Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a witness to the power of Mother Nature. The gorge's name comes from the mere 33 minutes of sunlight per day some parts of the park see.

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 deep, narrow canyon is composed of gneiss and schist, which appear black when in shadow. 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.

Geology

A story 60 million years in the making

The story of Black Canyon is best described using these three words: grow, blow, and flow.

  • Grow: Some 60 million years ago, a small area rose from the earth. This “uplift” elevated 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rock. We call this the Gunnison Uplift.
  • Blow: About 30 million years ago, large volcanoes erupted on either side. As a result, the Gunnison Uplift was buried in volcanic rock.
  • Flow: Around 2 million years ago, the Gunnison River began to flow steadily. As the river eroded the volcanic rock and the metamorphic rock below, a deep canyon emerged.

What remains is an immense, steep canyon: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

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Native American and European History

How Black Canyon Became A National Park

Along the Black Canyon’s 53-mile length, 2,700-foot walls of sheer blackness surround the narrow gorge. A raging river has sculpted this canyon over millions of years. The result is a vivid landscape unlike anything else in North America.

Black Canyon is one of America’s newest national parks, located in west-central Colorado. But the Tabaquache Ute Indian bands knew of the striking geographical feature centuries before other explorers saw it.

John W. Gunnison

Along the Black Canyon’s 53-mile length, 2,700-foot walls of sheer blackness surround the narrow gorge. A raging river has sculpted this canyon over millions of years. The result is a vivid landscape unlike anything else in North America.

Black Canyon is one of America’s newest national parks, located in west-central Colorado. But the Tabaquache Ute Indian bands knew of the striking geographical feature centuries before other explorers saw it.

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Park History

How Black Canyon of the Gunnison became a National Park

Explorers weren’t always aware of the Black Canyon, despite the fact that the Ute tribes knew of the gorge. The Spanish were the first Europeans to canvas western Colorado. They employed two expeditions led by Juan Rivera in 1765 and Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776. In search of passage to California’s coast, they both traversed the canyon.

In their search for beaver pelts, fur trappers of the early 1800s were certainly aware of the canyon. Despite this, they left no written records of the canyon, probably because they couldn’t read or write.

Exploration of the American west had captured the nation’s attention by the middle of the century. Over time, expeditions came to the Black Canyon searching for railroad routes, mineral wealth, or water. Over time, the canyon attracted explorers for recreation and scenery more than commercial pursuits.

Today, you can walk in the footsteps of these bold and inquisitive ancestors. Even now, the canyon presents a challenging and rugged experience, as it did over a century ago. 

In Cimarron history, ranching took on greater significance as the mining boom subsided. Cattle and sheep were raised on the open lands of the Cimarron Valley and the surrounding hills. A cattle shipping center developed in Cimarron: corrals covered over 7500 square feet next to a railroad siding. Ranchers in the area typically drove their stock to Cimarron, timing their arrival for immediate loading. This was because the corrals lacked feeding facilities. Livestock shipments were concentrated in the spring and fall, with animals being moved: 

  • To market (usually Kansas City)
  • A winter range in the desert areas around Grand Junction 
  • Colorado or Utah
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Attractions

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

Hiking Trails

Both the North and South Rims offer trails suitable for all abilities.

Hiking the Inner Canyon

Hikes to the bottom of the canyon in steep, unmarked, and untamed gullies are extremely strenuous.

Scenic Drives

There are beautiful road routes along the river and the rims.

Fishing

Within Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park, the Gunnison River offers excellent trout fishing.

Kayaking

A kayaker should only attempt this stretch of the Gunnison River if they are extremely experienced.

Rock Climbing

Climbers are going to experience some heart-stopping multi-pitch routes on the Black.

Wildlife Watching

Wildlife thrives in the unique vertical habitat provided by Black Canyon.

Explore the Night

Night sky viewing is possible all year round in Black Canyon.

Vegetation

The Gunnison River creates opportunity for thriving vegetation

The Native plants in the park are diverse and beautiful, with Common Hornwort being among them. Fern-leaf Desert Parsley is also present along with Douglas Fir trees that can be found throughout this region of North America! Other favorite native flowers such as Bur Buttercup or Leopard Lily flourish here too; these delicate yet robust species offer many benefits for humans who live nearby—they provide medicine from their roots when eaten raw but have much greater significance during times where resources were scarce by providing food sources like berries.

Animal Life

There are many kinds of birds that live in the canyon, from the rim to the river.

Birds don’t have a problem crossing canyons. They can fly to heights and depths inaccessible to other animals, including humans, in search of food and water. 

GREAT HORNED OWL

Great horned owls hunt rabbits and rodents on canyon rims at night. Their prey eats: 

  • Seeds and nuts
  • Pinyon, juniper, and Gambel oak berries
  • Serviceberry and other shrubs commonly found on canyon rims 

The owl’s disc-shaped face directs sound waves to its ears, which are slits on its head and not those feathers on top. Due to rabbit and rodent activity in the winter, great horned owls stay in their territories all year round.

MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD

Canyon rim habitat is shared by mountain bluebirds and owls. However, they consume insects during the day. The vegetation in the bluebird’s habitat feeds the insects they feed on, similarly to owls. Bluebirds are migratory birds and do not live here all year round. In spring and early summer, they nest and rear their young in trees. Some of their moisture comes from their insect prey, but they need access to open water as well.

STELLER’S JAY

In the upper reaches of side canyons, where Douglas fir trees grow, Steller’s jays can also be found. They eat seeds and nuts, as well as insects. Insects provide some moisture to Steller’s jays, but they must also find open water in puddles or ponds. Like many other jays, they can seem noisy and disruptive. The Steller’s jay is just as opportunistic when it comes to food on picnic tables, though less attracted to campgrounds.

PEREGRINE FALCON

Nesting on canyon walls, peregrine falcons hunt flying birds at incredible dive speeds of 200 mph. As their claws ball up, they shatter the bones of their prey. If a falcon pursues a bald eagle for getting too close to its nest, it may flee by flying to the ground. Most falcons eat swifts and swallows, but they also eat jays and can occasionally eat doves.

WHITE-THROATED SWIFT

White-throated swifts are aerial insectivores. Their scientific name means “rock-inhabiting air sailor.” Even pairs copulate in a downward, spinning flight that appears chaotic. Swifts are among the fastest flying birds at level. They feed during the early morning and evening when flying insects are at their most active. After a meal, the white-throated swifts will nest high in canyon wall cracks.

CANYON WREN

These birds are far more often heard than seen, as canyon wrens sing so loudly and beautifully. Nests are built in depressions on ledges like those of Peregrine falcons. In search of spiders and insects, they hop around alcoves and ledges. These wrens are rarely seen down by the river at Black Canyon.

AMERICAN DIPPER

Water ouzels and American dippers nest along the river. Feeding under fast-moving water requires them to stay submerged, for which they use their wings. Dippers will bob up and down at a rate of 60 dips per minute, searching for aquatic insects, fish eggs, and smaller fish. Their plump bodies and plentiful down make them well-adapted to cold-water living. Their nests are usually built on moss behind waterfalls or cascades.

Hiking Trails

Finding a hike in the Gunnison is not hard

Most viewpoint hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National park are little more than a stroll to and from your car. You’ll have to put forth a little more effort on this hike to view the deepest part of the canyon at Warner Point. Along the way, hikers can admire the San Juan Mountains to the south and the West Elk Mountains to the north. The trailhead is at the end of South Rim Road.There’s no shortage of amazing hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  This list provides a nice mix of difficulty and distance. 

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. The climb up to the summit is no joke but you cant beat the views into the canyon. Another positive note of this trail is that it is rarely crowded, even in the summer months, so enjoy! The trailhead is next to the North Rim Ranger Station off of Black Canyon Road.

  • 6.7 miles – Out and back
  • 1200′ gain
  • Strenuous

Warner Point Nature Trail
Most viewpoint hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National park are little more than a stroll to and from your car. You’ll have to put forth a little more effort on this hike to view the deepest part of the canyon at Warner Point. Along the way, hikers can admire the San Juan Mountains to the south and the West Elk Mountains to the north. The trailhead is at the end of South Rim Road.

  • 1.5 miles – Out and back
  • 300′ gain
  • Easy

Red Rock Canyon Route
Only 8 hikers per day are allowed to access this hike via permit lottery. The reason being is that this is one of the most manageable hikes into the inner canyon but you have to go through private property to get there! As with all inner canyon hikes in this park: be careful, trace your steps as there is no true trail, and watch out for poison ivy. The trailhead is near a parking area off Bostwick Park Road.

  • 3.4 miles – One way
  • 1300′ descent
  • Strenuous

Oak Flat Loop
This is a perfect hike for anyone that wants to venture into the canyon to see the dramatic views without descending all the way to the bottom. The trail is fairly narrow in sections and the hike back up to the visitor center is tough but you’ll be happy you did it. The trailhead is located next to the South Rim Visitor Center.

  • 1.3 miles – Loop
  • 300′ gain
  • Moderate

Rim Rock Nature Trail
Self-guided nature trail that follows the south rim of the canyon; perfect for all skill levels. There are magnificent views of the Gunnison River and immense sheer walls of the canyon. The trailhead is near the South Rim Visitor Center next to Campground Loop C.

  • 1.8 miles – Out and back
  • 200′ gain
  • Easy

Gunnison Route
If you miss out on the lottery for the Red Rock Canyon Route, the Gunnison Route is considered the most popular and ‘easiest’ of the inner canyon hikes. An 80′ chain is located about 1/3 of the way down to aide in the steep descent/ascent. The trailhead is near the South Rim Visitor Center off of the Oak Flat Loop.

  • 1.0 mile – One way
  • 1800′ descent
  • Strenuous
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