Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park sees more than 300 thousand annual visitors

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park protects a quarter of the Gunnison River, which slices sheer canyon walls from dark Precambrian-era rock. The canyon features some of the steepest cliffs and oldest rock in North America, and is a popular site for river rafting and rock climbing. The deep, narrow canyon is composed of gneiss and schist which appears black when in shadow.


A story 60 million years in the making

The story of Black Canyon can be summed up in three words: grow, blow, and flow. About 60 million years ago, a small area of land uplifted (grow), bringing 1.8 billion year old metamorphic rock to high elevations. This is called the Gunnison Uplift. About 30 million years ago, large volcanoes erupted on either side of this uplift, burying it in volcanic rock (blow). Then, as early as 2 million years ago, the Gunnison River began flowing in force (flow). The river and time eroded all of the volcanic rock and cut a deep canyon in the metamorphic rock below. What you see today is a deep, steep, and narrow canyon: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

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Native American History

Home of the Tabaquache Utes

Sheer black walls plummet up to 2,700 feet along the 53-mile stretch of Black Canyon’s narrow gorge. The spectacular landscape, formed over millions of years by the raging river below, combines its narrow opening, sheer walls, and startling depths like no other canyon in North America.

Located in west-central Colorado, one of America’s newest National Parks was long known to the Tabaquache Ute Indian bands hundreds of years before explorers came upon the obscure and amazing geographic feature.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to roam Colorado’s vast mountains and valleys in 1765 when Juan Rivera’s band of explorers was looking for a passage to the California coast. Passing by the canyon, they were followed by another Spanish expedition 11 years later. By the early 1800s, fur trappers were roaming through the canyon in search of game, but it would be another 50 years before the canyon would officially be explored.

In 1853 Captain John W. Gunnison led an expedition through the area, searching for a possible transcontinental railroad route. Daunted by the demanding terrain, Gunnison proclaimed the rugged country as totally unsuitable for a railroad and moved on into Utah, where he and all but four of the eleven members in his group were killed by a band of Paiute on October 26, 1853.

Later explorers agreed with Gunnison about the rugged terrain of the area and no hopes of building a railroad, that was until rich mineral deposits were discovered in Colorado’s western slopes. Once again, surveyors and engineers began to search for railroad paths through the daunting canyon. By the early 1880s, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was on its way west across Colorado and before long, the company began the challenge of blasting and carving a narrow-gauge railroad from the hard rock walls of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. A feat previously considered impossible, in August of 1882, the first Denver & Rio Grande train rolled out of the canyon and into the construction camp at the end of the tracks on Cimarron Creek.

The construction camp, called Cimarron, that began as nothing more than tents and a single log cabin, grew into a railroad town by the end of the year, complete with a roundhouse, station facilities, several businesses, the ever-present saloons, and more than 300 people.

When author Rudyard Kipling rode the train through the canyon in 1889 he described it:

“We entered a gorge, remote from the sun, where the rocks were two thousand feet sheer, and where a rock splintered river roared and howled ten feet below a track which seemed to have been built on the simple principle of dropping miscellaneous dirt into the river and pinning a few rails a-top. There was a glory and a wonder and a mystery about the mad ride, which I felt keenly…until I had to offer prayers for the safety of the train.”

The engineers that took trains through the Black Canyon for the next 67 years were extremely fearful of the route – especially during winter when avalanches and rockfalls were common and an engineer and his crew never knew if or when their train would be the next to be swept into the icy waters of the Gunnison River. Despite the dangers and constant repair work, the Denver and Rio Grande made its Black Canyon route the cornerstone of its “Scenic Line of the World” passenger promotions and featured the Curecanti Needle on its emblem.

Though the railroad’s main purpose was to provide shipping of the area mine ore, by the turn of the century, it was also running scenic excursions. A subsidiary of the D&RG, the “Rio Grande Hotel Company”, established the “Black Canyon Hotel and Eating House,” which quickly became known for its excellent hospitality. After mining decreased in the area, the town’s population began to dwindle, but area cattlemen continued to gather at Cimarron to ship their cattle and sheep to market via the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. However, this too would change as trucks began to haul the cattle and Cimarron’s rail yards and corrals sat empty. The last train to run from Gunnison to Cimarron along the tracks through Black Canyon was a scenic excursion in 1949.

