There’s nothing quite like awe and dread you’ll feel atop the sheer cliffs of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The extremely rare combination of breathtaking natural beauty and sparse crowds make it a must-visit.
If you’re looking for your next outdoor adventure, make it one of Colorado’s three designated national parks. It’s a truly forgotten gem of the National Park System with so much to offer.
In this post, we’ll show you how to plan your trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison – where to camp, the trails to take, and everything in between.
Why is it Called Black Canyon?
The park is named after its sheer cliffs that look black in the shadows. The canyon is incredibly vertical – Chasm View is the steepest point at 240 feet per mile. Being some of the steepest mountains in North America, it’s easy to see how the shadows cast can make the canyon wall appear black.
What you Need to Know About the Black Canyon
The formation of Black Canyon started around 60 million years ago when a small area uplifted and pushed 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rock up. Now, we call this the Gunnison Uplift.
Then, about 30 million years ago, two huge volcanoes erupted on either side of the uplift and buried it in volcanic rock.
Finally, about two million years ago, the Gunnison River began flowing. Over time, it eroded away the volcanic rock and formed the deep, steep canyon. Today, it’s the beautiful Black Canyon.
On average, the canyon drops by 43 feet per mile, which is six times steeper than the Grand Canyon.
Black Canyon’s Painted Wall is the tallest cliff in Colorado, standing 2,250 feet tall. For comparison, the Empire State Building is just 1,250 feet tall!
Planning Your Budget
It’s always best to have a budget planned out before you go camping, and there are some costs you need to include for Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
First, you’ll have to have a pass. This covers everyone in one car or vehicle, and kids under 16 go free.
- 7 Day Vehicle Pass $30.00
- 7 Day Motorcycle Pass $25.00
- 7 Day Individual Pass $15.00 (pedestrian or bicycle)
- Black Canyon Annual Pass $55.00
You can buy your passes at the entrance station when you arrive or you can buy them in advance online.
On the north side of the canyon, camping fees are $12 per night. Over on the south canyon rim, there are three different loops that cost between $12 and $18 per night.
Where to Stay?
When you’re planning on hiking the Black Canyon, there are two main choices: North or South Rim.
The north rim is much more secluded with just 13 sites available and it fills up fast during the summer.
There aren’t any electrical hook-ups and you can’t take vehicles longer than 35 feet. The site also doesn’t take reservations, it’s just first come, first served.
On the south rim, there are 88 established campsites. You can only stay for 14 days each month, and they do allow you to bring generators for designated hours.
- Loop A is open year-round
- Loop B and C are open from Spring to Fall
On this side, you’ll find toilets, grills, tables, and water that’s trucked in. Loop B has hook-ups, but you can’t bring generators to the south side at all.
The south side also isn’t suitable for vehicles longer than 35 feet. But like the north side, it’s suitable for eight people and two vehicles for up to 14 days.
You can choose to avoid the campsites altogether and go backcountry camping with a proper permit.
Cedar Creek RV Park
Located on the eastern edge of Montrose, this site has 45 RV sites, 32 pull-through sites, and space for tent campers, as well as glamping units and cabins.
They have all the necessary amenities as well as mini-golf. It’s a quiet park within easy traveling distance to nearby mountain towns including Ouray, Ridgeway, and the ski resort of Telluride.
Riverbend RV Park and Cabins
Located right between the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the San Juan Mountains, this campsite is a great location for exploring. It’s a full-service park with RV sites and year-round amenities, including laundry, baths, fire rings, patios, cooking spaces, and a dog park.
This park also has walk-in river access for fly fishing and floating, and is near golf courses, bike paths, and a new Rec Center.
Montrose – San Juan RV Resort
This campsite is in the high desert region of Colorado, close to the Black Canyon, Ouray Hot Springs, and Colorado National Monument.
This RV park welcomes any sized rig and has 120 full hook-up pull-through or back-in sites.
Centennial RV Park
This one is another full hook-up RV park and campsite with a lot of space to drive up. It’s a few miles from Montrose and Ouray, so centrally located. They’re known for their friendly, knowledgeable staff and a popular choice for families in the summer holidays.
Uncompahgre River RV Park
Set in the cottonwoods and flanked by the river and cornfields, this is a remote park for a peaceful camping trip. But even though it has a remote feel, it’s only 10 miles from shops and restaurants.
