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.
Explore the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 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 here in Colorado, we like to call this our “mini Grand Canyon.”
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.
More about Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
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 on a motorcycle. For those who prefer road trips in four wheels, you’re going to love the view — and stop often for photos.
The South Rim
The South Rim 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
The North Rim Drive is the road less traveled. A gravel road opens late March through mid- November (weather dependent), this drive offers six exceptionally stunning overlooks of the canyon.
East Portal Road
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 intersects the South Rim Drive in Black Canyon National Park at the entrance station.
Don’t let this paved road fool you. It 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. The 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 in 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. 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 To Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Montrose: From Denver, take the scenic drive South on US 285 through Fairplay and Buena Vista. Then head 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, family-friendly, 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.
Prefer camping? Choose from several campgrounds around Blue Mesa Reservoir, South Rim, North Rim, and East Portal Campgrounds. But book early as Colorado campgrounds tend to sell out especially with views like this!
Explore more Colorado National Parks
Perfect for family travel: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Road trip for families: Family Friendly Rocky Mountain National Park
Motorcycle road trip: On Top of the World: Rocky Mountain National Park