Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hikes: Recommended Trails in the National Park

The phrase “hidden gem” is overused, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado truly fits that description. The scenery is amazing, and the crowds are small.

The best Black Canyon of the Gunnison hikes reveal the majesty of the park, offering cool views into the canyon and down to the river below.

black canyon hike view

Which hikes should you try if you decide to visit this park? This article will provide an answer to that question, along with a map of all park hikes, and photos and a personal recap of my own hiking experience in this underappreciated jewel of the national park system.

Quick summary: The Best Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hiking Trails
Best hike for beginners/casual hikers: Rim Rock Nature Trail
Best hike for experienced hikers: North Vista Trail
Best hike at the South Rim: Oak Flat Loop
Best hike at the North Rim: North Vista Trail
Best hike down to the river: Gunnison Route

river-view

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hikes: Info to Consider

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park only has eight formal hiking trails, plus a handful of routes down to the river.

That’s a very low number of trails compared to most national parks. So it doesn’t take too much planning to decide which hikes to do.

The only real variables are: How much hiking experience do you have? How much time do you have? And do you want to hike all the way down to the bottom of the canyon?

canyon-hike-view-3

Just like the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon has a North Rim and a South Rim. Five of the trails are at the South Rim, while three are at the North Rim.

Additionally, several backcountry routes are available to hike all the way down to the river! These hikes are much more strenuous, and are recommended only for experienced hikers.

The South Rim is the more popular rim by far. That’s where most of the visitor services can be found. The North Rim can only be reached via gravel road, which is why fewer tourists go there.

Here’s a Black Canyon of the Gunnison hiking map from the National Park Service. Click to enlarge.

Let’s go over the list of Black Canyon of the Gunnison hiking trails. The list includes easy, family-friendly strolls, and some more difficult trails for experienced hikers and backpackers.

What’s the best time to hike at Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Generally, you’ll want to stay between April and November to avoid snow and freezing temperatures.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison South Rim Trails

The hikes on the South Rim tend to be short and easy. If you’re hiking on this side, I most recommend the Warner Point Nature Trail and the Oak Flat Loop.

South Rim hikes:
• Easy: Cedar Point Nature Trail (0.5 mile out & back, 10 minutes, △52 feet elevation gain)
• Easy: Rim Rock Nature Trail (1.7 mile out & back, 50 minutes, △206 feet)
• Easy: Uplands Trail (2.2 mile out & back, 55 minutes, △290 feet)
• Moderate: Warner Point Nature Trail (1.5 miles out & back, 45 minutes, △406 feet)
• Moderate: Oak Flat Loop (1.3 mile loop, 45 minutes, △310 feet)

warner-point-trail
Warner Point is one of the most popular Black Canyon hiking trails.

Cedar Point Nature Trail: This one barely qualifies as a hike. It’s less than a half-mile and covers less than 10 minutes. This stroll takes you to viewpoints with cool views into the canyon 2000 feet below, and views of the famous Painted Wall.

Rim Rock Nature Trail: This trail dips slightly into the canyon, but doesn’t go too far down. You’ll see a lot of plants here, along with views of the river. The hike starts at the South Rim Campground.

Uplands Trail: This is more of a connecting trail that links the Rim Rock Trail with Oak Flat Loop near the visitor center. You could combine the Rim Rock and Uplands Trails into a 2.8-mile loop.

Warner Point Nature Trail: This nature trail is a moderately easy hike. It’s very popular, so expect lots of company. Trail brochures for this hike are available at the visitor center. The trail has several marked points of interest, and it leads to the Warner Point viewpoint.

Oak Flat Loop: The actual Oak Flat Trail loop itself is quick and easy. If you want to go deeper into the Canyon, follow the “River Access” detour midway through the hike. But don’t go too far down — the walk back up is strenuous.

dead-trees

Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim Trails

Getting to the North Rim is tricky because of the gravel road, but the hikes here are more rewarding. There are two longer hikes on this side. Note that black bears are more common on the trails on this side of the park.

