Welcome to America’s most underrated national park: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

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The views at Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are more impressive than those at the Grand Canyon.

Oh yeah, I said it.

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Now that I’ve committed travel writer heresy, I’ll qualify that statement by saying that I’ve never been to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the side that is best-known for its stunning views. I only visited the North Rim, which is cool in its own way but doesn’t necessarily have those postcard viewpoints.

Still, those North Rim views did not blow me away as much as what I witnessed at Black Canyon, which I am now convinced is America’s most underrated national park.

Why the views at Black Canyon are so cool

Here’s one thing Black Canyon has on the Grand Canyon: The drops are steeper. Look at this graphic from the NPS brochure, showing how the Grand Canyon is up to 18 miles wide at some points. Black Canyon is way narrower, meaning that the canyon itself is much more of an immediate dropoff. When you step up to a lookout, you are looking straight down a half-mile into the earth.

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Another difference? While the Grand Canyon road basically reaches the rim and stops, at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the road follows right along the mountainside, hugging the rim for seven miles. Along the way, there are a full dozen official overlooks, each of which presents slightly different scenery. Advantage, Black Canyon.

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Visiting America’s most underrated national park

Confession: I almost didn’t come here. I had read about Black Canyon and looked at online photos, but the pics never really impressed me that much. They all looked gray and boring. It turns out that photos just cannot possibly do this place justice. Being here in person, seeing the way the sun hits the rock, breathing in the crisp, fresh air… it’s a far more fulfilling experience than you’d imagine from looking at a brochure.

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Like the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon has a North Rim and a South Rim. You’ll probably want to visit the South Rim, because seeing the North Rim requires driving on a gravel access road that is closed in winter. The North Rim does have a campground and six official viewpoints, but the vast majority of visitors head to the South Rim, which has a paved road all the way.

Here’s a look at the main road through the park. You’ll drive into the park from the bottom of this map and head north on South Rim Road, stopping at the viewpoints on the way.

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One cool thing about the Black Canyon is that you can drive all the way down to the Gunnison River at the center of the Canyon. East Portal Road, which typically opens in April, winds its way from the South Rim entrance road for several miles right down to the river.

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Black Canyon Overlook Photos

In my next Black Canyon article later this month, I’ll have plenty more about my experience in the canyon, including lots of small wildlife encounters and a couple of awesome hikes inside the canyon.

For now, enjoy the views from the overlooks. And consider adding Black Canyon of the Gunnison to your list of must-see destinations, because it truly is America’s most underrated national park.

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An awesome feature about Black Canyon is that the overlook viewpoints go right to the edge of the canyon. Sometimes they even jut way into the canyon, like these overlooks on small pieces of rock that extend out into the void.

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At the Grand Canyon, it’s hard to actually see the water down below. Here, you can glimpse the river from several different angles.

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Remember that it’s a massive drop from the overlooks to the ground below. So don’t kill anyone, ok?

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You’ll definitely want to take some selfies here. If you’re traveling alone, take advantage of the rocks and set up your camera on a timer…

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And then you’ll end up with victorious shots like these!

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My mascot Soxie the Troll had to get into the action too.

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One of the most popular overlooks is called The Painted Wall. It’s a spot where you can see the various colors inside the rock on the opposite side of the canyon. How were these odd designs created, you ask? A billion years ago, molten rock squeezed into cracks in the existing rock. Once it hardened, the rock had its unique coloration.

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At Black Canyon, cool views are all around. One of the best things about being in Colorado is the snow-capped mountains in the background, which can even make my rental car look majestic.

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More views inside the canyon. Some parts of the canyon are just barren rock, and others are totally forested habitats.

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Have you ever visited a massive canyon before?

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

4 comments on “Welcome to America’s most underrated national park: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

  1. First of all, I love your troll. We’ve been to the Grand Canyon twice and it is spectacular, but I’m always looking for new places to add to our national park must see list. I have to admit I’ve never heard of black canyon, but it’s now on my list!
    patti recently posted..Thirty Days Later ~

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