Two billion years ago, Precambrian gneiss (a coarse-grained, granite-like metamorphic rock that's extremely strong and resistant to erosion) formed the core of this region. In what is now known as the 53-mile-long Black Canyon, the gneiss was worn away with unimaginable slowness by the Gunnison River, creating the deepest narrow canyon in America, a moody terrain where lack of sunlight shrouds the bottom in almost perpetual shadow. The most scenic 14 miles of the canyon, which has been designated Wilderness from rim to rim, is included in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. At places, the river throbs wildly 2,400 feet below, while at The Narrows, the canyon is only 1,100 feet wide at the rim and as little as 40 feet wide at the bottom. It lies surrounded by a dryland forest of piñon and juniper.
Only the most determined anglers brave the descent to catch Colorado's largest trout, grown fat and happy because of a lack of fishing pressure and a rich food supply. Expert river runners attempt the Gunnison here, carrying over several difficult portages (most people consider the canyon water unrunnable). No well-maintained trails descend the canyon walls. Camping is allowed on the canyon bottom.
Climbers often cling to the precipices, where you'll find some of the most demanding routes in the state. These cliffs are not for beginners or the inexperienced. Rangers will give you advice on routes and their difficulty. Pre-climb and post-climb registration is required.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located approximately 210 miles southwest of Denver, Colorado.
Access to the South Rim is approximately 15 miles east of Montrose, Colorado, via U.S. Highway 50 and CO Highway 347.
Access to the North Rim is 11 miles south of Crawford, Colorado, via CO Highway 92 and North Rim Road (unpaved).
There is no bridge between the north and south rims of the canyon. Allow two to three hours to drive from one side to the other.
By bus: To Montrose or Grand Junction, CO.
By train: To Grand Junction.
There is no public transportation within the park.
Commercial airline service is available to Montrose, Gunnison, and Grand Junction.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
(No official title, designates National Park Service wildernesses) - Public Law 94-567 (10/20/1976) To designate certain lands within units of the National Park System as wilderness; to revise the boundaries of certain of these units; and for other purposes.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area Act of 1999 - Public law 107-76 (10/21/1999) To redesignate the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument as a national park and establish the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, and for other purposes
There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes. Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue. While descending, study the route behind, as this will make it easier on the way up when confronted with a choice of routes and drainages. Not all ravines go all the way to the river, and becoming "cliffed out" is a real possibility.
Poison ivy is nearly impossible to avoid, and can be found growing 5 feet tall along the river. Pets are not allowed in the wilderness. Inner canyon routes are not meant for small children.
The Gunnison River within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is designated as Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water. Streams and rivers in Colorado are designated as Gold Medal Waters by the state wildlife commission because they provide outstanding angling opportunities for large trout.
Expert kayakers find the Gunnison River through the National Park an arduous challenge. This stretch of the Gunnison is for only the most experienced and well equipped kayakers.
The rapids within the national park are considered Class V and some sections are unrunnable. This is a very technical paddle and includes numerous long, difficult and dangerous portages. Kayakers run the river at their own risk. The Gunnison River through the National Park has claimed the lives of even the most experienced, respected kayakers. The river's hydraulics can make self-rescue or rescue by others impossible.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a destination that offers vast opportunities to advanced rock climbers. Of the one hundred forty five climbs that are either found in Black Canyon Rock Climbs or are known by the National Park Service; eight are rated at 5.8, and of these eight only four have good information available and see regular ascents. Twenty one climbs have a rating of 5.9; five of these are aid routes and only six of them see any significant climbing activity. The other one hundred and seventeen climbs have ratings between 5.10 and 5.13 and many require aid. All of the climbs at the Black Canyon are committing and many climbers have said that the ratings here can be deceiving.
All of the climbs within Black Canyon are multi-pitch traditional routes located in remote areas within the canyon. The National Park Service has rangers trained in high angle rescue, but one should keep in mind that any rescue operation within the park is difficult and requires extended periods of time. Being benighted due to underestimating a route is not cause for rescue at the Black Canyon. Climbers visiting the park should carry the equipment necessary to endure an unexpected bivy.
Peak climbing season at the Black Canyon begins in mid-April and runs through the early part of June and then from mid-September through early November. Environmental hazards found at the park during these time periods include frequent afternoon thunder showers, fully leafed out poison ivy, and approach gullies inhabited by ticks.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Weather can vary greatly between the canyon rim and canyon floor. Summer daytime temperatures range between 60 to 100F (15 to 38C), nights 30 to 50F (-1 to 10C) Winter daytime temperatures range between 20 to 40F (-6 to 4C), nights -10 to 20F (-23 to -6C) Precipitation is minimal, brief afternoon thunderstorms can occur during the summer. Layered clothing appropriate for the season is recommended.
The hike into the canyon and back up is very strenuous. Bring high energy foods and at least 4 quarts of water per person per day. Giardia is in all water sources, including the river, therefore all water must be purified. Sturdy hiking boots are an absolute must due to the unstable terrain covered in loose talus and scree. Leave your sandals and low cut running shoes in the car. Always pack in rain gear, afternoon thunderstorms are common.
Safety and Current Conditions
There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes.
Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue. While descending, study the route behind, as this will make it easier on the way up when confronted with a choice of routes and drainages. Not all ravines go all the way to the river, and becoming "cliffed out" is a real possibility. Inner canyon routes are not meant for small children.
The mileages listed as “River Access” are the maximum distance available to a hiker along the river at low water levels (300-350 cubic feet per second). Wading in the cold river (50F) is hazardous and not recommended, and at levels above 450-500 CFS the combination of high, swift water and cold temperatures increases the danger. Rocks along the shore can be moss encrusted and very slick. Many individuals have been swept to their death in the Gunnison River.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.