Family travel. Car road trips. Motorcycle road trips. National parks are the perfect vacation, no matter who you travel with or how you get there…and that’s why I’m a fan of national parks. Lucky for me, my backyard of Colorado has four national parks, including the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Montrose is in the heart of the Grand Valley, which is surrounded by high passes and great motorcycle roads, including the “mini Grand Canyon,” the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The “mini Grand Canyon” of Colorado
Taller than the Empire State Building and the great Pyramids of Egypt at 2,700 feet deep and 48 miles long, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park might not rival the mighty Grand Canyon’s dimensions. Yet no other North American canyon combines such a wide range of ecosystems. Riding the Black Canyon of the Gunnison exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. With two million years to work, the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering, has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky. This is definitely one side trip worth a visit.
Compared to other parks, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a pretty small park, covering less than 50 square miles. Declared a National Monument in 1933, in 1999, it was upgraded to national park status. The entire canyon is about 48 miles in length, and the park includes 12 of the most dramatic miles.
Beginning in Curecanti National Recreation Area at Blue Mesa Dam, the canyon continues west through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, ending downstream in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. Yep, it’s a lot of territory to cover. For those biker campers, there are several campgrounds around Blue Mesa Reservoir, South Rim, North Rim and East Portal Campgrounds.
The South Rim scoot offers spectacular views of the Black Canyon and 12 viewpoints. Some of these scenic points are close to the road, while others require a short walk. Don’t miss Chasm View, Painted Wall, and Sunset View.
Traveling east on U.S. 50 from Black Canyon, take the short detour to Cimarron Canyon & Visitor Center, its railroad exhibits, and a view of Morrow Point Dam. Continue riding on Highway 50 for unique views of geologic formations and vistas of the surrounding mountains.
The North Rim Drive is the road less traveled. A gravel road open late March through mid- November (weather dependent), this scoot offers six exceptionally stunning overlooks of the canyon.
Now for the fun Colorado scoot or drive, the 6.5 mile East Portal Road down to the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. East Portal inter- sects the South Rim Drive in Black Canyon National Park at the entrance station.
Although it’s paved, the road has steep grades up to 16% with lots of switchbacks, simply spectacular scenery, before dead-ending at the bottom of the Canyon at the East Portal dam and camping area. (NOTE: Vehicles over 22 feet in length, including trailers, are prohibited. Road is closed from early November to mid-April.)
Want more views of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Shaped like a lasso that’s been dropped on Colorado’s pristine West Elk Mountains, the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway unites three very different mining communities, gets within arm’s reach of four diverse wilderness areas and stops into mountain towns like Crested Butte, Gunnison, Montrose and Carbondale. Veering to the south, the loop passes the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park between Montrose and Gunnison. No other gorge in North America combines the narrowness, depth and sheer drop-offs of the Black Canyon, and when you take the West Elk Loop, not only is a scenic view of the National Park, but there is no entrance fee.
How to Get There
Montrose: From Denver, take the scenic drive South on US 285 through Fairplay and Buena Vista, then south on US 24 to the junction with US 50 (just before Salida). Drive west on US 50 over Monarch Pass and through Gunnison to Montrose.
Where to Stay
Montrose offers several affordable and biker- friendly accommodations, including the Hampton Inn Montrose; Country Lodge, and Canyon Creek Bed and Breakfast. Or you could continue on to Ouray (about 45 minute drive) for a hot springs vacation at the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs.