Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Walking & Hiking

Hiking Trails

Many trails pass by steep dropoffs, so be cautious and keep a close watch on children.

Hikers should be aware that limited cattle grazing is permitted on the North Rim. Please keep cattle gates closed should you encounter them.

 

SOUTH RIM

Rim Rock Nature Trail
Moderate - 1 mile round trip
As its name implies, this self-guided nature trail takes you along a relatively flat path following the rim of the canyon. Along this sunny route you will encounter a variety of plant life from sagebrush and Gambel oak to pinyon pine and Utah juniper. This trail allows many excellent views of the Gunnison River as well as the sheer walls of the canyon.

The trailhead is near the entrance to Campground Loop C and ends at the Tomichi Point Overlook.

Oak Flat Loop Trail
Strenuous - 2 miles round trip
The Oak Flat Loop Trail (built by Student Conservation Association volunteers) offers variety to the hiker who would like to explore below the rim without taking on the challenge of hiking to the river. Parents should be aware that the trail is narrow in places and traverses some steep slopes.

The trail begins near the Visitor Center. Go a short distance to the Oak Flat Loop/River Access sign and follow the trail which leads right. Descend through a grove of aspen to another signed junction. Turn left here to continue on the Oak Flat Loop. The trail meanders through a thicket of oak scrub (Gambel oak) passing near a rock outcrop, a pleasant location where you can relax and enjoy the view. The trail then heads west where it begins its ascent through a forest of Douglas fir, Aspen, and Gambel oak. On the return leg one encounters another unmarked overlook offering spectacular views downstream. Pets are not allowed.

Cedar Point Nature Trail
Easy - 2/3 mile round trip
An excellent place for one to brush up on the local flora, this short, sunny, moderately sloped trail offers guideposts describing the various plants along the way. At the end are two overlooks offering breathtaking views of the river over 2,000 feet below. Also visible is the famous Painted Wall, the tallest cliff in Colorado (2,250 ft.), as well as rock islands jutting up from the depths of the canyon.

Warner Point Nature Trail
Moderate - 1.5 miles round trip
You can pick up a trail guide at the High Point Overlook or the South Rim Visitor Center. Along this trail you will find shady benches which allow you to rest among mountain mahogany, serviceberry, pinyon pine, and juniper. Looking south you can see the San Juan Mountain Range, Uncompahgre Valley, and Bostwick Park. To the north look for the West Elk Mountains, and at the end of the trail enjoy the views of the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon. Pets are not allowed.

 

NORTH RIM

Chasm View Nature Trail
Moderate - 1/3 mile round trip
This trail is located at the end of the one-way campground loop. After a short distance, the trail breaks out of the pinyon/juniper forest at the North Chasm View, some 1800 feet above the river. Continuing near the rim, the trail reaches a second overlook with excellent views of Painted Wall and Serpent Point. Keep a lookout for swifts, swallows and raptors frequently seen from this overlook. The people you can see on the far side, at Chasm View overlook are only 1,100 feet away.

North Vista Trail
Moderate to Exclamation Point - 3 miles round trip
Strenuous to Green Mountain - 7 miles round trip
Constructed by volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, the North Vista Trail offers some of the best scenic views and birding in the Park.

Start this trail at the North Rim Ranger Station. After passing through an area of sage and oak brush, the trail meanders in a pinyon/juniper forest along the canyon's rim. Several overlooks offer views of SOB draw and the inner canyon. At Exclamation Point some of the best inner-canyon views can be found. Those continuing to Green Mountain will be rewarded by panoramic vistas, including the San Juan Mountains, the West Elks, Grand Mesa, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and an aerial perspective of the Black Canyon.

Deadhorse Trail
Easy to moderate - 5 miles round trip
This trail offers good views of Deadhorse gulch and East Portal on the Gunnison River, as well as good birding.

Park at the Kneeling Camel Overlook and walk a few yards east to a spur road that leads to the old Ranger Station. The trail, actually an old service road, begins here. After 3/4 of a mile the road passes a stock pond. This pond is fed by one of the few springs found on the rim of the Black Canyon. Continue on another 1 1/2 mile until you encounter a stock fence. Turn right (south) here and walk 1/4 mile along the fence until you come to the canyon's rim. Deadhorse Gulch is the large side drainage located just east of the overlook (and the fence).