Shortly after the last train made its scenic journey, the rails, ties, and corrals were removed. Since then the depot, roundhouse, hotel, saloons, ice plant, and individual homes have also disappeared from the old Cimarron townsite. Today, the National Park Service maintains a visitor center, campground and picnic area where the original town once stood. There is also an exhibit of authentic railroad cars that interprets those bygone railroad days. Just a short drive north of Cimarron is the remains of the last standing D & RG Narrow Gauge Trestle crossing the Cimarron River. This relic to Cimarron’s past is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sports the genuine Engine 278, coal tender, a boxcar, and caboose that was used on those many trips through the Black Canyon. Cimarron is located just south of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and just west of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.

On March 2, 1933, the steep canyon was made a National Monument. On October 21, 1999, 10,000 wilderness acres were added to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and its status changed from a National Monument to a National Park.

Within the 14 miles that lie within the park visitors will see dramatic views of the craggy canyon walls, glimpses of the swift river running more than 2,000 feet below, as well as a plethora of wildlife, including elk, bear, deer, wild turkey, bighorn sheep and hundreds of varieties of birds. The park also offers a number of hiking and biking trails, cross country skiing, fishing, camping, and horseback riding.

The main attraction of the park is the scenic drive along the south rim which is located about 15 miles east of Montrose, Colorado via U.S. Hwy 50 and CO Hwy 347. The north rim, which is closed in the winter is about 11 miles south of Crawford, Colorado, via CO Hwy 92 and North Rim Road. The river itself can be accessed by a steep, unmaintained trail that takes about 4 hours to hike down and 6 to hike back.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is approximately 60 miles southeast of Grand Junction, Colorado.

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Park History

How Black Canyon of the Gunnison became a National Park

While the people of the Ute bands knew of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, it was an obscure geographic feature to explorers for hundreds of years. The Spanish were the first Europeans to canvas western Colorado with two expeditions, one led by Juan Rivera in 1765, and the other by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776. Both were looking for passage to the California coast, and both passed by the canyon.

Fur trappers of the early 1800s undoubtedly knew of the canyon in their search for beaver pelts. They left no written record of the canyon, though, probably because they couldn’t, in fact, read or write.

By the middle of the century, exploration of the American west had captured the nation’s attention. In turn expeditions came to the Black Canyon searching for railroad passageways, mineral wealth, or in a quest for water. Eventually explorers came to see the canyon, not for commercial wealth, but for the renewal and recreation that it offered.

Today, you can walk in the footsteps of some of these hardy and inquisitive forebearers. The canyon still offers a rugged and demanding experience, even as it did more than a hundred of years ago. 

As the mining boom declined, ranching took on greater significance in Cimarron history. Both sheep and cattle were run in the open lands of the Cimarron Valley and surrounding hills. Cimarron became a major livestock shipping center, with corrals covering over 7500 square feet adjacent to the railroad siding. Local ranchers would typically drive their stock to Cimarron and timed their arrival to allow immediate loading of animals; there were no feeding facilities at the corrals here. Shipment of livestock was concentrated in the spring and fall, with animals being moved either to market (usually Kansas City), a winter range in the desert areas around Grand Junction, Colorado, or into Utah.


As technology quickly changed, the narrow gauge railroad became a thing of the past. Improved highways and large trucks gradually replaced the railroad, and the corrals and rail yards of Cimarron grew empty. In 1949, a scenic excursion train ran from Gunnison to Cimarron. This was the last train to travel the tracks through the Black Canyon, and shortly thereafter the rails, ties, and corrals were removed. The depot, roundhouse, saloons, ice plant, and individual homes have also disappeared from the old Cimarron townsite.

Today, the National Park Service maintains a visitor center, campground and picnic area where the railroad town of Cimarron once existed. An outdoor exhibit with loading corrals and stock cars helps visitors understand the importance of the railroad history to Cimarron’s ranching community and the entire western slope.

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The best things to do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Hiking Trails
Trails for all abilities are available on both South and North Rims.

Hiking the Inner Canyon
Extremely strenuous hikes to the bottom of the canyon in steep, unmaintained and unmarked gullies.

Scenic Drives
Gorgeous scenic routes are available along the rims and down to the river.

