Of the four parks in Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the least visited and the most remote. Named for the minimal sunlight the canyon receives during the shorter months of the year, it’s a sight to behold when the sun graces its mountains and the shores of the Gunnison River.
Why Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in an RV?
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park beckons to RVers and campers. The 300,000-plus acre park is small compared to others but makes up for it in grandeur and intimacy. You won’t be overwhelmed by crowds, and the chances of finding a spot to park your RV or camper at the campsites is higher, making it easier to pull off a last-minute trip in the summer without much planning.
Black Canyon can also easily work into a multi-day itinerary that includes all four Colorado parks, looping in Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes.
Beware that RVs up to 35 feet can access the South Rim Campground, but there are restrictions on the other park roads that only allow access to vehicles up to 22 feet.
When to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is open 24/7, 365 days a year, but the North Rim Road is closed in the winter, starting around mid-November. The South Rim Road is open year-round, but sections are closed to motor vehicles in the winter. Peak season typically runs from April to September, but it rarely gets busy enough that you can’t find a place to park.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in the Spring
Spring is a great time for climbing at Black Canyon. The towering walls offer great climbing opportunities, and being inside the canyon means less exposure to the beating western Colorado sun.
This is also a great season for bird watchers to spot peregrine falcons nesting and feeding their chicks. You can stand at an easily accessible overlook and watch the fastest bird in the world zip around, catch prey, and make raucous calls.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in the Summer
In the summer, Black Canyon is very hot. Bring enough water for your party, as there aren’t many opportunities to fill up. The Gunnison River running through the canyon makes for great rafting experiences and a chance to cool off.
Getting down to the water is a hike, and the river can narrow to as small as 40 feet across in some spots. Summer is the best time to head down into the canyon, but because of how narrow the canyon is, some spots receive as little as 33 minutes of sunlight during the day.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Park in the Fall
In the fall, the colors change, and the temperatures drop. The first snowfall is usually around mid-November, so you get a long, temperate autumn at the Black Canyon. The summer crowds are gone, and you can enjoy the park. If you thought it wasn’t crowded during the summer, it’s almost downright desolate in the fall.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Park in the Winter
The North Rim Road closes in the winter. The south rim is only open to vehicles up to a certain part. However, once you park, you have six miles (one-way) of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing access along South Rim Road.
Where to Stay
There are two main developed campgrounds conveniently placed on either rim to provide basecamps for exploring your preferred park sections.
The South Rim Campground is open all year, but Loops A and C close during the winter. Loop B offers 20 and 30-amp electric hookups. The campground offers potable water and pit toilets in the summer, but no water is available in the winter. Generator use is prohibited in this campground.
The North Rim Campground is small and seasonal, with only 13 first-come, first-served sites, and no electrical hookups or dump stations. Pit toilets and potable water are available in the summer only. You can bring a generator; the maximum RV length is 22 feet.
A third option, the East Portal Campground, lies at the bottom of the high canyon walls. The road in only allows RVs under 22 feet in length. There are 15 total sites, 10 of which only allow tent camping. The campground shuts down in the winter when East Portal Road closes.
Hikers and kayakers are also permitted to camp overnight in the Inner Canyon Wilderness Area. You must listen to a Ranger Orientation and obtain a Wilderness Use Permit to do so, which is free but limits the number of visitors in the area daily.
Staying Outside the Park
If you can’t find a place to stay in the park, check out these nearby options.
- Cedar Creek RV Park: Located in Montrose, CO, less than 20 minutes from the park.
- Uncompahgre River Adult RV Park: Located in Olathe, CO, about 35 minutes from the park.
- Silver Summit RV Park: Located in Silverton, CO, about 1.75 hours from the park.
- Palisade BaseCamp RV Resort: Located in Palisade, CO, about 1.5 hours from the park.
- Riverbend RV Park and Cabins: Located in Montrose, CO, less than 30 minutes from the park.
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Tips for your Camping Stay
Whether staying in a park campground or nearby, use these tips to improve your visit.
- Reservations for South Rim Campground can be made by visiting Recreation.gov.
- There are no visitor centers to grab amenities, so make sure your RV refrigerator is stocked with snacks and beverages.
- The maximum RV length in the park’s campgrounds is 35 feet.
- Dogs must remain inside RVs from June 1st to August 10th to protect the park’s deer population (and your dogs from mother deer nursing fawns).
- Black bears are known to visit campgrounds searching for food. Utilize the bear-proof food storage lockers or store food in a locked vehicle with the windows up (if lockers are unavailable).
- Avoid leaving scented hygiene products in your camping tent or pop-up camper overnight.
- Clean your camp table immediately after eating, and never leave food unattended.