Red Rock Canyon Information & Reservations

Although the hike into Red Rock Canyon is by no means an easy day, it is significantly less steep than the other inner canyon routes to the river. Permits are required (including day users) and are only available through the reservation lottery system.

Take Bostwick Park Road to the East Parking Area. All vehicles park here. The first mile of the hike is private property, and all hikers must stay on the double track road. At the end of the road is the trailhead, where hikers sign the register and pay the entrance fee.

The beginning of the route into Red Rock Canyon is relatively clear to follow. Mid-way down the route, numerous stream crossings can make route finding challenging. From mid-way to the bottom, poison ivy is prolific.


Hiking the Inner Canyon

There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Routes are difficult to follow, and only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes.

Hikers are expected to find their own way and to be prepared for self-rescue. While descending, study the route behind, as this will make it easier on the way up when confronted with a choice of routes and drainages. Not all ravines go all the way to the river, and becoming "cliffed out" is a real possibility.

Poison ivy is nearly impossible to avoid, and can be found growing 5 feet tall along the river. Pets are not allowed in the wilderness. Inner canyon routes are not meant for small children.

Basic Necessities
The hike into the canyon and back up is very strenuous. Bring high energy foods and at least 4 quarts of water per person per day. Giardia is in all water sources, including the river, therefore all water must be purified. Sturdy hiking boots are an absolute must due to the unstable terrain covered in loose talus and scree. Leave your sandals and low cut running shoes in the car. Always pack in rain gear, afternoon thunderstorms are common.

Walking Along the River
The mileages listed as “River Access” are the maximum distance available to a hiker along the river at low water levels (300-350 cubic feet per second). Wading in the cold river (50F) is hazardous and not recommended, and at levels above 450-500 CFS the combination of high, swift water and cold temperatures increases the danger. Rocks along the shore can be moss encrusted and very slick. Many individuals have been swept to their death in the Gunnison River.

Why can't I have a campfire?
Dams upstream prevent a natural flow and cycle of driftwood entering the lower canyon. What little organic debris makes its way through the canyon is a vital resource for the recycling of nutrients back into the riverbank and the earth. If you see an old fire ring, please don't be tempted to use it. Bring a small gas stove for cooking in the inner canyon.

Wilderness Use Permits
Permits, required for all inner canyon activities (including day hikes, climbing, camping and kayaking), are free and available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The Routes in Winter
The winter wilderness brings new challenges. Exploration of the backcountry during the winter is at your own risk. Winter hikers attempting the inner canyon routes should be prepared with snowshoes, crampons, an ice axe, and possibly a rope.

Most of the South Rim routes are snow covered from November to April. North Rim routes can be snow free as early as February. Water is not available at either rim during the winter months, so bring your own.

Wilderness Regulations 

  • Wilderness Use permits are required.
  • Wood fires are prohibited. Use camp stoves only.
  • No pets.
  • A valid Colorado Fishing license is required, and Gold Medal Water regulations apply - artificial lures only; possession limit for brown trout is 4, of which only 1 fish may equal or exceed 16” in length; all fish between 12” and 16” must be released. Rainbows are catch and release only.
  • Possession of firearms is prohibited. No hunting.
  • Collecting wood, flowers, plants, animals and rocks is prohibited.
  • Bury all human waste in 6” deep holes at least 100 feet from the river. If pit toilets are available, please use them.
  • Pack out all trash, including toilet paper.

Leave No Trace Ethics

  • Plan ahead and prepare. Make sure all the members of your group have the skills required to complete the trip.
  • Avoid creating trails and campsites.
  • Observe wildlife from a distance and never feed them.
  • To wash yourself or dishes, carry water 200 feet away from the river and use small amounts of biodegradable soap.
  • Pick up all spilled food.
  • Pack in and pack out everything.
  • Protect wildlife by storing food and trash securely.
  • Do not collect anything.


NORTH RIM ROUTES

S.O.B. Draw
This route is suggested for the first time North Rim inner canyon hiker. S.O.B. Draw is famous for its abundant poison ivy. Long pants are recommended. Park vehicles in the pull through near the campground registration board, or at the North Rim Ranger Station.

