Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Exploring the North Rim

The Narrows

Our friend Angela likes to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison has the most metal name of any National Park. Seeing the chasm from the north rim, I’d argue that there’s a lot more that’s metal about Black Canyon than just its name. On Tuesday, August 31 (2021), Sean and I spent the bulk of the day driving around to the north rim to view its dizzying overlooks.

At one point looking down into the canyon on the north rim, even Sean was rattled and remarked, “The north rim is like someone who’s fun to hang out with, but you’re gonna get in trouble.”

After our morning Ranger Program, we drove out of the south entrance of the Park, down off of the Gunnison Uplift and into the Uncompahgre Valley and the town of Montrose. We headed northwest until US-50 intersected with Colorado Highway 92, the terrifying other end of which we’d experienced in Curecanti National Recreation Area the previous day.

On 92, we headed east toward the distant West Elk Mountains.

We passed through the towns of Hotchkiss and Crawford.

Needle Rock

As we approached the north entrance of the Park, we noticed that the West Elks themselves were pretty striking.

We rounded a nearly empty reservoir and continued on country roads that gave way to dirt roads.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Then we reentered Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park at its north entrance.

West Elk Mountains

The approach to the canyon from this side was more subtle with more sagebrush steppe table land than on the southern side. It had that classic “there’s no indication the world is about to drop away into a 2,200-foot abyss” feeling.

At a fork in the road, we turned left toward the overlooks. We’d return to the Ranger Station and campground area later.

Narrows View

The first overlook, Narrows View, gets the insanity started right off the bat. On the south rim, the paved road is largely set back from the edge with trails of at least several dozen yards out to the actual overlooks. On the north rim, the railing-free dirt road meanders along the rim, usually right up to where the rock falls away at the overlooks.

And the first overlook on this side is Narrows View, a couple thousand feet down to the river at the canyon’s narrowest point.

The Fissures

Even the south rim looked more rugged from this side with our dead-on view of the Fissures.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

The second overlook, Balanced Rock View, had, well, a view of a balanced rock:

Balanced Rock

WAY below Balanced Rock

At the next viewpoint, Big Island View, the views opened up a bit, and we began to see the dramatic “islands” jutting from the north rim up close.

Island Peaks

Video: Sean M. Santos

The Narrows

At Island Peaks View, we were just above the most varied and dramatic of the “islands.”

Image: Sean M. Santos

Across the gorge we could see the Visitor Center area perched above the rim.

Tansy Aster

As we approached Kneeling Camel View and the end of the road, we were so close to the south rim that the south rim road showed up on our Subaru’s navigation screen.

Kneeling Camel View is the last overlook along the north rim road. Beyond the road’s end, Deadhorse Trail offers 2.5 miles of hiking, which would be high on our list for a return trip.

Island Peaks

Here the visitor center was so close across the canyon that if felt like we could practically browse the bookstore.

Road’s end reached, we turned around and carefully drove back the way we’d come, avoiding the vertigo-inducing glimpses of the canyon beyond the edge of the dirt road. At the fork, we turned left into the most developed area of the north rim. We passed the Ranger Station and drove through the campground loop to the parking area for Chasm View Nature Trail.

The nature trail is only four tenths of a mile round trip. It skirts the edge of the campground and goes out to the lip of the canyon above the sheer cliff across from the south rim’s Chasm View overlook. So we’d be at the overlooks we’d seen from across the canyon the previous day.

We also got good views of the cliffs looking southwest toward Painted Wall.

Video: Sean M. Santos

Seriously, the overlooks at the north rim don’t mess around.

Lichens. Image: Sean M. Santos

Chasm View

Piñon Pine


By 2:20 we were back in the car and beginning our drive back around from the north rim. We were headed back a bit early for a couple reasons: Sean needed to get a new sleep pad, and we were interested in checking out some hot springs for a soak.

In Montrose, we went to the Great Outdoors Company, and Sean invested in a sleep pad that he really likes. He was obviously very sleepy from a second night of basically lying on the ground, and he instantly began to feel better anticipating a better night’s sleep.

We walked over to the post office to send our postcards.

And we took the opportunity of cell service to arrange to meet our friend, Jimmy, the next day for lunch in Grand Junction. A New Jersey native, Jimmy had moved from Denver to Chicago a few months earlier in May 2021. He was visiting his brother and sister-in-law at their spread outside Grand Junction. Their place was also where he’d spent COVID lockdown in 2020.

From Montrose, we headed south to check out Orvis Hot Springs. Larger than Joyful Journey Hot Springs in the San Luis Valley, where we’d gone as we wrapped up our time at Great Sand Dunes, it had a very different vibe. More grungy, more hippy. We also felt a bit less safe since no one was required to wear masks. It was one thing in August 2021 to run quickly into a store unmasked. It was quite another to be in close quarters in a hot, humid locker room with a bunch of unmasked men.

Our unease aside, the outdoor pools were relaxing, and we soaked for about an hour before showering, getting dressed, and heading back to Montrose to gas up the car and get some groceries before heading back to camp.

Our final evening at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park featured a roaring campfire, negronis, a green hatch chile pizza cooked on the grill, and mac and cheese. Sean was in a happy mood again, and it was a fun night.

Next morning, September 1 (2021), a pre-dawn rainstorm woke me up.

After 6am, the rain stopped and some sun came out. I climbed out of the tent to check the situation. We had not been expecting the rain, so we’d left multiple items out to dry: socks, shorts, camp chairs, a roll of paper towel. Everything was soaked.

Sean was still asleep, so I walked off to the pit toilet and to check the day’s forecast on the NPS info board. More rain expected.

Green-Tailed Towhee

Back in camp, as if to underscore the forecast, the sun vanished behind a vaguely threatening layer of clouds.

Sean emerged from the tent as I was sipping my coffee and beginning to pack up. We decided not to try and have breakfast in camp. It was time to move on before it started raining again.

We broke camp, separating the dry gear from the sopping gear. We spread out the wet things the best we could in the back of the Subaru. Hopefully they’d dry somewhat before we had to set up camp at Dinosaur that evening.

Before we drove out of the Park, we swung by the visitor center one more time to get our maps/stamps for Curecanti National Recreation Area. We got to see two German kids become Junior Rangers. The swearing ins are always cute. One of them was turning eight that day.

While Sean was using the comfort station, I overheard some white woman complaining about having to wear a mask. Good grief.

With a wave, we bid Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park goodbye and started our drive to Grand Junction.

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