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Reasons to Visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the Winter

Reasons to Visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the Winter

When compared to other national parks in Colorado, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park often takes a backseat due to its remote location and less accessible entry points. Yet, its stunning beauty and awe-inspiring landscape demand attention. Towering cliffs, profound canyons, and the thunderous rush of the Gunnison River collectively create one of the most breathtaking panoramas in all of Colorado.

While summer draws the most visitors to this national park, there are compelling reasons to explore its wonders during winter. Here are a few compelling reasons why a winter expedition to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison should hold a prominent spot on your Colorado bucket list.

Colorado’s Least Visited National Park

Located on Colorado’s Western Slope, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was carved by the waters of the Gunnison River millions of years ago. With some of its walls stretching 2,700 feet above the river, the canyon is so steep and narrow that it is hard for sunlight to pierce the core, leaving most of the canyon often left in the dark.

While it is smaller in size compared to other national parks, spanning 30,750 acres, there is a lot of ground to cover, both above and below the rim.

Experience the “wow” factor as you peer over the edge of Colorado’s biggest cliff, the Painted Wall, or stand in awe as the Gunnison River rapidly cuts through the canyon. The impressive features of the Black Canyon are similar to that of the Grand Canyon, just not on as grand of a scale.

For comparison, the Gunnison River drops an average of 43 feet per mile. That is nearly six times the rate at which the Colorado River drops in the Grand Canyon.

Two entry points grant visitors access to the park. The South Rim from the west near Montrose and the North Rim from the east near Crawford. There are no bridges or entry points to get from one side of the canyon to the other. You must drive all the way around to get to the other side. The drive can take several hours but is easily done in a day.

Wintertime in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

In winter, the North Rim access point is closed, leaving the South Rim the only point of entry. The North Rim typically closes late November through mid-April. If you would like to access the park via the North Rim, this requires a long hike into the park.

Typically, the first big snowfall hits in November, signaling the close of the North Rim. Temperatures can often fall below zero at night, sometimes as low as -30F.

Have the place all to yourself

While the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park welcomes roughly 430,000 visitors a year, it sees even fewer visitors during the winter. With the north entrance closed and its lack of drivability, access is limited, and therefore so are the people. Not that you won’t come across a few other visitors stopping in for the views, but you certainly won’t be fighting for a parking space or waiting in line.

It’s FREE!

During the winter months, entrance to the park is free! In the summer season, the normal park fee of $25 applies to all vehicles for a 7-day pass. What more can we say? This may be one of our favorite reasons for visiting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the winter.

Beautiful scenery

Snowy views of the Gunnison River cutting through the Black Canyon. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

No matter what time of year, stunning landscapes abound at the Black Canyon. But in the winter, the delicate snow brings about an extra layer of beauty. Just after a light dusting of snow, the jagged cliffs and steep walls are blanketed with white flakes, accentuating the canyon’s rugged walls.

Snow-covered boulders line the banks of the river, making the rushing water stand out in dramatic fashion against the neighboring cliff walls. Everything is still and the only sounds you can hear are that of the river, continuing its journey through the canyon. It’s truly magical.

Nordic skiing or snowshoeing

image of south rim road at black canyon
The South Rim road groomed for skiers and snowshoeing. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

The amount of snowfall at the Black Canyon on the Gunnison can vary greatly from year to year. From late December to March winter, conditions are good for activities such as Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. The South Rim Drive is plowed in the winter, but only up to the South Rim Visitor Center at Gunnison Point.

Here, visitors can park their cars at the visitor center and venture as far as they would like beyond the road closure, all the way to the end at High Point. The road is six miles one way, making the out-and-back trip a total of 12 miles. The wide and gentle route is perfect for beginners. The road is groomed for both skate and classic cross-country skiing.

Ideal for both cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, the Oak Flat Loop, Rim Rock Trail, and the Uplands Trail are all notable routes for both novices and experts alike. Or combine them all together for one long loop. Along these routes enjoy access to several overlooks where you can peer down into the snowy canyon for some unforgettable views.

No snowshoes? The visitor center has a small supply that is free to use on a first-come, first-serve basis.

image of nordic skier at black canyon

Nordic skier at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

Plus, the National Park Service rangers and the Gunnison Nordic Club organize a moonlight ski at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Be sure to check the NPS website for the most up-to-date dates and times for these events.

For those who want to extend their trips, winter camping is allowed along the South Rim Drive beyond Pulpit Rock Overlook. There are no facilities, and no wood fires are allowed. A free wilderness use permit is required.

View the starry skies

image of starry sky at black canyon

Stars blanket the night sky at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Photo by Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Facebook.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is one of the best times for stargazing. In conjunction with the Winter Night Skies program, the NP rangers, and the Black Canyon Astronomical Society, planned events to view the night’s sky are available. With telescopes provided, visitors can enjoy a night of viewing the starry skies with the dark canyon below.

It will be cold, so come prepared and dress extremely warmly. Be sure to call the South Rim visitor center at 970-641-2337 to see when they are running the program as the event is dependent on snow conditions and if it is cloudy or not.

Other Things to do in Montrose

Since the South Rim entrance is the only one open during the winter months, Montrose is the closest town that provides many modern amenities, restaurants, and lodging.

Where to stay

There are several hotels in Montrose that offer overnight and extended-stay accommodations. A good go-to is the Black Canyon Motel or the Country Lodge. For a cozy feel-at-home stay, book your accommodations at the quaint Canyon Creek Bed and Breakfast. The Cedar Creek RV Park is another fun option with RV parking available or stays in one of their tiny homes located along the creek.

Things to do

Take a break from the cold temperatures with a visit to one of several museums in town. The Ute Indian Museum, Montrose Historical Museum, and the outdoor historic exhibits of the Museum of the Mountain West. Or take a walk through the historic downtown of Montrose. Discover unique shops, galleries, restaurants, and beautifully restored Victorian buildings.

Where to eat and drink

Stop in at the local brewery at the Horsefly Brewing Company or 2 Rascals Brewing. If beer isn’t your thing, check out the Storm King Distilling Company for some local spirits.

For food find great coffee and sandwiches to go at the Backstreet Bagel Company. After a long day of snowshoeing, snag some good pizza and a beer at the Colorado Boy Pizzeria and Brewery. And for other specialty food places try the Double Barrel Taco Company, the Himalayan Pun Hill Kitchen, or The Stone House.

Uncover Colorado with an epic adventure to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in the winter.

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