This article appeared as part of a larger feature on oft-overlooked National Parks.
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is indisputably so, yet Colorado’s Black Canyon bests it on several counts. For starters, it’s narrower. Instead of slouching away from the rims to the river bottom, Black Canyon’s imposing granite walls stand straight along the Gunnison, with as little as 1,100 feet separating them. Your pulse can’t help but quicken as you stand at Chasm View and watch the ground plunge away into a gorge so deep and dramatic, it seems like a Tolkien fantasy. Sunshine rarely angles inside, which is why it’s called the Black Canyon.
The Gunnison sees a scant fraction of the boats that ply the Colorado, because only expert paddelrs can run its pinched and cliffy rapids. Hiking routes to the river are steep (and lined with poison ivy), so many more anglers talk about this park’s fabled trout fishing than actually exploit. It. The most popular path into the canyon (the milelong Gunnison Route) makes the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail feel like an interstate highway. Visitors find that Black Canyon of the Gunnison preserves opportunities for discovery that are harder to come by at other parks.
Even the scenic drives and view points feel low-key. Most visitors stick to the South Rim Road, although you’ll still enjoy plenty of elbow room as you admire the bold pink ribbons of pegmatite that striate the canyon’s cliffs from Painted Wall View.
And the North Rim offers even more serenity and astounding vistas from Chasm View and The Narrows View. From late November through early April, cross-country skiers and snowshoers can stride across closed roads to admire canyon cliffs delineated by snow.
Size: 30,750 acres
2014 Visitors: 183,045
From Denver, take I-70 west, State 141 south, and U.S. 50 south to Montrose, the park’s gateway city. The South Rim is 15 miles from Montrose. nps.gov/blca
BEST TIME TO GO
Visit in late spring for mild-weather hiking. Try the 2-mile Oak Flat Loop Trail, which allows you to go below the rim without requiring you to go all the way down to the river. The path will take you past namesake oaks as well as aspen and Douglas fir.
WHERE TO STAY
South Rim Campground has 88 campsites, including some that are secluded. From $12, reserve at recreation.gov. In Crested Butte, Purple Mountain Bed & Breakfast offers sumptuous bedding, complimentary craft beer tastings, and a gourmet breakfast spread. From $109; 2-night min.; purplemountainlodge.com.