when his troops were attacked in the early hours of the morning by Paiute Indians.
In the 1880s, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Despite the challenges, the railroad was extended into the Black Canyon - the first passenger train passed through a section of the canyon on August 13, 1882. Bryan Bryant's expedition in December 1882 concluded that the rest of the canyon was impenetrable, and the railroad was diverted south of the canyon.
While the Black Canyon Line survived for local service until the 1950s, other trains switched to an alternative route through Glenwood Springs in 1890.
Near the Black Canyon is an area known as Uncompahgre Valley - a vast agricultural area that attracted a lot of settlers in the late 19th century. A shortage of water led the US Geological Survey to commission an expedition, led by William Torrence, to look for a site to build a tunnel to divert water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley.
An experienced mountaineer who had been part of a failed expedition the previous year, Torrence knew what to expect. Instead of the typical heavy wooden boats, he chose instead to use a single rubber air mattress to navigate the river.
After 10 days they emerged at the other end of the canyon having identified a site. Construction on the tunnel began 4 years later in 1905 and took 4 years to complete - stretching almost 6 miles and costing nearly $3 million! At the time it was completed it was the world's longest irrigation tunnel.
National Park Designation
Black Canyon of the Gunnison was originally designated as a National Monument by President Herbert Hoover on March 2, 1933, before being re-designated as a National Park on October 21, 1999.
South vs North Rim
The Park can be thought of as two distinct areas - the North Rim and South Rim.
Located about 15 miles east of Montrose, CO, the South Rim entrance is the more commonly visited area of the park. The Visitor Center is on the South Rim side.
The North Rim entrance is south of Crawford, CO and has no Visitor Center although there is a Ranger Station and campground. The North Rim is closed during the winter.
Driving from the South Rim Visitor Center to the North Rim is almost 80 miles and takes about 2 hours.
Having driven from Rocky Mountain National Park, we arrived at the South Rim Entrance at about 2pm in the afternoon on a Thursday in mid-July.
After a brief stop for a photo opportunity by the entrance sign, we headed straight for the South Rim Campground.
South Rim Campground
Diana and I were accompanied by Diana's brother, Jānis, who was joining us from Poland to travel with us for a 2-week vacation. As such we were trying to pack as much in as possible, and that gave us just one night at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
We had reserved a site online in advance about 3 weeks prior, so we drove straight to site 9A in Loop A, a 25ft RV spot.
It was just about the only site available when we booked, but since our RV is 24ft 10in from end-to-end (conveniently ignoring the bike rack), we were in luck.
As it turned out, only just! We've never had an issue with RV spots before, but this one was tight. They weren't joking about the 25ft limit - we only just managed to squeeze the trailer in. But we still had to find somewhere to park the truck!
It was tight, but somehow we managed it! While it wasn't ideal, for one night it wasn't an issue. But beware that the sites here are true to size so bear that in mind when you're booking!
We parked the RV and got things set up. With limited time, we headed straight off to explore!
South Rim Visitor Center
Our first stop was the South Rim Visitor Center to collect a stamp in our National Park Passport.
While there, we also spoke with the staff to seek their recommendations for our brief visit to the park.
Behind the Visitor Center is a short trail that leads to a viewpoint, so we had a stroll outside.
Our first glimpse of the canyon was breathtaking - the afternoon light already shadowing stretches of the river far below us. I still find it incredible that gorges as deep as this have been carved through solid rock over millions of years by nothing but water.
Jānis had never seen a canyon before. He was literally speechless!
We just stood in complete awe and soaked in the view for several minutes. Photos just can't do it justice.
South Rim Road
As the name implies, South Rim Road follows the South Rim, with frequent stops at view points.
We stopped in at almost every one, and the situation at each was similar - a short hike of a few hundred feet to a viewpoint overlooking the canyon below.
But at each point, the view was different.
Some afforded better views of the river, while at Painted Wall View we had an excellent view of, predictably, the Painted Wall.
As the late afternoon sun began to sink and evening approached, we headed to Dragon Point to watch sunset - as recommended by the staff at the Visitor Center.
We were not disappointed, and once again, photos don't do it justice. We set up our camera equipment and sat there for well over 2 hours, enjoying the tranquility.
Several other people came by to see the sunset too, and we had fun chatting with them about their own travels.
It was dark by the time we left, so we drove carefully along the winding South Rim Road back to our campsite.
Warner Point Trail
The next morning we woke early, keen to make the most of the limited time we had left in the park.
There were two more items on our list to explore - the first of which was to hike the Warner Point Trail. The trail is named after Mark Warner, a key figure in the establishment of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
We drove to the parking area at the far west end of South Rim Road, and by 7:30am we were ready to hike.
Near the High Point Overlook trailhead we picked up a guidebook which, along with numbered markers along the trail, helped us learn more about the surrounding area - vegetation, history and more!
The panoramic vistas of the Uncompahgre Valley were fantastic, but the highlight was the view out across the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon far below at Warner Point.
At 1.5 miles round-trip, this is only a short hike along easy terrain, but we really enjoyed it. Along the trail, we passed the sign for entrance into the backcountry areas - if we'd have had more time, we'd have loved to explore these areas too!
Gunnison Diversion Dam
To round off our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we decided to drive to see the Gunnison Diversion Dam. This is the dam that diverts water into the Gunnison Tunnel, providing water to irrigate land in the Uncompahgre Valley we had just been looking at on the Warner Point Trail.
To get to the dam means driving down East Portal Road. This road leads from the rim all the way down to the river's edge at the bottom - so it should come as no surprise that it's very steep!
In fact, on our way down, we passed a truck that had overheated on the climb back up. We stopped and they were trying to get the truck running again, but we told them we'd be heading back up soon so if they couldn't make it we'd help them out.
The road really is very steep and winding - there's a reason it's limited to vehicles less than 22ft long. Our truck is just over 21ft long, and no, we did NOT have the trailer in tow!
While you can't see the tunnel entrance itself, it was very cool to be down next to the river having seen it from so many different perspectives up on the rim!
We took a few photos before starting the drive up the steep climb back to the top. Ahead, we saw the broken down truck we had passed on the way up. We stopped and they thought the truck had cooled down enough and would run now - so we let them go ahead of us in case of problems. Fortunately, they made it without further issue.
The climb is no joke though, so make sure your vehicle is up to the task before heading down East Portal Road. Remember: what goes down must come back up!
Our last stop was to return to South Rim Campground to hookup the trailer to our truck.
Our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was short - too short. We spent less than 24 hours in the park.
That being said, we crammed as much in as we possibly could - and watching the sunset from Dragon Point is a memory that will stay with me for a long time!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is an incredible area, and should definitely be on your list of places to visit if you haven't been already! Next time we come back, we'd like to spend more time so we can explore some of the backcountry areas and visit the North Rim too.
For now, it's time to continue our journey with Jānis to our next stop: Curecanti National Recreation Area.