A Guide to Hiking Black Canyon of The Gunnison
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
After visiting Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park, I firmly believe this park is underrated. Even if visitors choose to simply admire the canyon from the comfort of its various rim overlooks, this park offers jaw dropping views that will leave anyone baffled and awestruck. Colton and I visited in July as we tent camped through Colorado and joked that the park is similar to The Grand Canyon in the sense that staring at the canyon seems completely unreal- instead, more like a masterpiece painting someone thought up with their imagination. During this trip we also visited Rocky Mountain and The Great Sand Dunes National Parks along with Garden of The Gods State Park and both of us agreed- Black Canyon was our favorite stop.
I am so excited to share this post because our trek into the canyon easily makes the list for my top, most memorable hikes! If you are anything like me and an adrenaline junky when it comes to hiking, you need to plan your visit as soon as possible. Inner canyon hiking here will do far more than scratch that itch. But, like always with hikes like this, preparing and researching beforehand is important- so you came to the right place as I will explain what to expect as well as recap our own experience hiking this legendary canyon!
The Gunnison Route
Length: 1.8 miles, out & back
Elevation Gain: 1,781 feet
Average Descent Time: 1.5 hours
Average Ascent Time: 2 hours
AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/colorado/gunnison-route--2
National Park Service Link: https://www.nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/sr-routes.htm
This is the most popular route on the South Rim for first time visitors to hike into the inner canyon. Do not let that fool you, this hike is very challenging and requires a wilderness permit to attempt. Rangers warn that anyone wanting to hike this route should be in good physical shape and prepared to navigate the wilderness on their own.
One thing I found really unique about this canyon hike was the park’s effort to make the experience seem as if each hiker was the first one to ever trek to The Gunnison River. Because of this, there are no trail markers or an obvious/maintained path beneath the rim after reaching the “Wilderness Permit Required” sign, signaling the official start of the trail. Rangers urge hikers to pay attention for unique rocks as they descend toward the river. Some of these rocks could be used as natural markers because the way back up is when getting lost is a common occurrence.
The ranger we spoke to said that when she hikes the canyon, she is required to tear down any makeshift markers or cairns hikers place to assist them in choosing the right path for getting back to the safety of the canyon’s rim. Cairns, if you don’t know, are the small, man made stacks of layered rocks commonly seen on trails.
Another thing to keep in mind in regard to the trail not being maintained is the poison ivy. Poison ivy seems to flourish under the canyon rim and hikers can and definitely will encounter it throughout their journeys to and from the river.
Hiking back to the rim is challenging because there are many paths on the canyon that appear to potentially be the correct hiking route. Some of these routes formed simply from fallen rocks, appearing smoother than the uneven, difficult path that's actually correct. Rangers warned us that if we ever felt like we needed a rope to climb, it's not the correct path. If off the route, one should go back down the canyon a little to regroup and find where they went wrong (which sounded like torture having to re-climb).
Instead of laying markers of any kind, Colton and I decided to take pictures on our phones. Whenever we would reach a point in the trail where another path was close by and looked like it may confuse us on the way back, I would stand and point back to the way we had come in the picture. We made it out of the canyon without having to backtrack at all, so I'd say this method works well!
The Gunnison Route Overview
The hike begins at the South Rim Visitor Center and runs along the Oak Flat Trail until reaching the "Wilderness Permit Required" sign, about 1/3 mile in. Shortly after that sign, the switchbacks begin. These switchbacks become steeper and steeper until at one point, one third of the way down, the trail is so steep an 80 foot chain is available for hiker use.
Pictured below: The 80 foot chain
In less than 2 miles, the route drops nearly 1,800 feet in elevation, making it seem more like a climb than hike at times. It is common to use all fours to scramble over bigger and sometimes loose rocks. Spread out if hiking with other people as the steepness of the trail can cause the loose rocks to pick up speed and become potentially dangerous.
