The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, simply called The BC by climbers, is a wild adventure climbing arena in western Colorado. The main section of canyon, protected in 30,750-acre Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, is one of the deepest and narrowest canyons in the United States. The canyon, reaching depths of 2,500 feet, was carved over the last three million years by the Gunnison River, Colorado's fourth longest river. The Black Canyon itself stretches over 50 miles from its head at Blue Mesa Dam until it empties out of Gunnison Gorge near Delta. The upper section of canyon above the national park is buried beneath three reservoirs-Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal.
Black Canyon Climbs Require Competency
Rock climbers come to climb multi-pitch routes up the Black Canyon's steep cliffs, composed of a granite-like rock called quartz monzonite which are laced with pink dikes of pegamite. The Black Canyon is a forbidding place, with a dark countenance. The Black is not a beginner climbing area and even skilled moderate climbers will find few routes that they are able to safely ascend. Instead, Black Canyon climbing requires competency at all the climbing skills, including placing good gear for protection; setting up complex anchor systems; building rappel anchors if you have to retreat; able to find the route up difficult terrain; and able to use sound judgment.
Black Canyon Climbs are Committing
Black Canyon routes tend to be committing. First you descend down steep gullies, sometimes filled with poison ivy, to the base of your route in the bottom of the canyon. Now you have to climb back out of the canyon to the rim a couple thousand feet above you. Be advised that the easier routes, those that are 5.7 and 5.8, often tend to have loose rock and routefinding difficulties. Scope your routes whenever possible from the canyon rim before climbing them. Remember too that every BC route has the potential to escalate from a pleasant outing to a full-blown epic. It's easy to get off route or to climb slowly and end up spending the night huddled on a small ledge.
Best Cliffs and Climbs in the Black Canyon
Many cliffs are found in the Black Canyon. The best cliffs with the most routes are:
- North Chasm View Wall North Rim. The best cliff in the Black Canyon and one of Colorado's finest big walls with easy access, quality rock, generally good protection, and ultra-classic routes. Best routes include The Scenic Cruise, Leisure Climb, Journey Home, Apparition, The Free Nose, Hallucinogen Wall, The Diagonal, Stoned Oven, Eighth Voyage, and Movable Feast.
- Checkerboard Wall North Rim. Shorter cliff east of Cruise Gully. Classics are Maiden Voyage (III 5.9), the standard intro route in the BC, and the Checkerboard Wall (III 5.10+).
- SOB Gully Area North Rim. The Northwest Face of North Chasm View Wall rises above SOB Gully and offers several popular and good routes-The Casual Route (II 5.8), Casually Off-Route (II 5.9), Escape Artist (III 5.10-/5.11-), and Comic Relief (III 5.10-/5.11-). On the north side of the Gully is Lauren's Arête (III 5.8).
- Russian Arête North Rim. A long classic Layton Kor route (III 5.9) up a prominent but loose arête.
- Hooker Buttress North Rim. A big south-facing wall down-canyon from North Chasm View Wall. A couple good routes on it are The Hooker (IV 5.10+ R) and Gothic Pillar (V 5.10+ C3).
- Porcelain Arete Area North Rim.
- The Painted Wall North Rim. The tallest cliff in Colorado at 2,200 feet high and third highest in the United States. Big routes on here are The Dragon (VI 5.9 A4). Stratosfear (VI 5.11+ X), and the classic Southern Arete (V 5.10), the longest route in Colorado.
- South Chasm View Wall South Rim. This big wall, opposite North Chasm View Wall, offers many excellent long free climbs, including Astro Dog (V 5.11+), one of the best routes in Colorado. Cliff is ideal for summer since it is mostly shaded.
- Cimarron Slabs South Rim. A north-facing slab in Chillumstone Gully. Classic routes are Cimarron Slabs (III 5.8) and Ground Control to Major Tom (III 5.8).
- Alimony Wall South Rim. A small cliff in a gully across the canyon from The Painted Wall.
Black Canyon Climbing Equipment
The Black Canyon is a traditional climbing area. All BC free climbing routes require a rack of gear, including a set of RPs or other brass nuts, double sets of Stoppers or equivalent wired nuts, and two sets of cams from small TCUs to #3 Camalot size. It's usually wise to bring along a piece or two of off-width gear like a #4 and #5 Camalot, depending on your chosen route. Also bring and wear a helmet-loose rock is everywhere. While you can climb with a single rope, bring a thin haul line, which will be handy if you have to rappel off. Also bring rain gear and warm clothes in spring and fall; bring enough to stay warm if you have to bivouac, which happens often.
