Black Canyon National Park – photo by Cheryl WeldonCredit: photo by Cheryl Weldon

Located in the southwestern region of Colorado, the Black Canyon was initially declared a national monument but changed status to national park on October 21, 1999.  The third smallest and the 55th  national park in the United States; the canyon is 53 miles long, but only 14 miles are located within the park.   

The Painted Wall is the highest cliff in Colorado.  From river to rim it is 2,250 feet; comparing it to the Empire State Building, it stands 1,000 feet taller.  The temperature varies about eight degrees between the bottom and the rim of the canyon.  

A Brief History of the Black Canyon 

The Black Canyon got its name due to its black colored walls and the limited amount of sunlight able to reach its depths.  The narrowest part of the Black Canyon at the river level is only 40 feet across.  Many explorers tried to navigate the canyon; some by boating attempts down the Gunnison River that flows through the canyon; most found it difficult to traverse. 

Engineers surveyed the canyon in the quest to find a viable location to build a tunnel through the canyon wall so they could run water from the river to the arid Uncompaghre Valley that needed irrigation for crops.  Laborers spent several years, drilling the cliffs from both ends to meet in the middle; and in 1909 the tunnel was finally finished.  

During the building of the tunnel, laborers lived in a small settlement they called East Portal which was founded on the canyon bottom near the river.  To get to the settlement, they blasted a road into the cliffs of the canyon.  The road had grades up to 32% and numerous switchbacks that made it a challenge for suppliers. 

Hiking in Black Canyon National Park 

Hiking around the north and south rims of the Black Canyon provide awe inspiring views of the canyon.  Most of the trails lead to viewpoints and are easily traveled by even the novice hiker.   Access Hiking Trails on the Rim Lead to Viewpoints – photo by Cheryl WeldonCredit: photo by Cheryl Weldonto the inner depths of the canyon is a different story.   

There are no marked trails into the canyon that are kept up by the park service.  Only well-conditioned and experienced hikers are advised to make the trip to the bottom.  Hikers are expected to find their own way down and are to be prepared for self-rescue.  Hikers need to study the route as they go down so they can find an easier way back up.  Some of the ravines don’t go all the way to the river and hikers may find themselves “cliffed out.” 

Though hikers and backpackers won’t find any poisonous snakes in the canyon; poison ivy is thick at the bottom; some plants reaching five feet tall along the river.  Water from the river and other natural sources is undrinkable so hikers are advised to take at least four quarts of water per person, per day.  Sturdy hiking boots are required due to the unstable terrain and rain gear is always a good idea.  

Rock Climbing in the Canyon Rock Climbing in Black Canyon is for Experts – photo by Cheryl WeldonCredit: photo by Cheryl Weldon

Rock climbing in the Black Canyon is for the experienced, expert climber only.  The canyon walls lack places to place protective equipment, and the crumbling rock presents further challenges.   The 2,000 foot tall narrow canyon walls drop almost vertically to the Gunnison River. 

There are several climbing routes in the canyon; most are long and mulitpitched.  The skilled climber, however, will be rewarded with an adventure they won’t soon forget. 

Activities for the Average Tourist 

For those who are less inclined to the strenuous trek down into the canyon; the north and south rims offer various viewpoints, short flat hikes, and picnic and campground areas.  Park rangers provide tours and campfire prHiking into Black Canyon is a Challenge – photo by Cheryl WeldonCredit: photo by Cheryl Weldonograms in the summer months.  

An abundance of bird and mammal wildlife can be spotted in the canyon area.  Mule deer, coyote, American beaver, and bighorn sheep are a sampling of the animals that might appear.  Birds that make their homes in the canyon include the Peregrine Falcon which is considered the fastest bird in the world; reaching speeds of over 200 mph in an aerial dive.

Entry into the park requires a minimal park fee. All ventures into the inner canyon require a permit; whether a day hike or a backpacking overnight stay.  These permits are free and offered on a first-come, first-served basis.   

The South Rim of the Black Canyon Nation Park can be accessed from US Hwy 50 and CO Hwy 347, fifteen miles east of Montrose, Colorado.  The less visited, but just as beautiful North Rim is accessed via CO Hwy 92, eleven miles south of Crawford, Colorado; or by the unpaved North Rim Road. 





 The copyright of the article “Hiking & Rock Climbing a Challenge in Black Canyon National Park” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.