The Gunnison River within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is well known for outstanding trout fishing.

This stretch of the Gunnison River is only for the most experienced kayakers.

Rock Climbing
All the climbs in the Black are multi-pitch traditional routes and not for the faint of heart.

Wildlife Watching
Black Canyon provides a unique vertical environment for wildlife.

Explore the Night
Black Canyon offers night sky viewing opportunities throughout the year.

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The Gunnison River creates opportunity for thriving vegetation

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument is located along the Gunnison River on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Montrose County, Colorado. The canyon is narrow because it is cut into resistant pre-Cambrian gneiss: it has a maximum depth of 900m and a minimum width of 300m from rim to rim (Hansen 1987). The watershed is 10,000 square km. A 450-m study reach was selected by the National Park Service (Fig. 1). The width of the canyon bottom within the study reach varies from 40 to 90 m, the gradient is 0.0128, and the elevation is approximately 1707 m. Average annual precipitation is 370 m (Colorado Climate Center 1984). Because of the steep canyon walls the study reach is inaccessible to livestock and has probably never been grazed.

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Animal Life

There is a vast collection of mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Canyons aren’t barriers to birds. In search of food and water, birds can readily fly to depths and heights forbidding for other animals, including humans.

The birds below represent those that live within the various habitats of the canyon, from the rim (top, Great horned owl) to the river (bottom, American dipper).

Great horned owls hunt rabbits and rodents on canyon rims at night. Their prey eat nuts, seeds and berries – of pinyon, juniper, and Gambel oak trees and serviceberry and other shrubs prevalent on canyon rims. Its disc-shaped face channels sound waves to the owl’s ears – slits at the side of its head, not those feathers atop it. Great horned owls are year-round residents because rabbits and rodents stay active in winter.

Mountain bluebirds share canyon rim habitat with owls but are daytime eaters of insects. Like owls, bluebirds are linked to their habitat by its vegetation, which feeds their insect prey. Bluebirds are migratory, not year-round residents here. They nest in trees and are most often seen in spring and early summer when nesting and rearing their young. They get some moisture from their insect prey, but need access to open water, too.

Steller’s jays also live on the canyon rims of upper reaches of side canyons where Douglas fir trees go. They eat seeds and nuts and some insects. They get some moisture from the insects but also need access to open water in puddles or ponds. Like other jays, they can seem raucous, meddlesome and contentious, but Steller’s jays, while less attracted to campgrounds, are as opportunistic as other jays about food on picnic tables.

Peregrine falcons nest on ledges on canyon walls and prey on flying birds, swooping down on them as fast as 200 mph. Their balled-up claws shatter prey’s bones like bludgeons. Even a bald eagle pursued by a falcon for getting too close to its nest or eyrie may go right to ground to escape contact. Falcons mostly feed on aerial-feeding swifts and swallows but also on jays and an occasional dove.


White-throated swifts are aerial feeders of insects whose scientific name means “rock-inhabiting air sailor.” Pairs even copulate in a downward, spinning flight that only looks out of control. Flying on the level, these swifts are one of the swiftest of all birds. White-throated swifts nest high on canyon walls in rock crevices and feed mostly in early morning and at evening, when flying insects are most active.


Canyon wrens sing so wildly, sweetly, and hauntingly that they even figure in a lot of present day music. These wrens are far more often heard than seen. They nest on ledges like Peregrine falcons do, laying eggs in depressions. They hop and poke about ledges and alcoves looking for spiders and insects to eat. At Black Canyon these wrens are seldom if ever seen down along the river itself.

American dippers or water ouzels live and nest along the river. They can walk under fast-moving water to feed, using their wings to stay submerged. They probe for aquatic insects and larvae, fish eggs, and small fish. Dippers bob up and down at up to 60 dips per minute. Their plump body type, like a beaver’s, and plentiful down adapt them to cold-water living. They may build their nests off moss behind waterfalls or cascades.

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Hiking Trails

Finding a hike in the Gunnison is not hard

6 Best Day Hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
North Vista Trail. If you add on the short spur trail to Exclamation Point on your way up to Green Mountain, this is easily the best hike in the park. …
Warner Point Nature Trail. …
Red Rock Canyon Route. …
Oak Flat Loop. …
Rim Rock Nature Trail. …
Gunnison Route.

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