Black Canyon Location
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is in west-central Colorado, east of Montrose and west of Gunnison. The park is about 250 miles southwest of Denver.
Finding the Black Canyon
- South Rim: Drive east from Montrose on US 50 for 15 miles. Turn left or north on CO 347 and drive a dozen miles to the entrance station. The campground is just past the entrance. A paved scenic drive follows the rim to Warner Point, allowing access to all climbing sectors below the South Rim.
- North Rim: Drive east from Delta and US 50 to Hotchkiss. Turn right (south) on CO 92 and drive to Crawford. Continue past Crawford State Recreation Area and turn right at a signed turn-off; follow signs on several roads to the North Rim. The turnoff is also reached from US 50 to the south on winding CO 92. A dirt road on the North Rim accesses the North Rim Campground and Ranger Station as well as sectors along the road.
- It is not possible to access the north and south rims of the canyon from the opposite side. No bridge or highway spans the deep canyon. Allow 2 to 3 hours to drive the 150+ miles from one rim to the other.
National Park Service. The best climbing is in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Limited climbing is in Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Restrictions, Regulations, and Access Issues
The Black Canyon is a National Park and most of the canyon is a designated wilderness area. Climbing restrictions include a ban on power drills and bolts should be placed as a last resort with a hand drill. Some cliffs, including The Painted Wall, are closed to climbing from March through July for nesting raptors. Check with the park for updates on closures.
Other regulations are:
- All climbers must register for a free wilderness use permit.
- Both rims have an entrance fee and camping fees.
- Wood gathering is prohibited in the park.
- Wood fires are not allowed in the inner canyon.
- Pets are allowed in designated areas only, not in the inner canyon. Do not leave pets unattended at your vehicle or campsite.
- Follow a Leave No Trace ethic while hiking and climbing in the canyon.
All inner canyon activities, including climbing, requires a free wilderness use permit. Permits are available at the South Rim Visitor Center, North Rim Ranger Station, and East Portal registration board. The permits are available on a first-come, first-served basis. If the facilities are closed, use a self-registration station at each location to get your permit. Keep the permit on you when climbing. After completing your route, check out at the ranger station or deposit your permit in the registration box. The North Rim station has a whiteboard to let climbers know who is on what route. This prevents multiple parties from crowding routes and causing dangerous situations because of rockfall. The wilderness permits allow the park to monitor wilderness use and alerts them to possible emergencies.
April through November. Best months are April and May and September through November. Summer can be hot on south-facing walls; seek shaded cliffs for comfort and bring water. Summer temperatures range between 50 and 100 degrees, with nighttime temps between 40 and 60 degrees. Afternoon thunderstorms are possible in July and August. The spring months are variable, with pleasant weather but also sleet, snow, rain, and cold. Check the forecast when planning a trip. Winter can be good on sunny days, but climbs are difficult to access since the roads are closed by snow.
Guidebooks and Websites
Rock Climbing Colorado by Stewart M. Green, FalconGuides 2010, documents the best routes in the BC with written descriptions and photo topos. Also Black Canyon Rock Climbs by Robbie Williams, Sharpend Publishing, 2001, is a guide to many routes.
Both the North Rim and the South Rim have campgrounds. Most of the climbing is on the North Rim so climbers stay in the 13-site North Rim Campground above Chasm View Wall. Sites are available on a first-come first-served basis with a maximum stay of 14 days in a 30-day period. The campground has vault toilets and limited water in summer. Fee is $12 per night.
The South Rim Campground has 88 sites in three loops. Loop A is open year round. Water is available in summer. All sites have a maximum 14-day consecutive stay in a 30-day period. Fees are $12 per night in Loop A; $18 per night in Loop B with electric hookups; and $12 a night in Loop C. Reservations can be made for Loops A and B through Recreation.gov.
All services in Montrose. Limited services in Crawford but complete services in Paonia and Hotchkiss, en route to the North Rim.
For More Information
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park , 102 Elk Creek, Gunnison, CO 81230. Telephone: 970-641-2337.
Climbing Shops and Guide Services