There are large lots for RVs, camping space, as well as cabins for hire. You’ll also find modern amenities, including family bathrooms with showers.
South Rim Campground
This is one of the most popular campsites in the Black Canyon, located about a mile from the South Rim Visitor Center. You can book a spot between May and September, but other than that it’s first come, first served.
The sites are quite close together and there’s plenty of shade for the summer months. If you want electric hook-ups, you’ll need to go to Loop B. All three loops have water, but it gets shut off during the winter.
East Portal Campground
East Portal is found in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. This is adjacent to Black Canyon and only accessible through Gunnison park, so you’ll have to pay an entrance fee of $30.
The campground is at the bottom of the canyon near the Black Canyon river trail. It’s a small site, shaded by older trees, and completely closed in the winter.
Four Seasons River Inn and RV Park
This is another small park with 30 RV hook-ups and four tent sites. You’ll get water, sewer, and electricity services, as well as telephone and cable TV at the hook-up spots.
This one offers a little more privacy for each camp spot with a lot of grassy areas and shady trees. Since it’s right on the river, the views are incredible and it’s a great place to stop.
Riverwood Inn and RV Park
This is a base camp on the western slope right on the river. The lodge has newly renovated rooms but there are also RV hook-ups available. This has been called the best hotel in Delta, Colorado simply for its unbelievable location on the canyon floor.
There are 400 acres of wilderness to explore with rafting, fishing, walking, and hiking all on your doorstep. And it’s hard to beat the beautiful views of the mountainous backdrop.
Woods Lake Campground
In the dense aspen forest next to Woods Lake, you’ll find this campground. There are three loops and 41 campsites, with a choice of group sites, double sites, and pull-throughs.
There is a horse loop with paddocks if you like camping with your horse, and a great parking area suitable for horse trailers. There’s also a mountain bike loop (Wilson Mesa Trail) half a mile from the campground, so this is a popular one with cyclists, too.
The Campground at Big B’s Delicious Orchards
This campsite is situated in a working organic orchard, located one mile west of Paonia in the North Fork Valley of Colorado. The campsites are dotted throughout the orchard, each with a fire ring for campfires. There are also designated spots for trailers and RVs, but they don’t have any utility hook-ups.
There’s a cafe and store open every day during growing seasons, and they provide lunch and dinner in a stunning courtyard overlooking the grounds. You can pick seasonal fruits, watch live music, and drink local wines and ciders while you enjoy your trip.
Valley Sunset RV Ranch
This is a family-owned ranch and RV park. The RV pull-throughs have hook-ups with all the needed utilities and there are two tent camping areas. One is child-free, one is family-friendly. They also have four cabins you can book.
With a game room, shop, and pool, this is a popular choice for families and groups. There is no end of things to do in the Delta mountains, including fishing, hunting, rafting, and horseback riding. There are also local wineries to visit if you need a break from hiking.
Potholes Recreation Site
The recreation site is in the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. It’s a remote area with no amenities, but with no light for miles, you won’t get a better view of the night sky.
There are areas for tents and small rigs, and if you’re happy driving your RV down the gravel road, there are places for you to stop. To get there, you need to go down past Escalante Ranch – it’s a bit of a drive but worth it.
This is the definition of remote camping – you’ll need to head back to the ranch just to get decent cell service.
North Fork Tipi Haven & Camping
Back in the early 1900s, this was an orchard. Now, it’s a vibrant campsite in the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River.
You’ll see custom-made tipis dotted throughout the site you can stay in, and there are amenities on the 22-acre property including solar-powered showers.
Sitting at 5,500 feet, you can feel the freshness of the air at this campground, and there’s plenty to do in the area, including high-altitude wineries, restaurants, and even a theater.
This campsite doesn’t have an RV park, and you’ll need to book a tipi to stay on the site.
Located on Cebolla Creek, Spruce Campground sits between the Powderhorn and La Garita Wilderness areas. It’s incredibly popular with hikers and backpackers who are looking for a wild camping experience.
You can’t book a reservation, it’s first come, first served camping at Spruce. There’s also no water, so stock up on your own. There is a vault toilet on the site, but because there are no other amenities, there isn’t a fee to stay at this campground.
