I became obsessed with going to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park because of a poster in my office (this sounds weirder now that I’m writing it down) so I made it one of my first stops on a road trip around the state. It’s one of the few national parks where you can still reserve a campsite in late spring/summer and remains one of my favorite hidden Colorado gems.
Black Canyon is just outside of Montrose in western Colorado. It has stunning scenery and is easy to drive to, close to civilization, and for some reason, not very busy.
From Denver, the park is a five-hour drive. The drive along 285 and 50 is beautiful, and totally manageable even for those who are new to mountain driving. If you’re already flying to Denver, you could consider a connecting flight to Montrose but it’s typically quite expensive.
We chose to camp on the canyon’s South Rim because it’s where all of the driveable scenic overlooks are and is the side most easily accessible from the highway. We camped on the A Loop, which is for non-electric sites. Our campsite was super private, although didn’t have much shade (which turned out to be okay for us since it was cloudy). There was a great tent pad, picnic table, and fire ring.
You should absolutely use the bear lockers provided, but they aren’t at each campsite so you have to share. We just used an empty one at an unused campsite so I didn’t have to go through the horror of making small talk with a stranger.
Campground Fees and Reservations
Since Black Canyon is a national park, you have to pay to get into the park and pay a separate campsite fee ($16). If you’re planning a trip to multiple national parks in one year, get the annual pass instead of a one-time pass.
When I booked in April, there was still a ton of availability for the entire summer, which is virtually impossible to find at most national parks. Even when we showed up in June we could have easily nabbed one of the first-come, first serve sites.
She’s basic. Just vault toilets. So bring your hand sanitizer and headlamp! Vault toilets rarely have lighting or windows, and are literally just a toilet sitting over a hole in the ground. Don’t EVER look in the hole. But don’t forget to close the lid when you’re done to keep the campground from stinking!
South Rim is pretty close to the Visitors Center, which is incredibly nice. There are plenty of short hikes you can do right from there, or you can ask a ranger to help you pick out some other options. We decided to just go to all the short hikes for the overlooks, ending with the 1.5-mile Warner Nature Trail that lets you stretch your legs a bit more.
The stargazing at Black Canyon is also supposed to be some of the best. It’s a designated as an International Dark Sky Park, meaning it has basically no light pollution and you can see a bonkers amount of stars. I wouldn’t know, because as I mentioned, it was cloudy the night we camped and we saw literally four stars. I’m not bitter, I promise.
Stop at the store at the intersection of 50 and the road that takes you up to the canyon. It’s your last chance for supplies, and looks well-stocked. It closes early, so we didn’t actually go in, but they have an honor system for firewood so you can just leave cash at the door and take what you need (not kidding, I love small town Colorado).
The only drawback of small-town Colorado is very limited cell reception. There is actually a pay phone at the park, but we never ended up using it. You shouldn’t need it unless there’s an emergency, which is unlikely.
If you really get in a bind and need something, Montrose has everything you could need and is only about 30 minutes away. If you’ve hit a wall and don’t want a meal from a campfire, go to The Daily Bread in Montrose and get the Palisade peach shake. Their food is SO. GOOD.
The South Rim Campground is one of the few that still have any availability by spring, and it’s not for lack of quality. With practically no crowds, super-private campsites, and great beginner hiking, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of Colorado’s hidden gems.
You can also check out a video tour from Campground Recon here on YouTube.
Remember everything you need with the help of my simple, clickable packing list! It’s just $5 and includes dinner ideas.