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NPS Passport: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

NPS Passport: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The United States has 63 national parks, which are congressionally designated protected areas operated by the National Park Service. National parks are renowned for their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities. Equity Estates residences enjoy close proximity to over a dozen national parks.


At just over 30,000 acres, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the smallest US National Parks. But what it lacks in overall size, it more than makes up for in dramatic views and a spectacular geologic landscape. Within the park’s borders you’ll find ancient towering cliffs covered in scrub oak, juniper, and patches of high desert sagebrush, hiking trails and overlooks winding along steep canyon rims, and one of the deepest (and narrowest) combined canyons in the country. A section of the Gunnison River, the state’s second largest, also flows through the park and was one of the natural forces that helped carve out Black Canyon’s incredible 2,700-foot cliffs over millions and millions of years.

Despite its dramatically unique features and beautiful vistas, Black Canyon doesn’t draw the massive crowds that more well-known parks tend to attract. Founded as a National Monument in 1933 and gaining National Park status in 1999, it still only sees around 297,000 visitors each year. For many guests, the lack of crowds is part of the appeal though, as they can explore and immerse themselves in the quiet wildness of the park without too many touristy distractions.

From Equity Estate’s Snowmass and Aspen homes, it’s about a 2.5 to three-hour drive to the park’s South Rim entrance—good for a short day-trip if you get an early start or for overnight camping if you don’t want to rush. The South Rim of Black Canyon, in particular, is a quick and easy access point, offering fantastic options for hiking, scenic drives, and other park activities. It’s also open year-round, though in winter months (typically mid-November through March), South Rim Road is open only to Gunnison Point.

The South Rim Visitor Center, located just inside the entrance, is a great first stop on any visit to the park. It’s open daily from 9am to 4pm in winter and 8am to 5pm the rest of the year, and is staffed with experienced rangers, has interesting exhibits on the history and geology of the park, and houses a small bookstore where you can pick up snacks or souvenirs of your trip.

Hiking trails and the popular Gunnison Point overlook are also easily accessed from the visitor center area. Guests can park in the lot there and head out on foot for a number of short walks with big views, if you don’t want to venture deeper into the park.

What the park is best known for:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is best known for its stunning geologic features: steep, craggy cliffs that plunge over 2,000 feet into the deep, walled canyons below; natural grey and brown rock formations that appear to darken throughout the day; and the thundering river that helped forge the landscape.

The exposed rock in Black Canyon is some of the oldest in the world—pre-Cambrian “basement” rock that’s nearly two billion years old, with each layer representing a different era of time. Gazing down into the depths of the darkened canyon or walking along narrow, cliff-lined trails, you can’t help but feel the history.

The park’s name comes from the fact that the sheer height and steepness of the cliffs make it difficult for sunlight to reach the canyon’s depths. So, for much of the day, it’s cloaked in shadow, making the craggy gneiss and schist rock walls appear black.

Top three things to do in the park:

Scenic Drives

One of the most popular activities in Black Canyon is to take a leisurely drive along the scenic, seven-mile South Rim Road. There, you’ll find a dozen photo-worthy viewpoints and overlooks to stop at and enjoy along the way, each offering a different and unique perspective of the canyon. Most of the overlooks require a short walk out and back on marked trails to get to the views, so if your time is limited, consider focusing on two or three favorites instead of trying to visit them all.

Tomichi Point, offering an expansive first look at the canyon and river below; the Gunnison Point Overlook, with mainly northern views across the narrow canyon and beyond; the Chasm View Overlook, considered one of the most spectacular views in the park; and the Painted Wall Overlook, showcasing its stunning, namesake 2,250-ft tall cliff (the highest in Colorado) are a few worth stopping for in terms of access and must-see, panoramic views.


As in most national parks, hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the best ways to explore and enjoy the natural surroundings. The park offers a variety of trails, with options for every experience level, though some pass by steep drop-offs, so it’s important to stay aware and be cautious.

The Cedar Point Nature Trail is great for beginners, moderately sloped and just 2/3 of a mile round-trip. This peaceful trail offers guideposts describing the local flora that you pass along the way. And at the end, there are two overlooks offering breathtaking views of the river 2,000 feet below. You can also see the famous Painted Wall and small rock islands jutting up from the bottom of the canyon.

The Uplands Trail is also easy, and is a great walk in which to see some of the park’s wildlife, particularly in the early morning or late evening. Though you won’t go near the canyon’s rim, you may see small mammals and other wildlife and also have clear views of the West Elk Mountains.

For a moderately strenuous hike, the Warner Point Trail winds 1.5 miles (roundtrip) through green forests of mountain mahogany, juniper, and pine, opening to incredible views of the river and canyon at the end. You’ll also find shaded benches along the way, where you can stop and take in the beautiful scenery around you.

Alternatively, the relatively flat, moderately strenuous two-mile Rim Rock Nature Trail will take you through pine and juniper woodland and sagebrush meadows with excellent views of the Gunnison River and the sheer canyon walls throughout the trek.

Though there are no restaurants or lodges in Black Canyon, there are hiking snacks available in the South Rim Visitor Center and there are picnic tables and restrooms located throughout the park, if you want to pack lunch in with you.

Skygazing and Wildlife Watching

Home to mule deer, bear, elk, golden eagles, and big horn sheep, Black Canyon is an excellent place to observe them—and other animals—in their natural habitat. So, it’s no surprise that wildlife watching is a favorite pastime for park visitors.

Squirrels, chipmunks, and mountain cottontails can often be seen and heard scurrying in the underbrush. Yellow-bellied marmots may be found sunbathing on ledges and rocky outcrops. And birdwatchers will appreciate the diverse avian species in the area—with peregrine falcons (the fastest bird in the world), hawks, canyon wrens, and more taking to the skies overhead.

After dark, a different world emerges within the park. Stars pattern the sky overhead, nocturnal animals begin to stir, and calls of coyotes and mountain lions may be heard in the distance.

Given its designation as an International Dark Sky Park, nighttime in Black Canyon of the Gunnison is magical for stargazers. Bring binoculars or a telescope to fully appreciate the night sky, and blankets or light jackets to keep warm against the cooler after-dark temperatures. The park never closes, allowing guests to extend their day-trip visits well after sundown, and there are multiple spots throughout the South Rim that are ideal for cozying up and gazing at the stars. Just remember to check the weather, moon phase, and sunset times before your visit to ensure optimal viewing.

About the Equity Estates home:

Our luxurious Snowmass residence is a lovely ski-in/ski-out villa located in the heart of Snowmass Base Village. With three spacious bedrooms, a full wrap-around outdoor living area complete with sound system and heating, a fully stocked gourmet kitchen, and impressive views, this second-floor gem is the perfect place to relax and unwind after a day on the mountain or at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Our elegant Aspen residence is a sleek and spacious four-bedroom home perched on the eastern edge of downtown Aspen, walking distance to a wide variety of shopping and dining options and a scenic three-hour drive to Black Canyon National Park. With an open living space, fully stocked chef’s kitchen, spa-like bathrooms, and gorgeous mountain views, it’s an ideal home for family vacations as well as getting away with friends.