I brought the same pair of gloves I used to hike the Half Dome Cables in Yosemite and found it helpful. Though it was a cooler July day, the rangers said the rocks can get hot and uncomfortable to use while scrambling.
Rangers encourage inner canyon hikers to begin their journeys prior to the hottest times of day to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion.
As you make your descent, you’ll get short glimpses of the river below. There is an outhouse at the bottom of the canyon as well as a primitive area for pitching a tent, if spending the night. We didn’t spend the night at the bottom, but I do think scaling back up to the rim in the same day was an impressive accomplishment!
We both thought that hiking down was more of a mental game while climbing out definitely took more of a toll on the body. On the way down there is a natural pull from gravity that makes a little voice in your head vocal about the possibility of tumbling downward. The climb up is very strenuous, a “calf burner” as one of the hikers told us as we passed him climbing out on our trek down. I can attest to that, 100%.
The Gunnison River is known for trout fishing. Colton bought a Colorado fishing license just to be able to fish here. All rainbow trout are to be returned to the river if caught, but hikers are able to take up to five brown trout each. Colton was successful fishing (I napped in our hammock while he fished), but he returned all the trout he caught. Climbing out of the hot canyon with fish in our bags did not sound like a fun activity at the time.
There is about a mile of shoreline available to walk once at the riverbank. It never crossed my mind to even want to get in as The Gunnison River was rushing on our visit, but the ranger we spoke to discouraged it. The time I did dip my toes in the water, it was freezing! The National Park Service says the river reaches temperatures of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Click here to apply for a Colorado fishing license of your own!
Acquiring A Wilderness Permit
Obtaining this permit is free of charge.
Only 15 people are allowed to attempt the inner canyon hike daily and wilderness permits are granted on a first come, first serve basis.
Based off of our research, it seems the usual protocol for acquiring a wilderness permit occurs in the early morning hours of the day of one’s hike. Since our visit took place during the pandemic, things were running a little differently. We met up with a ranger on the back porch of the South Rim Visitor Center from 4-6:30 pm the night before our hike to obtain a permit.
During this time, the ranger reviewed the trail with us and gave us a form to fill out. On this form, you have to fill out if you’ll be spending the night under the rim as well as an emergency contact number of someone not hiking with you. The copy of this form serves as your wilderness permit and must be kept on your person during the hike.
After your hike, you turn your wilderness permit into a drop box at the visitor center. This is how they keep track if hikers make it out of the canyon, which made me feel somewhat comforted (unlike Grand Canyon where I felt like we could die and no one would know for days).
Don’t let the short length of this trail cause you to go into it unprepared. I listed it as one of my top memorable hikes partly because of its difficulty. When I am able to conquer hikes of this caliber (Half Dome, Grand Canyon, etc) it is partly because we went into them prepared with the proper gear. Below is a list of some suggested items to bring with you on your journey to and from the river.
-Water/Electrolyte Replacement Drinks
The National Park Service recommends at least 4 liters of water per hiker.
-Water Filtration System
The Gunnison River is known to carry Giardia and therefore, unfit for human consumption. Bringing a water filtration system can save you from dehydration if run out of water quicker than planned.
Here’s a link to the one we carry: https://amzn.to/30ourqd
Ideas: trail mix, pretzels, jerky, dried fruit, granola bars
Here’s a link to the one’s I brought: https://amzn.to/31fB9Og
-Sturdy hiking boots
Read my blog post “Fit Your Fit: Hiking Boots Edition” for some good information regarding this!
Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park is known to have afternoon thunderstorms.
While the upper parts of the trail is shaded by trees, most of the trail is open and exposed to the sun.
Whether this blog post encouraged you to hike to the bottom of Black Canyon of The Gunnison or scared you out of it, I hope it made the list of national parks you want to visit! This park offers so many impressive views and the pictures (like usual) simply don't do it justice! Go see them for yourself! Trust me when I say, you'll never regret it!