Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Facts

Narrow canyons, rock formations, wildlife, and dark skies.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

Patrick Leitz / Getty Images

Located in Montrose County, Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park boasts a 53-mile-long canyon that’s one of the narrowest and deepest in the western United States. So deep, in fact, that sunlight rarely reaches the bottom—a feature that helped give it the name. 

This national park attracts expert hikers, avid birdwatchers, and those who come to experience sweeping views of the mysterious canyon. Here are 10 baffling facts about Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Is Home to the Fastest Animal in the World

Peregrine falcon flying
Javier Fernández Sánchez / Getty Images 

The peregrine falcon is known for its impressive hunting dives, reaching speeds of up to 240 miles per hour, making it both the world’s fastest bird and the world’s fastest animal.

On average, the falcon boasts a wingspan of 4 feet across and flies between 40 and 60 miles per hour.

Visitors are more likely to spot these incredible birds in the spring and early summer near the Painted Wall section of the park.

The Gunnison River Is Locally Acclaimed as “Gold Medal” for Fishing

The "Gold Medal" standard is granted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to water bodies that demonstrate sustainable fishery that consistently produces a certain number and size of trout per acre.

While fishing is allowed within the park, there are regulations in place to assist in conservation. For example, there's a daily limit on brown trout, a ban on bait to protect the river from invasive species, and all rainbow trout is catch and release only.

The Park Has an International Dark Sky Certification

Once the sun goes down, the park only uses artificial lighting that’s absolutely necessary for safety, including motion detectors to limit light waste and low-energy, low-impact bulbs with shields that direct light to the ground.

These measures, paired with the park’s already exceptionally dark skies, led it to be named a certified International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association in September 2015.

The Black Canyon Is Over 2,700 Feet Deep

Cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Cavan Images / Getty Images 

At its deepest, the canyon is 2,722 feet deep at Warner Point, followed by 1,840 feet at Gunnison Point and 1,820 feet at Chasm View. For comparison, Hells Canyon in Idaho and Oregon is the deepest canyon in North America at just over 8,000 feet.

Black Canyon is unique in that it is much narrower, ranging from 1,000 feet to as narrow as 40 feet.

Hiking the Remote Inner Canyon Requires a Great Amount of Skill (And a Permit)

Although there are plenty of hiking trails of different levels located along the park’s south and north rims, the most experienced hikers head to the park’s inner canyon. The canyon contains some extremely difficult hiking, requiring training, skill, and a lot of preparation to be successful.

Since it is designated as a federally protected wilderness area, hikers will need to obtain a special permit to enter both for day trips and overnight camping trips. Permits are only administered on the day of activity (no reservations) and are on a first-come, first-served basis.

It Contains the Highest Cliff in Colorado

Painted Wall, the most recognized cliff in the national park, stands at about 2,247 feet high, making it the tallest cliff in Colorado.

On average, the Gunnison River drops 43 feet per mile (and 240 feet per mile at the steepest point at Chasm View), giving it some of the steepest mountain descents in North America.

Some of the Exposed Rock Is 1.8 Billion Years Old

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Painted Wall
Boogich / Getty Images 

Black Canyon began forming about 60 million years ago, when an uplift of land brought up 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rock. As a result, it has one of the best exposures of ancient Precambrian-aged (almost 2 billion years old) rock on Earth.

The Gunnison River began flowing in force as early as 2 million years ago, eroding all of the remaining volcanic rock and cutting a deep canyon, which has steadily formed into the steep cliffs you see today. 

Trails Along the North Rim Are Brimming With Poison Ivy

The poison ivy found along the Gunnison River at the bottom of the canyon is no joke, growing to be about 5 feet tall in some places. Some of the most abundant poison ivy is found near the narrowest parts of the canyon, in an area called Devil’s Slide.

Black Bears Are Common Inside the Park

Colorado black bear
milehightraveler / Getty Images

It’s not just narrow straits, sharp cliffs, and poison ivy posing potential danger inside Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is not uncommon to see black bears as well, especially in the oak and juniper forests. Rarely, visitors will even see mountain lions in the early mornings and evenings.

It’s One of the Least-Visited National Parks in the System

Despite its unique and adventurous appeal, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country. The park received just over 430,000 visitors in 2019, which while an increase from the previous year, is nothing compared to the over 4.5 million visitors that nearby Rocky Mountain National Park receives annually.

View Article Sources
  1. "Black Canyon Dimensions." National Park Service.

  2. "Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park." United States Geological Survey.

  3. "Rocky Mountain NP Stats Report Viewer." National Park Service.