My recommended hike on this side is the North Vista Trail. It’s about 3 miles if you go to Exclamation Point, or closer to 7 miles for the entire hike.

North Rim hikes:
• Easy: Chasm View Nature Trail (0.5 mile loop, 15 minutes, △85 feet elevation gain)
• Moderate: Deadhorse Trail (5.3 miles out & back, 2.5 hours, △680 feet)
• Strenuous: North Vista Trail (6.8 miles out & back, 3.5 hours, △1225 feet)

chipmunks-rocks

Chasm View Nature Trail: This stroll leads to a viewpoint where Painted Wall and Serpent Point are in sight. It’s a cool view since you’re on the opposite side of the canyon from most of the visitors.

Deadhorse Trail: Finally, a longer hike! This one is 5.3 miles if you go all the way to Deadhorse Gulch, or 4.1 miles if you go to the loop and back. This trail isn’t particularly interesting, though. And black bears are common. I wouldn’t put this trail high on your list.

North Vista Trail: Here’s the best hiking trail in the park! This trail from the North Rim Visitor Center takes you to the Green Mountain Summit at 8563 feet. Take the Exclamation Point spur loop midway through the trail to reach an awesome viewpoint.

Black Canyon Hikes Down to the River

If you want to hike from the rim down to the Gunnison River inside the canyon, you’ll need to choose a backcountry route.

These are not maintained trails. They are scrambling routes, meant for experienced hikers and climbers.

The NPS warns that you should be prepared to self-rescue, and be ready for huge areas of poison ivy growing 5 feet tall along the river.

Wilderness permits are required, and are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The NPS says that Gunnison Route is strongly recommended for first-time hikers in the Inner Canyon from the South Rim, and Pinyon Draw is recommended for first-timers on the North Rim.

pinyon draw hike
The daunting Pinyon Draw route to the river. (National Park Service)

Another popular route is Red Rock Canyon hike, not to be confused with the Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas. This Red Rock trail, located in the western end of the park, provides a more gradual path inside the canyon.

For more information about all of the routes to the river, see the NPS pages on the North Rim routes, South Rim routes, and Red Rock Canyon route.

My Hike on the Oak Flat Loop Trail

The Oak Flat Trail from the Visitor Center connects with the Gunnison Route that heads down to the river. Which path do you think I’m going to choose? River access, hell yes!

oak-flat-loop

The NPS says that the temperature at the bottom of Black Canyon is 8 degrees warmer than at the rim. Surely this is true during the summer, but it wasn’t during my April visit.

As I descended, I began seeing signs of the snow the ranger had warned me about, which I had doubted since it seemed like snow season had passed. The air got chillier and I observed small piles of snow in the grass.

snow-on-canyon-trail

Then I noticed small piles of snow on the trail. That quickly turned into an impassable layer of frozen snow and ice.

This trail looks like it would be no problem, given the footprint indentations, but it’s actually as slick as an iceberg, and it’s steeply downhill.

snowy-trail

I tried walking gently across it and fell flat on my face. Without microspikes, it was not possible to continue. At that point, I had to turn back and conclude the hike.

The best part about being down inside the Canyon was the chance to see the park from a different view, with the trees up above me.

view-from-inside-canyon

This piece of the mountain in the distance is one of the overlooks where visitors can walk to the edge to get their photos.

black canyon hiking trails - overlook

I wish I had been able to go a little further into the Canyon, but it was still cool getting to descend a few hundred feet, leaving behind the rest of the tourists, and getting a deeper connection with the Canyon itself and the remarkable natural environment around it.

black-canyon-interior

I really hope I get to come back here and hike again someday.

weeds-grow

I stopped by Black Canyon of the Gunnison on an epic Denver to Seattle road trip, and I was so glad that I did!

If you plan on checking out national parks near Denver, here’s a list of things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and here are some tips on seeing bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park.

What are your favorite Black Canyon of the Gunnison hiking trails?

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