“Painted Wall”. Photo: Mobilus In Mobili
For the intrepid adventurer, a weekend trip to The Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers some of the most enjoyable scrambling in the state. One of the lesser known National Parks in Colorado, Black Canyon provides visitors with a host of sightseeing and recreation opportunities from the south rim, easily accessible by driving west on US Route 50 from Gunnison, or east from Montrose.
The most popular attraction within the park is driving the South Rim Road, with spectacular views of the canyon’s sheer walls, but hiking routes down to the Gunnison River await the more ambitious hiker. Options exist for day-hikes or overnights into the canyon’s depths, far from vehicles and crowds. The most accessible route into the canyon’s inner sanctuary is the Gunnison Route.
Gunnison Route Hiking Trail
Every hike into the Black Canyon starts with a trip to the South Rim visitor center, where a Park Ranger will go through a detailed orientation to the various routes and hazards. The orientation is informative, replete with plenty of pictures which give you a good idea of what you’ll be getting into. Afterwards a ranger will issue you a free permit (a limited number are available daily) and the trail beckons.The Oak Flats Trail, which conveniently begins at the visitor center, leads roughly a quarter mile to the start of the Gunnison Route proper, marked by a sign reading ‘River Access, Permit Required’. From there it is an 1800 ft. drop over the course of one mile which ultimately deposits you along the banks of the Gunnison River.
The route is not technical, however sharp switchbacks, scree travel, and loose rock are present along its entire length. One of the highlights is an 80-ft. chain, which protects a steeper section about halfway down the route. The descent can be gauged by a noticeable increase in the humidity and temperature, as the route finally begins to mellow out and the river comes into view.Here in the canyon depths the sun only shines for one hour in the summer, and the expanse of the Colorado Plateau seems distant. Footpaths allow for travel along the river corridor, but beware of poison ivy, which is prevalent. Long pants and some presence of mind should be enough to avoid any rashes.
Those willing to haul a backpack down are rewarded by premium campsites near the river, secluded from crowds and serenaded to sleep by the pleasant melody of the Gunnison. Bears are present in the area, so please store food properly.
Be mindful of staying on the proper route on the return trip, and not wandering into a side canyon. The ascent is where quads and calves are tested, but the terrain is consistently engaging enough to keep it from becoming drudgery. The air cools as you rise towards the windswept plateau, and the climb is over before you know it. A quick peak back into the canyon provides a nice perspective on the climb.
Be sure to explore other multi-day, overnight hikes, as you adventure throughout Colorado!