North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Local Guide

Last Updated on January 10, 2024 by foxintheforest

With sheer granite walls towering at 2,250 feet, the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a sight to behold. Often overlooked in favor of other areas in Colorado, this quiet, dramatic natural retreat is the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for some solitude.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim is a remote enclave in the National Park System. With dizzying drama that includes incredible sunsets and steep canyon walls, it’s one of the must-see places in Colorado.

I’ve been living and adventuring in Colorado for over 13 years. During that time I’ve done quite a bit in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. From being a total outdoor newb on a camping trip to epic climbs along the North Rim of the Black Canyon, I’ve done it all.

So if you’re looking to explore the Black Canyon of the Gunnison like a local, not a tourist, then you’re in the right place.

About This Local Guide to the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Inside this local, honest guide to the North Rim of the Black Canyon, you’ll find:

  • Info about how to reach the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  • Practical info to plan your trip
  • Opening information
  • How long to stay
  • Camping at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and nearby towns
  • Things to do at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim
  • Additional local Colorado travel resources.

Is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Worth Seeing

Noted as one of the prettiest places in Colorado, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is certainly worth a visit. Simply put, the canyon is utterly dramatic. at 2,722 feet deep at its deepest point, the temperature can be 10 degrees hotter at the top than at the bottom.

Going from just 40 feet wide at its the narrowest point by the rive, to nearly 1,100 feet between the narrowest point at the top, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is all about the drama.

Listen, I’m a rock climber, and I even found it dizzying to stand at the canyon’s edge. It’s a real rush! But don’t worry, if you’re squeamish, most of the overlooks have guardrails.

The uninitiated may be a little intimidated by the remote nature of this special park. But that’s just what makes the Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s North Rim so special, it’s quiet, beautiful, and rugged.

north rim black canyon of the gunnison

Where is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim?

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is located between Olathe, Montrose, and Crawford, Colorado, just north of the San Juan Mountains in the southwest part of the state.

This unassuming national park appears seemingly out of nowhere, which just adds to the drama!

The nearest town on the North Rim of the Black Canyon is Crawford, about 30 minutes away. For the South Rim, Montrose is the nearest town at about 25 minutes away.

The North and South Rim are separated by about a 2-hour drive.

Grand Junction is the nearest metro area at around 1 hour and 50 minutes away.

While Denver is a 5-hour drive from the North Rim of the Black Canyon. Simply take I-70 to Glenwood Springs, then head south along Highway 82. Next, head south on highway 133 to Paonia. From here, you’ll zig-zag through ranch land until you reach Crawford.

Crawford is the last stop for services and from here you’ll dive back into the ranchland until you reach the park. The route is a bit un-intuitive and you’ll for sure feel lost, but don’t worry, Google and Waze will take you to the right place!

Practical Info About Your Visit

So both the South and North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison make up the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This means you’ll need to pay an entry fee or display an annual park pass in order to explore.

Along the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, there is no official park gate. In fact, there aren’t even any paved roads.

You’ll pay your fee at the ranger station and the roads are well-maintained, meaning a passenger car can make it to most areas.

Here’s some practical info to help you out.

  • Cost: $30 for 7 days or free with an America the Beautiful Parks Pass
  • Hours: 24 hours a day. In general ranger stations close overwinter until mid-spring, as do many of the access roads. Opening times vary with the season.
  • Best times to visit: May through June and late August through September. Summers tend to be very hot with little shade (and more crowded) as the rim is a desert environment.
  • Permits required? Yes. Anything below the rim (hiking, climbing, etc) requires a backcountry permit. These permits can be obtained day-of at ranger stations and are completely free. Backcountry camping permits and river travel permits are also required and are free.
  • Dog-Friendly? Dogs are only allowed at campgrounds and must be leashed. They are only allowed on paved trails and overlooks. Dog-friendly paths include the Cedar Point Nature Trail, North Rim Chasm View Nature Trail, and the Rim Rock Trail.
  • Other regulations: No firewood collection is allowed, no glass containers

Local Tip: This part doesn’t see too many crowds, so it’s a great place to explore if you’d like some solitude. But if you’re headed out during a summer day, get an early start! It gets unbearably hot and there are no water sources along trails.

black canyon of the gunnison

Is the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Open?

