It took all of 30 seconds for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to win me over. That happened as soon as I stepped out of the vehicle at the first overlook, felt the crisp morning mountain air, heard birds chirping and a woodpecker pecking, and saw a chipmunk scurrying between rock crevices. Then I looked down inside the canyon and became overwhelmed with the Black Canyon views.
Just like that, my visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison became one of my favorite national park experiences ever. Spending time on the Black Canyon hiking trails would soon make my visit even more special.
Standing at that overlook fence just inside the park grounds (I hadn’t even reached the Visitor Center yet), I couldn’t resist the urge to take a short hike down inside the Colorado canyon. With the towering, jagged rocks shooting up from the canyon floor, it was such an awesome place for a hike.
At this hour, before 9 am, I heard no human sounds at all. No cars, no voices. Just the distant rush of the canyon river a half-mile below and the noises of various animals. I was surprised at just how much nature I noticed. A blue jay sweeping across the canyon. A squirrel running between trees. Bunnies racing across the path. I felt an actual connection with nature that rarely happens on normal hikes.
I didn’t go very far on this initial hike, because at this high elevation I was already running out of breath. But that didn’t stop me from taking in some impressive sights of flowers, vegetation, and rocks.
Wouldn’t you love to hike on a trail with views like this?
I returned to my car and later in the day ended up at High Point, the very end of South Rim Road. This is a popular hiking spot, but there is also some danger here, as noted by the warning signs at the trailhead to Warner Point. The signs were both serious and comical.
I didn’t take the High Point hike but instead went back to the Visitor Center because I wanted to hike inside the Canyon instead of just walking along the rim. Along the way, I saw a wild turkey run across the road. I was surprised at how much small wildlife I encountered during this short visit.
Hiking the Black Canyon Oak Flat Loop Trail
The Oak Flat Trail from the Visitor Center connects with another trail that heads inside the Canyon. Which path do you think I’m going to choose? River access, hell yes!
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.
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.
I tried walking gently across it and fell flat on my face. Without crampons, 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 you.
This piece of the mountain in the distance is one of the overlooks where visitors can walk to the edge to get their photos.
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. I really hope I get to come back here and hike again someday.
Recommended Black Canyon Hiking Trails
Here are a few of the top-rated Black Canyon of the Gunnison hiking trails. The list includes easy, family-friendly strolls like the Warner Point Trail, and some more difficult trails for experienced hikers and backpackers.
Here’s a Black Canyon of the Gunnison hiking map (PDF link.)
• Easy: Warner Point Nature Trail (1.5 miles out & back, 45 minutes, △406 feet elevation gain)
• Easy: Oak Flat Loop (1.3 mile loop, 45 minutes, △310 feet)
• Moderate: North Vista Trail (6.5 miles out & back, 3.5 hours, △1225 feet)
• Strenuous: Red Rock Canyon Hike (6.8 miles out & back, 4 hours, △1330 feet)
Warner Point Trail: This nature trail is an easy hike. It’s very popular, so expect lots of company. You will see some great views!
Oak Flat Loop: The actual Oak Flat Trail loop itself is quick and easy, as I described above. But if you want to go deeper into the Canyon, do as I did and follow the “River Access” sign midway through the hike.
North Vista Trail: This trail is on the North Rim of the Canyon, so you’ll have to take the long drive round to get there. This Black Canyon hiking trail takes you to the Green Mountain Summit.
Red Rock Canyon: Not to be confused with the Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas, the Red Rock trail is near the South Rim and provides a more gradual path inside the canyon. Because this route passes through private property, only 8 people per day are permitted. Advance permits are required, and they are issued via a lottery reservation system.
This hike is 3.4 miles each way, with an elevation drop of 1330 feet on the way down. So it’s considered strenuous, but it’s very doable for experienced hikers.
Unlike at the Grand Canyon, horses and other pack animals are not permitted inside Black Canyon of the Gunnison. So you will have to carry everything yourself if you choose to hike inside the Canyon!
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.