How to Get Around Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Montrose, CO, is the last urban stop before accessing the South Rim. From Montrose, take US Highway 50 east before turning onto CO 347 north and following signs into the park. Accessing the North Rim is a bit more complicated, so we recommend heading to the South Rim visitor center first for detailed directions and safety tips from park rangers.
The two main thoroughfares inside the park are the South Rim and North Rim Roads. The South Rim Road is well maintained and paved, but the North Rim Road is gravel and rougher. Only RVs 22 feet or shorter are allowed on these roads. The speed limit is slow, so going from the North Rim to the South Rim takes a few hours.
If you plan on rafting in the river, you can access the water via the East Portal Road, which is also restricted to vehicles 22 feet or shorter. It’s a meandering scenic drive with a steep descent and hairpin turns that bring you to the water’s edge.
Places to Go
If entering the park via the South Rim Road, stop at the ranger station for quick history and some great, short walks to amazing overlooks. From there, check out these main park attractions during your visit.
The North and South Rims
Like Grand Canyon National Park, the South Rim is the more visited side of the park, while the North Rim offers a quieter, primitive park experience. If it’s your first visit, start at the South Rim Visitor Center, which offers a bookstore and plenty of accessible RV parking.
The North Rim is roughly 11 miles southwest of Crawford, CO, and there’s a ranger station open intermittently throughout the summer. The final seven miles of the park access road and the entire North Rim Road are unpaved gravel but accessible to most vehicles in the summer.
The tallest vertical wall in Colorado and the third-tallest in the lower 48 states at 2,250 feet high, Painted Wall is one of the park’s most popular climbing areas. Luckily, you don’t have to don a harness and climbing shoes to enjoy its splendor. You can access this chasm view via South Rim Road.
You can get to the East Portal from the South Rim, although it technically sits inside the neighboring Curecanti National Recreation Area. Named for a town that once developed at the bottom of the canyon, it’s an interesting site to study park history and enjoy water-based recreation.
Things To Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
There’s plenty to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Just know that some activities require more technical equipment than others, and you’ll have to bring your own when visiting this remote park.
Most of the easier hiking trails in the park are along the North and South Rims. For experienced hikers and backpackers, there are routes to explore the inner canyon. Here are a few to check out during your visit:
- Rim Rock Nature Trail: A moderately flat 2-mile trail with excellent views down to the Gunnison River.
- The Gunnison Route: The recommended route on the South Rim if it’s your first time exploring the inner canyon. It’s a challenging hike with a 1,800-foot elevation drop.
- Uplands Trail: An easy one-mile stroll with wildlife watching and views of the West Elk Mountains.
- Warner Point Nature Trail: A moderate, 1.5-mile round trip through a forest of mountain mahogany, juniper, serviceberry, and pinyon pine. Pick up your trail map at the High Point Overlook.
For expert rock climbers, Black Canyon is a paradise – and not only because it’s home to one of the tallest vertical walls in North America. Most climbers flock to the North and South Chasm Walls, but there are plenty of places for rock climbing in less-frequented parts of the park.
If you make it down to East Portal, bring your fishing gear. The section of the Gunnison River that runs through the park is designated as Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water, meaning it’s an excellent place to catch large trout – with a fishing license, of course.
The park hosts an annual astronomy festival in the fall for you to experience why protecting this Dark Sky Sanctuary is so important. Events take place during the day and night, with rangers, volunteers, and members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society (BCAS) there to answer all your astronomical questions.
The most popular winter activities in the park are snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The South Rim Ski and Snowshoe Trail is the best place for beginners to get used to snowshoes. Rangers groom South Rim Drive beyond Gunnison Point for cross-country skiing. Snowshoes and skis aren’t available in the park, be can be purchased or rented in nearby Montrose.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
There are very few amenities available in the park. Carry whatever you need for as long as you plan on staying.
Put these items on your packing list for Black Canyon:
- Sunscreen and insect repellent (depending on the season).
- Paper maps or downloaded maps (no WIFI in this park!).
- Food and snacks in a hard camping cooler (or your RV fridge).
- Water for your hikes and an insulated water bottle to keep it cool.
- Sturdy hiking shoes
- A well-stocked first aid kit
- Trekking poles
- A portable power station to keep your small electronics charged.
Brief History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the newer charges for the National Park Service. After obtaining its status in 1999, it preserves the narrowest and deepest section of the Gunnison Gorge.
The Black Canyon got its name from how little sunlight penetrates between the rims, but in 2015, it earned designation as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. Bring your camera for striking photos of constellations and the milky way once the sun goes down.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the North Rim Road in the 1930s, which is now listed on the US Register of Historic Places. If you like canyons, but don’t want to deal with the summer crowds of the Grand Canyon, then Black Canyon of the Gunnison should be on your list!
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Have you been to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park? Share your travel tips in the comments below!