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is open 24 hours a day throughout the year. However, winter closures do exist. The South Rim Road is open from Mid-April through Mid-November, closing at Gunnison Point over winter due to unmaintained roads.

The North Rim Road closes from late November until mid-April – weather-dependent. The ranger station is closed over winter.

The East Portal is closed from November through April as well and will open weather-permitting.

If you can’t travel by vehicle, you can always hike the road, but be prepared for blustery, snowy, winter conditions.

Local Tip: We were here over Labor Day weekend and there were very few crowds. In fact, we often had some of the top attractions on the North Rim of the Black Canyon to ourselves.

How Many Days Should I Spend at the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison?

Two to three days is plenty of time to enjoy the North Rim of the Black Canyon. In fact, as one of the top weekend getaways in Colorado, you’ll definitely want to put the North Rim on your Colorado Itinerary.

With a full weekend, you can enjoy amazing canyon views, a hike or two, and even catch a cool sunrise or sunset. Since you don’t need to make reservations or book permits well in advance, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an easy weekend trip from Denver.

Local Tip: More time lets you enjoy both the North Rim and South Rim of the Gunnison, which are separated by a 2-hour drive.

Camping in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim

When it comes to camping in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s North Rim, there are a few options.

The North Rim Campground is a small, first-come-first-served campground located right on the rim.

The campground closes over winter and provides basic amenities with seasonal water and trash/recycling collection. Year-round you’ll find food storage lockers (you must use these for bears) and vault toilets.

For $16 a night you’ll get a fire ring, bear locker, and picnic table in a shady location among the juniper trees. Keep. in mind that if you have a larger RV or trailer, it’ll be difficult to fit here.

Free Camping Near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

If you are ready to be self-sufficient and adventurous, there is dispersed camping located about a 10-minute drive from the park. Finding free camping can be a bit of a challenge, so be sure to brush up on your skills.

Be fully prepared. You’ll need to bring in your own water and pack out all of your trash. Not to mention, you’ll also need to understand how to use the bathroom by digging a hole in the ground.

If this sounds like your kind of adventure Road C77 has a few options to pitch a tent for free.

north rim black canyon of the gunnison camping
Views along some of the dispersed camping near the black canyon of the Gunnison

Where to Stay Nearby

The North Rim of the Black Canyon is one of the more remote national parks in the US. There isn’t a huge town or area nearby to home base, but there is the charming town of Crawford.

This small Colorado town features a few shops and restaurants (the food truck is a delicious post-adventure spot with friendly staff). You can also rent AirBnBs nearby too.

Crawford is about a 30-minute drive and the closest gas station can be found right on the main road.

Map of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim

Get oriented with this map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim. Featuring hiking trails found throughout the park as well as ranger stations and campsites. Check out the interactive map to save locations that interest you.

Things to Do Along the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

When it comes to things to do along the north rim of the Black Canyon, there’s plenty to explore! From wow-tastic viewpoints to full-blown epic adventures to the bottom of the canyon, every kind of adventurer can find something to satisfy their nature fix.

Take a Scenic Sunset Drive

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s G74 Road, or better known as the North Rim Scenic Drive delivers big views. A top attraction for sunset (since you can often find viewpoints without anyone there – even on a holiday weekend) you’ll get solitude and drama.

A few top spots to check out the sunset include:

  • The Narrows View
  • Big Island View
  • Chasm View Trail
north rim black canyon at sunset

Scope Out a Stunning Viewpoint

The North Rim Scenic Drive takes about an hour or so to visit with plenty of stops. Each viewpoint draws upon different dramatical features of the Black Canyon, providing for plenty of photo opportunities if you can stand the vertigo!

Local Tip: Most of these viewpoints do NOT have guardrails. In fact, the edge of the Black Canyon is pretty intense, so be sure to watch your footing and keep a close eye on kids.

Island Peaks View

See the rocky “islands” or spires piercing up through the canyon? Unbelievable huh? What’s crazier, is people climb these pinnacles (more on that later).