On the east side of Paonia Reservoir is Hawsapple campground, and it’s a popular choice for water skiers. There’s a boat ramp into the large reservoir and a boat docking area where you can moor overnight.
You’ll be able to spot the Spruce Campground just over the stream to the west of Hawsapple.
There is space for 7 RVs on the site and there’s a vault toilet available. But other than fire rings, there is little else in the area – which is why this is a chosen spot for those looking to go on a Black Canyon canoe trip or boat tour.
Erickson Springs Campground
Sitting in the dense spruce and fir forest near Anthracite Creek is Erickson Springs Campground. It’s very sheltered, so it’s a cool spot to camp in the summer months.
Each site has a tent pad and there is space for small camping trailers, but RVs aren’t permitted. There’s a nice picnic area with a fire ring and grill and a toilet.
The Dark Canyon Trailhead is just past the campground, so if you plan on hiking this trail, this is a convenient campsite. There’s also access to Raggeds Wilderness Area and space for horse trailers if you plan on taking your horse camping.
Paradise Campground and Rentals
On the south side of McClure Pass, nestled in the Gunnison National Forest, is Paradise Campground and Rentals. This is a great central spot for exploring the Ragged Peak Range, Paonia Reservoir, and the nearby nature trails.
There are spaces for RVs and tents, all with electrical hook-ups, but there is no cell service or WiFi on this campground.
The most popular attraction is the Devils Punchbowl right around the corner, where people take their ATVs for a spin. You’ll also be able to visit the famous Crystal Mill and the Glenwood Hot Springs nearby.
Right by the historic town of Marble, McClure Campground is off Highway 133 to the south of McClure Pass. It’s a quiet campground surrounded by aspen and as it sits on Lee Creek, you’ll be able to go trout fishing in the nearby beaver ponds.
The campsite has fire rings and grills as well as a vault toilet. There isn’t a fee to stay here and there are no hook-ups, so it’s not suitable for RVs.
Lost Lake Campground
This is a popular one with families with lots of activities to keep kids entertained. There are some moderate hiking trails around the Lost Lake, Dollar Lake, and Lost Lake Slough, as well as incredible views of the Ruby Mountain Range. If you visit in the summer, the wildflowers will be in bloom and are something to see, too.
There are two vault toilets and water on-site, but no electric hook-ups. And because this is a popular campsite, there is a $20 nightly fee to camp. You can’t book though, it’s first come, first served.
Mountain Valley Meadows RV
Found on the West Elk Loop in the North Fork Valley of Colorado, Mountain Valley Meadows is open year-round for RVs and tent campers.
Each site has full hook-ups with electricity, sewer, and water. There’s a dump station and a shower house with laundry facilities and WiFi.
It’s a fairly large site with loads to do in the area, including Black Canyon fishing, hiking, cycling, wine tasting, and more.
Iron Creek Campground
With 45 single-family campsites, Iron Creek Campground is located next to Crawford Reservoir. The campsite accommodates tents, trailers, and RVs up to 120 feet.
The campsites are arranged so everyone gets a great view of the lake and surrounding area, each with a table, fire ring, and grate. However, only 38 of the tent camping spots have an electrical hook-up, so make sure to ask for this when booking if you need it.
They have great amenities at Iron Creek, including drinking water, toilets, hot showers, and a dump station – everything you could need for a camping trip.
Clear Fork Campground
Clear Fork is the other campground in Crawford. This one is smaller with just 21 sites and none of them have hook-ups. There are only five tent spots, but you do get showers and toilets at this site.
If you’re looking for a wilder camping experience without the added amenities, this is the better site to choose.
North Rim Campground
Located on the north rim of the Black Canyon, the North Rim Campground is much smaller than the south with just 13 sites. It works on a first come, first served basis all season and services are limited.
Although the campground is small, each campsite is spacious and spread out among the pinyon and juniper trees. The maximum length of trailer or RV you can take is 22 feet, and much of the road is unpaved and rocky past the North Rim entrance.
The campground fills incredibly quickly in the summer, so you’ll need to have backup arrangements in case it’s full when you arrive.