The route begins at the access ladder along the fence line just east of the campground. This is on the right side of the road when traveling from the ranger station to the campground. Follow the path to the top of the drainage gully and descend on the far right of the route. The route has short ledges to climb (8-12 ft/3 m). Campsites are located downstream a short distance.

Descent: 2 hours
Distance: 1.75 miles (2.8 km)
Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
Ascent: 3 hours
River Access: 2 miles (3.2 km)
Campsites: 6


Long Draw

Formerly called Devil's Slide, Long Draw brings the hiker into one of the narrowest parts of the canyon where canyon walls tower above the swiftly moving Gunnison River.

Park at Balanced Rock Overlook, then walk northeast to the bend in the road. The descent begins at the road. Pass through a small area of box elder trees at the rim and scramble down the gully to the river. There is plenty of poison ivy along the bottom of this route. The route has short ledges to climb (8-12 ft/3 m).

Descent: 1.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
Ascent: 3 hours
River Access: .25 mile (402 m)
Campsites: 1


Slide Draw
This route is extremely steep and the most potentially dangerous due to loose rock and poor footing. Slide Draw requires a 30 foot climb down to start the route. Park at Kneeling Camel View, then walk east until you reach the head of the draw.

Follow the draw to the river, taking extra caution due to the large abundance of loose rocks underfoot. A good camping area is found at the river.

Descent: 1.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Vertical Drop: 1620 feet (494 m)
Ascent: 4 hours
River Access: .75 mile (1.2 km)
Campsites: 2

SOUTH RIM ROUTES

Gunnison Route
This is the most popular route, however it is still very strenuous. This route is recommended to persons attempting their first inner-canyon hike. An 80 foot chain is located 1/3 of the way down. This route begins at the South Rim Visitor Center.

Follow the Oak Flat Trail for 1/3 mile, down the first few switchbacks. You will come to a sign that says, "River Access. Permit Required." Continue the steep descent to the chain down the drainage. An outhouse and campsites are located a short distance upstream.

Descent: 1.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Vertical Drop: 1800 feet (549 m)
Ascent: 2 hours
River Access: .75 mile (1.2 km)
Campsites: 3


Tomichi Route

This route is considered the steepest South Rim route and is very difficult. The entire length is loose rock and receives full sun exposure. Use extra caution while descending. Use the parking area near the South Rim Campground.

Take the Rim Rock Trail (which starts near Loop C) to post #13. This is the start of the Tomichi Route. Descend the route until the junction with another draw is reached. Continue to follow the main drainage down the slope to the river.

Descent: 1.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Vertical Drop: 1960 feet (597 m)
Ascent: 4.5 hours (or triple the descent time) River Access: .5 mile (0.8 km)
Campsites: 2


Warner Route

This is the longest route and overnight travel is highly suggested. Campsites are located up and downstream.

Hike along the Warner Point Nature Trail and walk up the hill past post #13. Look for a large Utah serviceberry bush on the left that is marked with a small silver sign, titled "Serviceberry Bush." This is the start of the Warner Route. The path leads off to the left. Avoid the first drainage and continue west to the lowest saddle on the ridge before descending.

Descent: 2 - 2.5 hours
Distance: 2.75 miles (4.4 km)
Vertical Drop: 2722 feet (829 m)
Ascent: 4 hours
River Access: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Campsites: 5


Red Rock Canyon
Limited access is now available to Red Rock Canyon.
Reservations are required.


EAST PORTAL ROUTES

Devil's Backbone Route
Hike downstream on the south side for about 1/2 mile until you reach the ridge that runs down the cliff. The top 30 feet of this 400 foot scramble is airy and a haul rope can be handy. The bare rock can be slippery with gravel at the top, and you are somewhat exposed to the edge of the cliff. The downstream side is more gentle. You can then hike another mile or more downstream with smaller ridge lines to scramble over.

North River Route

There is a small boat launch at the registration board that provides a good landing for boating across the river for this route. Once across the river you can hike nearly 2 miles down river to the cliff at Flat Rock Rapid. There is only one low ridge to scramble over at Deadhorse Gulch.