From here you’ll. get excellent views of the South Rim of the Black Canyon. You can see the visitor’s center and one of the easier “hikes” (read: NOT a hike, but a difficult scramble).

Local Tip: One of my most infamous misadventures was about how my ex-boyfriend left me injured on the South Rim access trail.

black canyon of the gunnison viewpoints

Big Island Viewpoint

With similar views from the Narrows viewpoint, you’ll catch a glimpse at the sheer drama of the North Rim of the Black Canyon. Be sure to check out the Fins of rock cutting deep side canyons and chutes at this dizzying viewpoint.

The Narrows

With a picture-perfect view of the narrowest part of the canyon (just 44 feet across at the bottom), you’ll get a sense of just how much this canyon gauges into the landscape.

north rim black canyon of the gunnison

Balanced Rock

Featuring a precariously balanced boulder at the top of the canyon, this viewpoint doesn’t deliver the most drama, but it does show you just how delicate the rock formations along the Black Canyon can be!

Kneeling Camel

Another look at just how funky the rock walls of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison can be. Can you spot the kneeling camel in the rocks? Seems like this pachyderm is enjoying the views too!

Experience the Best Hikes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim

Hiking in and around the Black Canyon is a real treat – and the North Rim is no exception. In fact, there are plenty of Black Canyon of the Gunnison hikes to choose from. You can opt for mellow rim walks, longer hikes for spanning views, or snag a permit to scramble down to the canyon bottom.

Hike the Chasm View Nature Trail

This easy rim walk is mostly paved and provides stunning views of Painted Rock. At a monumental 2,250 feet high, this is the tallest rock wall in Colorado. At sunset, it’s a truly stunning scene seeing the last light dance across Painted Rock.

During the day, you can often spot extreme rock climbers on the nearby Checkered Wall (named after its checkered patterned quartz streaks). You’ll find views of the checkered wall along the north rim, on the opposite viewing area from Painted Rock.

Guard rails let you get dizzyingly close to the sheer drops on the north rim – which is a real thrill. I’ve scaled these canyon walls with ropes, and even I was nervous to scoot towards the edge!

Round-Trip Distance: 0.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 108 feet
Difficulty: very easy
Estimated Time: 15 minutes, with more time to ogle the views
Dog-friendly? yes, leash only
Location: Parking area near the North Rim Campground.
Permits? None required

Local Tip: In the evenings a couple of times a week, there’s a guided ranger walk that will tell you all about the unique nature of the Black Canyon.

chasm view nature trail black canyon of the gunnison

Visit Exclamation Point

Catch the drama along this easier near-3-mile hike. Make your way from the ranger station up and over a small hill to reach stunning views.

A rare chance to catch a glimpse straight down the Black Canyon you get a real sense for how cavernous this canyon can be!

Round-Trip Distance: 2.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 364 feet
Difficulty: easy
Estimated Time: 1.5 hours
Dog-friendly? No dogs allowed
Location: Parking at the ranger station.
Permits? None required

The Green Mountain Hike

Another permit-free hike that offers big canyon views, the Green Mountain Hike, also called the North Vista Trail, is worth the moderate effort.

There is one (worthwhile) spur trail to a viewpoint along this out-and-back journey. The reward? You’ll get panoramic views of the canyon and you can see just how this gigantic landmark truly does appear out of seemingly nothing.

You’ll feel as if the earth is opening up below you along this iconic hike in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Round-Trip Distance: 6.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,230 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Estimated Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Dog-friendly? Not allowed
Location: Parking area near the Ranger Station
Permits? None required

Scramble SOB Draw

The only way to reach the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is by a few key gullies. These steep, loose, scramble gullies are no joke.

More like scrambles and less like hiking, you’ll need to obtain a permit for any of them along the Black Canyon. Permits are free and available on a first-come-first-served basis. There are 10 permits per day.

Keep in mind, these are in no way beginner hikes and the SOB Draw is a tough, rugged route that doesn’t have a friendly or defined route.

There are several 8-12 foot ledges you’ll have to navigate (class 3) both up and down on your way.

Keep in mind that there is limited shade and this hike can be quite hot on a sunny day – especially coming back up the canyon.

