• Grand Junction to Gunnison, Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

      285 miles and 10-12 hours

      This is one of the least-visited routes in the RoadTrip America inventory. The south rim of the Grand Canyon is visited each year by hundreds of thousands of people, while the north rim is visited by only a few thousand. Likewise, the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison attracts most of the visitor traffic to this national park. The north rim only sees a few hundred visitors each year -- this could be the trip of a lifetime!

      The route doesn’t require a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, but there are 14 miles of unpaved road and plenty of hairpin curves and relatively few guardrails. Due to road conditions in winter, the north rim is best visited in summer, as it will be closed most of the winter season.

      Here are a few highlights to look out for along the way:

      Grand Junction, CO (starting point)
      Grand Junction, is a hub of east-west and north-south highways west of the Rockies. There is a good deal of agriculture in the neighboring small towns, including one named Fruita. Wineries and orchards are plentiful in the town of Palisade, east of Grand Junction as well.

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      Mesa, CO (Mile 32)
      You have just driven CO-65 to the top of the largest flattop mountain on earth, Grand Mesa. About 2-3 miles south of town there is a turnoff for a scenic view, across from you is Garfield Mountain, another flattop, but one that has little or no vegetation on it, while Grand Mesa is mostly meadow and pine forest with many lakes and campgrounds. Enjoy the view!

      Crawford, CO (mile 109)
      Continue on CO-65 to Orchard City, where you will turn onto CO-92 after a few short routing changes on county roads. Go east to Crawford, and here is where you need your map, because the turns will be frequent. You have approximately 19 miles of local and sometimes unpaved roads to traverse before you reach the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument.

      Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim (mile 128)
      Black Canyon, aptly named because sunlight has a hard time reaching the bottom, and the rock cliffs are mostly dark gray or black, is over 2,000 feet deep. What makes the North Rim so preferable to the South Rim, where the visitor Center and concessions are, is the geology of the canyon. The canyon runs east-to-west, so the cliffs are on the north and south sides. The south side does not get sunlight to warm it, so it has extremes in temperature and moisture that causes erosion. The north side is just the opposite, so it has pretty much kept its profile for thousands and millions of years. Because of that difference, when you stand on the North Rim you are looking almost straight down over 2,000 feet to the Gunnison River below.

      There are five scenic overlooks on the North Rim–don’t fail to backtrack to the fifth one over by the ranger station–and you can look across the canyon and wave to the visitors on the South Rim. However, you are less than a mile distant, but separated by over 80 miles of road, so don’t expect to see the same people later in the day. It will take about an hour to visit all five overlooks, and you might stop and say “Hello” to the park ranger.

      After you have enjoyed the North Rim, go back out the same dirt road, but this time take the first right turn you come to. That will take you back out to CO-92 several miles south of where you left it. Head south on CO-92, but focus on your driving. This is a mountain road with lots of curves and no guardrails. There is one rest area along the road with lavatory facilities, but no concessions. Stop there in any case, as the view of the Rockies from that parking lot is fantastic, and Morrow Point Reservoir is far below. It may be the driver’s only chance to enjoy the scenery on this road.

      Black Canyon of The Gunnison South Rim (mile 210)
      To get there, just after you cross the dam on the Gunnison River, you will turn left onto US-50 and proceed through Cimarron to the entrance to Black Canyon. This will seem a lot more user-friendly park compared to the North Rim. There is a visitor center, lots of park rangers to talk to and guide you, and places to walk out to the rim. The view across to the North Rim is now a sight of those sheer cliffs with what appears to be Mother Nature’s artwork on them. Pressure ridges and ancient seabeds form streaks on the walls. At one point, there is a natural scarring called the Painted Wall with the resemblance to a pair of dragons slithering up the cliff. Black Canyon is in some ways even more scenic than Grand Canyon.

      Gunnison, CO (mile 285)
      On the way back to Gunnison, you'll pass the Curecanti National Recreation Area. There is a huge lake called the Blue Mesa Reservoir, and across the water you will see its namesake, the Blue Mesa. It is a stunning mesa and very photogenic. Gunnison is a fishing capital in summer and a ski capital in the winter. There is a nice outdoor train museum there, too. This is a great place to stop for the night.

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      Black Canyon of the Gunnison, showing the sharp contrast
      of the north and south rims
      Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.com/Eric Foltz

      To see more of Road Hawk's photos from this route, click here.

      Comments 1 Comment
      1. Southwest Dave's Avatar
        Southwest Dave -
        A nice route Road Hawk, but for anyone with a little extra time in the area I think that the Colorado National monument is worthy of a mention as it is in close proximity to Grand junction.

        To save confusion, on the way to the South rim of Black canyon, you need to head West on US 50 which I presume would be a RIGHT TURN after crossing the dam ?