Touring the South and North Rims of
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the southwest quadrant of Colorado is a 14 mile long narrow canyon with dramatic, sheer cliffs that rank as the highest in the state at 2,722 ft. near Warner Point. The rapidly flowing class V to unnavigable Gunnison River can be seen from many overlooks and accessed by road. There are easy to strenuous hiking trails near the rim on both sides. Only the very fit should attempt a descent to the river or a climb up one of the cliff routes rated from 5.9 to 13. Check with the Park Service for route information. Campgrounds with vault toilets, tables and grills are at both rims.
While renting a clean cabin in Almont (3riversresort.com - we stayed north of Gunnison to include easy access to Crested Butte's wildflowers), Greg and I explored the south rim and drove down to the river on July 19, 2009 and then toured the north rim the following day. It takes at least two hours to get from one side to the other because there is no bridge crossing the chasm. The highlights to me were the expansive views from the Warner Point Nature Trail at the end of South Rim Dr. (below) and the scenery along CO hwy 92 as we approached the north rim.
Directions to South Rim: From the west: head 8 miles east of Montrose on US hwy 50, then take CO hwy 347 north for 7 miles to the visitor center. From the east: head 62 miles west of Gunnison on US hwy 50, then take CO hwy 347 north.
Directions to North Rim: From US hwy 50, just west of Sabinero and Curecanti NRA, go north on CO hwy 92 for an hour or so (hwy 92 initially takes you over a dam where the canyon starts on your left and the lake is on your right).
Below is a shot of the Gunnison River looking down from Tomichi Point just behind the visitor center. It is worthwhile to go to the center's theater for their half-hour documentary on the park's history. I liked the story about some crazy early explorers who jumped in the treacherous rapids because they couldn't find another way along the canyon walls.
The two mile round trip Oak Flat Loop Trail starts behind the visitor center. I really wanted to hike it because it takes you a little below the rim, but because of our limited time and energy, we had to choose between that and the Warner Point Trail and the latter won out.
We got out for most of the 12 overlooks because they are either next to the road or a short walk away, but after awhile, they started to look very similar to me. Just make sure you see the Painted Wall overlook because the prominent striations along the cliff wall are unique. Even though there was a special that weekend where entrance fees were waived, the park was not very crowded, perhaps because the 90+ degree heat was somewhat oppressive.
The Warner Point Nature Trail starts at High Point (el. 8289'). It is a 1.5 mile round trip (out and back) smooth gradual uphill climb along a ridge that can make you a bit short of breath because of the elevation.
I loved the views of the San Juan Mountain Range and Uncompahgre Valley to the south (below) and the West Elk Mountains and Black Canyon to the north (second photo top). At the end of the trail you can see west for miles toward the start of the canyon (below). I used the split neutral density filter, but the atmospheric haze still interfered with mountain views at times.
We then headed toward East Portal Rd. near the park entrance to explore the Gunnison River up close. The road is in good condition and is usually open from mid-April to mid-November. The 16% grade caused my little Neon's engine to emit a faint burnt smell half way down while driving in low gear, so we stopped at a large pull out to rest it (below) and lightly used the brakes the rest of the way.
As we went east, we found a high security fence blocking access to Crystal Dam, part of the Colorado River Storage Project, creating a 6-mile long reservoir. On the west end we saw a tiny camping area. I proceeded down a path along the river, forgetting to look for the poison ivy that proliferates down there. But the path was not overgrown, so I was safe. The canyon walls were steep, yet not as high as the sections we saw from South Rim Dr.
On the way up from the river we spotted a mother Rock Ptarmigan with its baby strutting along the road amid the wildflowers. These birds prefer barren land in higher elevations and turn white in the winter to blend with the snow.
On the following day we decided to explore the north rim of Black Canyon, crossing over the dam that created the lake in the Curecanti NRA.
We didn't go far when we saw an overlook on our left for the dam. We also saw a long staircase (232 steps at mile marker 130 on hwy 50) on the other side of the canyon leading to the river below where twice daily (not Tuesdays) tourists can hop a pontoon boat for a 7 mile ride into Black Canyon.
I love it whenever I see a coyote. This one didn't even glance at the sign as it trotted through the fence looking for food.
A few miles NW along 92 we stopped at the Pioneer Point Overlook where the Curecanti Creek Trailhead begins. I wanted to go down to Morrow Point Lake below, but we didn't have a few hours to kill as we were heading home that night. The trail is 2 miles long with an 880' drop, beginning at 8040' elevation.
The views from the overlooks were beautiful. We saw several of what looked like vultures with red heads flying around the cliff walls.
The road leading to the north rim was far more scenic than I expected. I noticed that the many curves attracted a number of motorcyclists who joined us at the overlooks.
The views were unimpressive as we left the canyon edge, but as we approached North Rim Rd., mountains and buttes appeared. North Rim Rd. is a slightly rough dirt road (closed in winter) with some washboard areas closer to the park entrance.
No one was at the north rim ranger station, so we did the self pay ($15) and were thankful the restroom was open. The north rim has much less traffic than the south - we only saw about seven people that afternoon. While I sometimes waited in the car (one cliff started looking like another), Greg took short walks to each of the six overlooks that often allow you to look almost straight down at the Gunnison River and hear the faint roar of the rapids.
Beginning at the ranger station, the North Vista Trail, which is a moderate 3 mile round trip hike to Exclamation Point, sounded like the best path because of the views and remoteness. You can make it more challenging by going farther for a 7 mile round trip hike to Green Mountain where you might be more likely to see some wildlife (elk, coyotes, cougars and mule deer live in the park). But due to our tight schedule, we had to settle for a quick, easy jaunt through a Pinyon-Juniper forest along the Chasm View Nature Trial's 1/3 mile loop. The 13 site campground nearby was nearly empty, but it was a Monday and they claim the campground sometimes fills in the summer - however, they don't take reservations on the north side.
I enjoyed the fact that the trail stays a few yards from the edge of the canyon for awhile so I could enjoy the views, but if you have rambunctious children, I'd keep a tight grip on them or avoid this trail because only logs or sometimes nothing is stopping them from running to the cliff's edge. There are a couple of fences to allow you to hang your head over and get a good view straight down to the river.
To the right is a shot from one of the last overlooks looking down the canyon southeast.
Directly below is a view of the Painted Wall (far cliff) from the Chasm View Trail. Overall, I would say the canyon views we saw from the south rim the day before were more interesting because they varied more and the mountain backdrops added to the beauty. The views from the north rim were more dramatic when looking down at the river, but the cliffs across the way were flatter, framed only by bare sky.
After we had exited the park and were heading toward CO hwy 92, I noticed a field of shimmering grass with a stormy backdrop and had to get out to take a photo. I was glad we had explored the north rim briefly to satisfy my curiosity. Someday we may return for a hike to Exclamation Point, but it will probably be awhile since there are so many other new places for us to explore.
Curecanti National Recreation Area just east of Black Canyon along hwy 50 is quite beautiful and worth exploring, too. I've included a few wildflowers I saw along the north rim (below).