1. Join a ranger-led program: There’s no better way to be introduced to a national park than through its park rangers. And like most national parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers myriad ranger-led programs to help you make the most of your visit, including hikes, walks, talks and much more. The park’s calendar is a terrific resource for discovery what’s happening during your visit.Over the course of the past two million years, the Gunnison River has carved its way through the rugged terrain in southwest Colorado (14 miles from Montrose and 264 miles from Denver) with incredible results.
Today, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, established in 1999 and known as “Colorado’s own Grand Canyon,” features some of the steepest cliffs, most incredible spires, oldest rocks (we’re talking 2 billion years old) and dramatic vistas in all of the USA. We checked in with Sandy Snell-Dobert with the park for her ideas on 10 things not to miss when visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
2. Take the Oak Flat Trail: Instead of the intense hike down to the river, opt for the moderate two-mile round-trip Oak Flat Loop Trail, which starts at the South Rim Visitor Center, for a terrific introduction to the park. Along the way, you’ll pass through groves of aspen, oak, and Douglas fir trees on your way to an overlook of the South Rim and a glimpse of the canyon diving down below.
3. Follow the East Portal Road: If you’d rather access the river from your car instead of a serious hike, the East Portal Road will take you there, but be forewarned: the road is extremely steep (we’re talking 16% grades) with hairpin turns. The views, however, are spectacular and well-worth the drive.
4. Enjoy the seclusion of the North Rim: If you’re looking for a quieter, less-developed area of the park, make your way to the North Rim. Here you can hike along any, or all, of the three secluded trails ranging from a moderate 0.3-mile to a strenuous 7-mile hike, or take two to three hours and drive the North Rim Road, stopping at its six overlooks along the way to see some of the park’s most stunning views.
5. Go climb a rock (if you know what you’re doing): With its 2,000-plus-foot narrow, vertical canyon walls, rock climbing within the park is stellar and extremely challenging with a considerable lack of places for protective equipment. If you consider yourself an expert climber, you’ll definitely want to scale these walls; anything less and you’re best off watching in amazement.
6. The park is for the birds: In the spring and early-summer, bird watching is spectacular in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Grab your binoculars and settle in to spot Blue Grouse in the sagebrush, and the Cooper’s Hawk, Red Tailed Hawks and Golden Eagles soaring overhead. In the mornings in the inner canyon and Rock Point, the Canyon Wren sings, and near the Painted Wall in the spring and early-summer, try and catch the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird in the world. Before your visit, download the Black Canyon Bird List so you can track your sightings.
7. Get wild: Plenty of wildlife lives within the park, and there are many opportunities to see the animals in their native habitats. Just like when birding, focus your binoculars and you may catch a glimpse of the Mule Deer, elk, Yellow-bellied Marmot, golden-mantled Ground and Rock squirrels, chipmunks and cottontail rabbits, and maybe even the occasional Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. And if you’re really searching, you may just spot an elusive mountain lion in the early morning and evening, or even a black bear or bobcat.
8. Stop and smell the flowers: When the wildflowers bloom in Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it really is stunning how their delicate petals and vibrant colors contradict the reds, browns, greys and blacks of the jagged rocks. The flowers peak in June, and some blooms you’ll see at that time include Beardlip and Rocky Mountain penstemon, Rosy and Sticky gilia, and Claret cup cactus, to name but a handful of the dozens that may be in bloom.
9. Watch the sunset: With its stunning landscape, it’s nearly impossible to see a bad sunset in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. However, for a really special moment, make your way to Sunset View, the westernmost overlook along South Rim Road and toast the sun sinking below the horizon on yet another day.
10. Gaze at the stars: In September 2015, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was designated an International Dark Sky Park, Colorado’s first and only the ninth in the USA. Needless to say, stargazing is nothing short of stellar in the park. Looking skyward with the naked eye will show plenty of twinkling stars, but if you want more, the park’s rangers host a variety of astronomic events throughout the year. A few of these types of events coming up include Astronomy Evening Programs twice weekly through September 2; and the Black Canyon Astronomy Festival June 1-4.