Though Rocky Mountain National Park may be synonymous with Colorado, it’s not the state’s only national park. In fact, it’s only one of four. While Rocky Mountain National Park offers no shortage of dramatic vistas and epic hikes, visitors to the Centennial State who dislike big crowds and busy trails should head elsewhere: to the little-known but stunningly beautiful Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s been wowing visitors for more than 100 years, yet somehow is still one of the least-visited parks in the entire park service.
When the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s “Scenic Line of the World” first rumbled through the narrow passage of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in 1882, it left its passengers awestruck. Passengers were treated to views of waterfalls of the Gunnison River (which carved the park’s canyon) tumbling down cliffs towering on either side of their “iron horse” moved through otherwise-inaccessible terrain. Author Rudyard Kipling took the trip in 1889, offering an apt description:
Though trains no longer run through this rugged canyon on Colorado’s western slope, it still demands the same sense of awe from visitors - whether gazing down from the rim or up from the river. And the area's national park status means it's far easier to visit now than in the late 1800s.
There are plenty of canyons to visit in the United States -- Arizona's Grand Canyon, the Pacific Northwest's Hells Canyon -- and many are larger than the one at Black Canyon OTG. It's not as developed as Yellowstone, and it's not teeming with miles of trails like Rocky Mountain. But at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, it's the modesty and anonymity that make it so special.
John W. Gunnison (the river's namesake and man who plotted the railroad route through this area of Colorado) said that the Black was "the roughest, most hilly and cut up" of all the places he'd seen. Fortunately, the park still retains that spirit of western exploration, and it really does feel as if you may come across a coyote or recent rockfall as you round the canyon's corners.
The canyon's name comes from the fact that many areas in the chasm don't see much sun and hints at the area's remoteness. Black Canyon allows guests to experience the feeling of being in the wilderness in a (mostly) undeveloped area. In fact, unlike many parks in the American West, there's very little evidence of Indigenous habitation. While groups of Utes and Paiutes probably lived near the rim, the canyon itself was – as is – too inhospitable to settle in.
But it's an excellent place for an epic day hike.
By far, the best time to visit Black Canyon is during the sunny summer months. In winter, the bulk of the park closes due to snowy and icy conditions on roads and trails.
But that doesn't mean there isn't an abundance of activity year-round. While the busy summer season beckons visitors with hiking, climbing, and backcountry angling, the off-peak winter season is prime for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. While Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most-visited in the country (4,670,054 visitors in 2019), Black Canyon OTG saw just slightly more than 400,000 visits in 2019. With so few visitors, it's nearly guaranteed you won't be competing much with other people for space.
That said, July and August are the busiest months, so June and September are your best bets for being alone on the trails.
The mountains have a mind of their own and generate their own weather, meaning it could be sunny in the morning and snowing in the afternoon. The area sees nearly 300 days of sun each year, and summer temperatures can be in the high 80 degrees Fahrenheit while winter daytime temperatures will drop into the 30s.
But don't be surprised if you see unexpected snow in May or thunderstorms develop year-round in what was a bright blue sky. Because of that, the best way to plan for the weather is to plan for anything, even in summer. Layers are a must any time of year. And don't forget how the canyon earned its name: if you're spending time in the canyon, you'll be almost entirely in the shade.
Temperatures can vary significantly as there's a 2,000-foot elevation difference between the river and the rim. And sometimes, the canyon is even warmer than the rim.
The Black is remote. Getting there can be just as unrefined as the canyon itself. The park is nowhere near any interstate highways and is a solid five-hour drive from the nearest international airport in Denver. However, the nearby town of Montrose has a regional airport with regular flights from major hubs.
From there, the best way to get to the park is with a rental car from the airport. The South Rim entrance and visitor center (the only entrance open year-round) is about 14 miles from Montrose.
In the summer, you can go through the North Rim entrance. It's 11 miles southwest of the town of Crawford, the nearest airport for which is 1.5 hours away in Grand Junction. The final seven miles from Crawford are unpaved.
Once you're in the park, the only way around is with a private vehicle or hiking. There is no public transit inside the park.
South Rim Visitor Center: The South Rim Visitor Center is the only visitor center in the park and the only entrance open year-round, though hours change seasonally. In spring and summer, it's usually open from around 8 AM to 6 PM, while winter hours are closer to 10 AM to 4 PM. Available services include a bookstore, exhibits, and restrooms, which are open year-round. However, note that the water fill-up station is summer only. Please be conservative as the water is trucked in. The South Rim Black Canyon of the Gunnison visitor center is also where you'll get your wilderness permit (there's a self-registration kiosk if the visitor center is closed.)
North Rim Ranger Station: The North Rim Ranger Station doesn't have regular hours or services and is fully closed in the winter. On weekends and busy days, rangers are sometimes available to answer questions; otherwise, newspapers and maps are available on the porch. The ranger station also has a self-pay kiosk, a self-registration kiosk for wilderness permits, and a water fill-up station.