If you love the wilderness of camping while still enjoying the luxuries of urban life, there are plenty of nearby towns to Black Canyon National Park you can visit:
- Montrose, Colorado
- Delta, Colorado
- Cedaredge, Colorado
- Crawford, Colorado
- Ridgway, Colorado
- Grand Junction, Colorado
- Paonia, Colorado
- Hotchkiss, Colorado
- Carbondale, Colorado
- Ouray, CO
- Telluride, CO
- Mt Crested Butte, CO
Whether you’re looking for cafes, restaurants, theaters, or just a store to restock on supplies, all the campsites we’ve talked about are driving distance to at least one town in the area.
Things to See & Do
You’ll never get bored camping in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Valley. From hiking and cycling to swimming and horseback riding, there’s a reason it’s so popular every year.
Here are a couple of our favorite things to do while visiting Black Canyon:
It’s a bird watchers’ paradise at Black Canyon, with a variety of birds to watch out for. You’ll spot the Great Horned Owl, Mountain Bluebird, Stellar’s Jay, Peregrine Falcon, White-throated Swift, and many more.
The mule deer is the most common mammal in the canyon, but you’ll also see beaver, big brown bat, bighorn sheep, coyote, deer mouse, Hopi chipmunk, and other mammals – which is why it’s best to keep food sealed.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of the night sky when you’re camping in Black Canyon. The campsites are remote and there’s no light pollution for miles, so the sky is lit up with stars.
Cross Country Skiing
If you’re visiting in the winter, the South Rim Drive is closed to vehicles because of dangerous conditions. So, many people hire equipment from local communities and go cross-country skiing. Park rangers groom the roads so it’s suitable for it. You can park at the visitor center and take on the six-mile (one-way) snow trek.
Not into skiing? You can also go snowshoe trekking. Local communities have all the equipment you’ll need if you don’t want to pack your own, and it’s a truly unique way to explore the canyon.
And because winter is a quieter time of year, you won’t run into as many people so it’s a peaceful trip. The Rim Rock Trail is an excellent trek for snowshoeing, as well as the upper part of the Oak Flat Loop Trail.
Winter Backcountry Camping
You need a wilderness permit to go backcountry camping in Black Canyon, but these are free to pick up.
You’re permitted to camp along the closed South Rim Drive beyond Pulpit Rock Overlook during the winter months. All the usual regulations are still in place (no wood fires, etc.).
Backcountry camping is only for experienced campers, and doing it in the winter months comes with its own set of challenges. But the canyon becomes an entirely different place in the cold months and is a must-see.
There are three canyon routes you can take if you want a break from hiking:
- South Rim Road: 7 miles from Tomichi Point to High Point.
- North Rim Road: 2-3 hour tour with six outlooks.
- East Portal Road: Provides access into Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Getting to Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Visitors come from all over the world to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison. If you’re traveling by plane, there are many different airports you can fly into.
- Grand Junction Regional Airport: 80-mile/1.5-hour drive to the south entrance.
- Canyonlands Field Airport: 165-mile/3-hour drive.
- Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport: 268-mile/5.5-hour drive.
- Denver International Airport: 280-mile/5.5-hour drive to the south entrance.
- Laramie Regional Airport: 302-mile/6-hour drive.
- Cheyenne Regional Airport: 360-mile/6.5-hour drive.
- Bryce Canyon Airport: 376-mile/6-hour drive.
- Albuquerque International Sunport: 343-mile/5.5-hour drive
- Salt Lake City International Airport: 359-mile/6.5-hour drive
- Cedar City Regional Airport: 462-mile/7-hour drive
How Long Should You Stay in the Black Canyon?
To see both the North and South Rims, you’ll need at least two days. If you have just one day, you could see the South Rim in about 5 hours by doing a scenic drive. However, if you plan on hiking, you’ll definitely need at least one night.
If you plan on hiking the inner rim, you’ll have to attend a ranger talk and get a permit on day one, which will cut down on hiking time.
Most campsites only permit you to stay for 14 consecutive days, so that’s the maximum you can stay if you plan on exploring as much of the canyon as you can.
Ready to Visit Black Canyon?
Every hiker and outdoor enthusiast should go camping in Black Canyon of the Gunnison at least once in their lifetime. It’s a true bucket-list place with some incredible views and scenery.
If you’ve picked a campsite and you want to start looking at the details of your trip, head to our guide on hiking in Black Canyon to make sure you make the most of your time in the canyon.