The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is alluring, but don’t expect mules, jeeps, or even trails to help you reach the depths of Colorado’s least-visited national park.
The Black Canyon’s dark metamorphic rocks—inlaid with bands of pink granite—are nearly two billion years old. Although Precambrian rocks like these are typically buried deep, two million years ago the Gunnison River began baring the “basement” rock at a rate of one inch every 100 years.
While amenities are sparse, the park makes up for it with a compelling landscape. “You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve met in 17 years that say, ‘You know, I like this better than the Grand Canyon,’” says Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park district ranger, Ryan Thrush. “It’s just more intimate.”
That intimacy comes from the canyon’s signature combination of narrowness, steepness, and depth. Some spots receive just 30 minutes of sunlight per day, earning the inky, shaded chasm its name. The park’s unique geology led to national monument protection in 1933 and national park status in 1999.
The Ute people, Colorado’s oldest residents, lived seasonally on the North and South Rims; both archaeology and oral history suggest that they didn’t inhabit the canyon floor, or visit often. (Today’s tribal governments reside in Utah and Colorado.) Most of today’s park guests similarly remain on the rim as they tour the craggy, 30,750-acre park.
Trails lead hikers and naturalists of all abilities through sagebrush, Gambel oak, aspen, and juniper. The Chasm View Nature Trail overlooks the park’s geographic centerpiece: The 2,250-foot tall Painted Wall, Colorado’s tallest cliff, is a spectacle of pink granite bands slashing through dark metamorphic rock.
Those enticed by the idea of exploring this gorge should plan carefully and obtain a wilderness permit. “It’s really like mountain climbing in reverse,” says Thrush. Routes are precipitous and unmarked, with undeveloped slopes covered in loose dirt, rock, and big boulders. Once below, backcountry camping is allowed. Just watch out for poison ivy while enjoying the river views.
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“We have the tallest cliffs in Colorado, and that’s special because Colorado has a lot of cliffs,” says Black Canyon district ranger Ryan Thrush. Climbers—like professional climber Jon Cardwell, shown here traversing a feature 2,000 feet above the river—must use traditional gear on the notoriously difficult ascents.
Visitors looking for prime stargazing can find it at the Black Canyon, which has an International Dark Sky Park designation. In this remote part of Colorado, only a few lights from the small town of Hotchkiss glow alongside the stars—and the Neowise comet, visible here on July 17, 2020.
The Black Canyon’s overlooks attract road-trippers with a few hours to kill. Scenic drives take visitors to the Gunnison River and along the South Rim. From there, it’s roughly three hours to the North Rim, where a gravel road offers an even more remote experience.
Park trails wind through pinyon pine-juniper pygmy forests, scrub oak thickets, and sagebrush. Bird-watchers delight in spotting prairie falcons and golden eagles, rarities like the Gunnison sage grouse, and songbirds like pinyon jays and sage thrashers. But it all takes work to conserve. Invasive weeds like this musk thistle crowd out native species that pollinators need, so park staff are actively controlling them.
Rock climbing in the Black Canyon takes experience and commitment. “You better be prepared to do the route, because failing isn’t an option,” says Ladzinski.
The Black Canyon’s popularity is growing, with a rapid visitor uptick the last three years—although it remains Colorado’s least-visited park, with nearly 430,000 people enjoying it in 2019.
“It’s really a park of two worlds,” says Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park head ranger, Ryan Thrush. “It has these great viewpoints and easy places that anyone can enjoy up top, but the wilderness area down low is very, very rugged and challenging.”
This ranch building outside of the park caught Ladzinski’s eye because it fit the rugged, arid landscape surrounding the Black Canyon.
Recreation opportunities abound in and around the park. Horses are allowed in one remote North Rim location—the Deadhorse Trail. In winter, the South Rim road closes and cross-country skiers have the run of the park.
“The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is unique, because it sneaks up on you,” says Boulder-based photographer Keith Ladzinski. Walking through flat pinyon-juniper forest, suddenly, a slice in the Earth appears—not much wider than 1,000 feet in some spots. It draws you in.
Juniper trees are well suited for the Black Canyon’s harsh and rocky conditions. These gnarly trees—some 700 years old—grow a single taproot that can burrow into rock crevices to pursue water, sometimes even on cliff sides.
Although the park closed briefly in April 2020 and, upon reopening, encouraged visitors to adhere to CDC guidelines about social distancing, masks are not officially required.
(Learn more about how to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison.)
Even adventure athletes won’t find a carefree experience in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. “It’s a very, very intense, intimidating, kind of foreboding place,” says Thrush, who adores his workplace’s Lord of the Rings-style drama. “Very few people have traveled all the way through it.”
The park’s 14 river-miles can’t be hiked because they are often cliff-bound. Just a few dozen elite whitewater kayaking parties attempt the wilderness trip each year, usually with advice from locals. Climbers also seek out the inner canyon, but unlike Yosemite National Park, there is no climbing scene—just about 2,000 feet of schist and gneiss looming above.
Although obscure, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a captivating place for those with the skill and stamina to venture into its depths—or an interest in off-the-beaten-path national parks and wild places.
Sarah Keller writes about science, conservation, and the outdoors from Bozeman, Montana. Find them on Instagram and Twitter.
Keith Ladzinski photographed the Great Lakes for National Geographic’s December 2020 issue. You can find more of his work on Instagram.
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