Local Tip: Watch out for poison ivy. And if you let a rock tumble below you, yell “rock” as a courtesy to those below you.

Round-Trip Distance: 2.1 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,866 feet
Difficulty: very challenging
Estimated Time: 3 hours
Dog-friendly? no dogs allowed
Location: Parking at the ranger station.
Permits? Free, but required. Available day-of only.

Adventure in Long Draw

Another long and dangerous gully hike, the Long Draw (also called Devil’s Slide) will take you down to the water’s edge.

Offering up more shade (read: also more poison ivy) than the SOB Draw, this exceptionally challenging hike features several sections of scrambling, including a near-vertical 8-12 foot ledge about a third of the way down.

Often used as a climber’s access trail, this is not a hike. for the faint of heart. In fact, you’ll be using your hands and preciously picking your way through loose rocks. Helmets are recommended due to rockfall.

Local Tip: If you let a rock tumble, yell “rock” for the safety of the hikers below you. Even if you think there isn’t anyone below you, you never know!

Round-Trip Distance: 1.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,604 feet
Difficulty: very challenging
Estimated Time: 3 hours
Dog-friendly? Not Allowed
Location: Parking at Balanced Rock Overlook
Permits? Free, but required. Available day-of only.

Tackle an Iconic Rock Climbing Route

Many people consider the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to be the Yosemite of Colorado in the climbing world. And if you’ve ever attempted any of the routes here, you’ll know why.

Notoriously harder than advertised, these epically long multi-pitch trad climbing routes are often run out, a little rugged, and more than you bargained for. But if you’re an adventurous climber that’s looking for an alpine-like challenge without the gut-wrenching altitude, then this might be the place for you.

All climbers must be ready to rescue themselves and have ample experience under their belts. Keep in mind that there are no beginner routes here. Most climbs are grade III and up – meaning they will take the better part of day or more car-to-car.

This is a no-joke climbing area where rescues are often difficult, and bailing is not an option. Despite its foreboding nature, this is one of the top spots for rock climbing in Colorado.

The North Rim of the Black Canyon is where you’ll find most of the climbing. Be sure. to check with the rangers to get up-to-date conditions on the walls.

A few must-do routes include:

  • The Maiden Voyage (5.9 5 pitches)
  • King Me (10a 3 pitches)
  • Escape Artist (5.10a 7 pitches)
  • The Scenic Cruise (5.10d 13 pitches)

Local Tip: You’ll need to get a free permit to climb at the ranger station. Write your name, number in your party, route, and time on the whiteboard so the climbing rangers know where you are. Remember to check out after your big day.

climbing in the black canyon of the gunnison

Nearby Attractions

Although the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a little out there – you can still find plenty of awesome attractions nearby. Just remember, nearby is a relative term – so I put in some drive times for reference.

  • Check out the mountain views in Ouray: a 2-hour drive
  • Explore Carbondale – one of the prettiest places for fall colors in Colorado: 2 hours 10 minutes
  • Visit the South Rim of the Black Canyon for a different perspective: 1 hour and 50-minute drive
  • Enjoy the relaxed vibes at Ridgway, Colorado: 2 Hour drive

Which Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is Better?

The North Rim of the Black Canyon delivers a more remote and off-the-beaten-path feel. You’ll revel in tranquility and solitude along the North Rim. While the South Rim has more resources, and a little bit more to do, Montrose is far more connected to other parts of Colorado.

However, thanks to the convenience of Montrose, most people opt to visit. the south rim of the Black Canyon.

Both sides of the canyon have excellent views, but I personally enjoy the North Rim views more. It’s a tad more dramatic standing near the edge of these massive cliffs.

Additional Local Colorado Travel Resources

Wanna travel like a local, not a tourist? Check out these amazing Colorado resources:

Meg Atteberry
Meg Atteberry

Meg is a long-time Colorado local and outdoor industry professional. She's spent the last 15 years hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering all over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada in search of the best views. She's written for Outside Magazine, REI, Backpacker Magazine, and appeared on the Weather Channel.

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Meg Atteberry standing on a mountain sticking her tongue out

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Toddler mom, queer, and neuro-spicy her favorite things to do are climb in the alpine and camp in the desert. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure.