Black Canyon of Gunnison: The Canyon with Just 33 Minutes of Daily Sunlight

Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park | Introduction

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a relatively lesser-known national park located in Colorado, approximately a five and a half hour drive from Denver, and two hours away from the Colorado National Monument. Fewer people are familiar with Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park because it only became a national park in 1999, making it a relatively young national park.

There is nothing else to see at Black Canyon National Park other than the canyon itself. Those who know about Black Canyon often compare it to the Grand Canyon, but in terms of depth and length, Black Canyon is no match for the Grand Canyon. So, why visit Black Canyon? The uniqueness of Black Canyon lies in its depth and narrowness. Black Canyon is 829 meters deep, and at its narrowest point, it's only 12 meters wide. The reason it's called Black Canyon is because its depth causes the canyon floor to receive only 33 minutes of sunlight daily at noon, leaving it in pitch darkness for the rest of the time. The reason it's narrower than the Grand Canyon is that the rocks here are gneiss and schist, which are much harder than the rocks of the Grand Canyon.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is divided into the South Rim and North Rim. Although the South Rim and North Rim appear to be very close, only a little over 300 meters apart, it takes about three hours to drive from one side to the other. Most visitors to Black Canyon only explore the South Rim Drive, with the closest town to the South Rim entrance being Montrose. This area houses the park's visitor center and main attractions. The entire route on the South Rim Drive spans only 7 miles and can be completed in about three hours, making it suitable for a half-day trip.

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Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park | South Rim Drive Attractions

Driving through Black Canyon is very simple. Along the South Rim Drive, there are 12 scenic viewpoints from Tomichi Point to High Point. However, most of these viewpoints require a short walk, and although none of them are very long, visiting each viewpoint can add up to quite a hike. Below are the viewpoints listed in the order you would encounter them after entering. If you want to choose a few of the more significant ones to visit, the most recommended are Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Sunset View.

Tomichi point

Tomichi Point is the first viewpoint on South Rim Drive. As soon as you arrive, you can see that the Black Canyon is indeed very narrow, and you can't see the bottom from a distance.

Black Canyon of Gunnison, Black Canyon National Park 1

South Rim Visitor Center | Gunnison Point | Gunnison Route

The second stop is the South Rim Visitor Center. The visitor center is actually not very big and provides a brief introduction to the formation and history of the canyon.

People might find the name of this national park quite cumbersome; its full name is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In fact, the national park is named after the Gunnison River, which carved out the Black Canyon, and the river itself is named after the explorer John Gunnison who came here in 1850. Some people believe that Gunnison discovered the Black Canyon, but in reality, he was the one who surveyed it. In 1853, to construct the Pacific Railroad, Gunnison, who was a U.S. Army Lieutenant, was ordered to lead a team to survey the Black Canyon. Due to the rugged nature of the Black Canyon, the process was extremely arduous and despite numerous attempts, they were unable to traverse it. Ultimately, Gunnison was killed by Native Americans during his last expedition, and the river was renamed the Gunnison River to honor him.

One of the most famous viewpoints, Gunnison Point, is located right behind the visitor center. This spot is one of the must-see, most spectacular viewpoints. There are three trails behind the visitor center. If you want to experience walking down into the canyon, you can take the 2-mile Oak Flat Trail, which is also known as the Gunnison Route, allowing you to walk into the canyon. However, you don't have to climb all the way down; after all, it gets dark and gloomy below. Just walking a short section in the front will let you see the steep cliffs.

Pulpit Rock

There are actually two viewing platforms along the trail at Pulpit Rock, one to the left and one to the right. From here, you can clearly see the difference in steepness between the northern and southern edges; the northern edge has a slope of 3%, while the southern edge is 63%. From this point, we can also see the Gunnison River. The Gunnison River is one of the most turbulent rivers in North America. It is said that currently, due to the construction of an upstream dam, the river is not as turbulent as it used to be. Before the dam, the river eroded the rock at a rate of 14 inches every 100 years, which was quite fast, no wonder it carved such a deep canyon. Even with the dam now, it still looks quite impressive to us.

Cross Fissures View

The distance from the parking lot to the viewpoint is 375 yards. The scenery here is a bit different as the main attraction is the rock formations, which form fissures; hence, the name Cross Fissures View. Although it's referred to as a point, it actually feels more like a short cliffside circular trail. Due to the steep nature of the canyon, those with a fear of heights may find it somewhat daunting.

Black canyon of gunnison national park

Rock Point

From the parking lot, it's a 294-yard walk to the viewpoint. Although this viewpoint is not one of the main recommended attractions, it is actually quite impressive. The rocks emit a faint blue glow, rising vertically as if they were cut by human hands.

Devils Lookout

This attraction features a cliffside view, and you need to walk 607 yards from the parking lot to reach it. The journey is actually quite long. If you are short on time, you might consider skipping it.

Black Canyon of Gunnison, Black Canyon National Park 10

Chasm View

This is one of the most famous attractions, and after visiting, I also believe it should be ranked in the top three. The canyon here is only 335 meters wide from north to south, and the narrow canyon looks incredibly spectacular. The vertical rock walls also make Chasm View a favorite destination for rock climbers.

Black Canyon of Gunnison, Black Canyon National Park 12

Painted Wall View

Painted Wall View is said to be the best spot to admire the Painted Wall, mainly because you don't have to walk too far to see the magnificent Painted Wall. The actual viewpoint at the bottom is 200 yards. When I came here, I also thought it was the top scenic spot. Unfortunately, the lighting wasn't cooperative, so the photos aren't quite perfect.

Painted Wall View is said to be the best place to see Painted Wall, mainly because you don't have to walk too much to see the magnificent Painted Wall. the actual viewpoint at the bottom is 200 yards. when I came here, I also thought this is the number 1 viewpoint, but unfortunately, the light was not cooperating with the viewer, so the photo is not perfect.

Black Canyon of Gunnison, Black Canyon National Park 13

Cedar Point

Cedar Point is also a spot to view Painted Wall. It requires a short walk of 303 yards to reach the observation deck. However, the angle at which you see Painted Wall is different here. The Gunnison River you see from this point is more turbulent, making it well worth the visit.

Dragon Point

Dragon Point, a 100-yard walk to the viewpoint, offers a similar view of Painted Wall compared to Painted Wall View. When we visited near sunset, we noticed some differences in the scene. However, overall, if time is limited and you want to see Painted Wall, you can choose from Painted Wall View, Cedar Point, or Dragon Point.

Sunset View

If you visit Sunset View at sunset, this spot is truly beautiful. The Gunnison River starts to turn north from here, and the canyon looks flatter, resembling a mountain landscape rather than a canyon view. You can also see part of the Painted Wall from here.

High Point

High Point is the endpoint of South Rim Drive, where you can see the entire Painted Wall. There is also a trail approximately 1.5 miles long here.

Further reading

More Colorado Further reading

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