How to hike the Gunnison Route at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Want to hike the Gunnison Route at Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado? In this guide we share everything you need to know before hitting the trail, including when to hike, how to get permits, what to bring, and more!

The #1 thing we wanted to do while visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado was hike the Gunnison Route. And despite doing tons of hiking over the years, including some pretty intense trails, few hikes have filled us with as much trepidation as this one.

In the weeks beforehand, we read tons of blogs, trail reports, and reviews to get a good feel for what to expect, which eased some fears, but also still filled us with some worries. Will we get a permit? Are we experienced enough to do this? Are we biting off more than we can chew? Is this just going to be a miserable experience sliding down a canyon?

But we’re happy to report that not only did we snag a permit (which can be a feat in itself!), but we completed the route and had an absolute blast doing so! 

Watch our experience hiking the Gunnison Route, as well as enjoying the South and North Rims of the park! And for more information about the park, check out our Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park guide!

In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to attempt the Gunnison Route, including how to get one of the limited permits, what to bring on your adventure, tips for the hike, our experience, and more.

While this hike isn’t for everyone, if you’re one of the lucky few that gets to complete it, it’ll be an experience you’ll remember forever!

Check out our other Colorado guides:

Please Leave No Trace
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

What is the Gunnison Route?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is home to six inner canyon routes (three on each rim), which take you down to the river at the bottom of the canyon. They are called routes, not trails, because they are loosely defined, unmaintained paths which are full of dirt, loose rocks, and boulders, and are extremely steep and difficult. 

These routes are not for the inexperienced hiker and you’ll need to have a good level of fitness, pathfinding skills, and a lot of mental and physical toughness to conquer one of these routes in the park.

Out of the six routes in the park, the Gunnison Route is the most popular and is said to be the best route for first timers, as the slope is “gentler” and there aren’t any major bouldering areas to navigate compared to some other routes. But don’t let that fool you, it’s not an easy trek!

The route involves scrambling, an 80 foot section of chain, scree fields, large boulders, and tons of elevation loss (and gain on the way back up) in a short distance. With not much to hold onto and steep slopes, at times you feel like you’re just sliding down the side of the canyon. 

But once you get down to the river at the bottom, you’ll have the canyon walls towering above you and the crystal clear, gorgeous flowing Gunnison River at your feet, with quite possibly no one else around. It truly makes the precarious journey down and the grueling climb back up totally worth it!

Looking for other things to do in the park besides the Gunnison Route? Read our detailed guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, including the best things to do, where to stay, getting to the park, itinerary options, and so much more!

Please Leave No Trace
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.

Gunnison Route Stats

According to AllTrails this “hike” is 1.8 miles with 1,781 feet of elevation gain (we tracked a little over 2 miles), which means that you’re losing 1,781 feet of elevation in about a mile going down and then gaining that much in a mile going back up. Our legs hurt just thinking about it!

It takes most people about 1.5 hours to get down and 2 hours to get back up to the top of the rim. We spent a total of 5 hours on this hike, but only about 3.5 of that was hiking, the rest was enjoying time by the river.

Where is the Gunnison Route?

The Gunnison Route is located in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park which is minutes from the town of Montrose in Western Colorado. There are two rims to explore at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, both of which have these inner canyon routes, but the Gunnison Route is at the South Rim, the most popular area of the park.

The trailhead is right behind the South Rim Visitor Center and to begin the route you will follow the Oak Flat Loop Trail (which is definitely not flat, you’ll really feel it on the way back up).

After passing through some of the bush and down a few switchbacks you’ll encounter the “Permit Required” sign. This is the beginning of the Gunnison Route and while it starts off looking like a trail, it only gets harder and harder. 

When to hike the Gunnison Route

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The best time to hike the Gunnison Route is mid April to late October, when the route is most likely free of snow or ice. We completed the Gunnison Route in mid June and it was HOT, with the high for the day being over 100ºF, so if you do decide to visit in the summer, make sure to start very early to beat the heat and also bring tons of water.

While you can do this hike in the off season (typically late October to mid April), venturing into the canyon in the winter is at your own risk, as there will likely be snow. You will need to bring special winter gear, including spikes or crampons, to be able to get down this steep, slick slope safely.

Another thing to note is that from November to April there is no water at the rim, so you will need to bring your own.

How to get a permit for the Gunnison Route 

You must obtain a FREE Wilderness Use Permit for any journey into the inner canyon, including both day and overnight use. 

These permits are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and can be very tricky to get, as there are a very limited number of permits available for each day. At the time of our hike, there were only 15 permits per day for the Gunnison Route. 

Depending on when you visit, the process to get a permit for the Gunnison Route varies. Below is the process for the South Rim routes (Gunnison, Tomichi, and Warner)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Busy Season (late April-mid October)

During the busy season, the rangers give out permits 1.5 hours before the visitor center closes the day BEFORE your planned adventure. However, you WILL need to arrive well before this to have a chance to get one.

We’d recommend reading AllTrails reports and/or calling the visitor center to find out just how in demand the permits have been lately. During our trip, the visitor center closed at 6 PM, so permits were going to be passed out at 4:30 PM. We called a few days before and asked a ranger what time they recommended we get there and they said people had been arriving around 1 PM. 

We got there around 12:45 PM on a Saturday and the parking lot was full (plan for this!), so Adam dropped me off and hung out with Kona while I waited for the permit. I had some confusion of where to go, but you simply just sit on the benches on the back patio of the Visitor Center (see the photo above). I was the FIRST in line, but someone else eventually showed up and then a surge of people came around 2:30 PM and by 3 PM, all permits for the Gunnison Route we accounted for. 

We still had to wait for the ranger, who came around 4 instead of 4:30 PM, since the permits were mostly all taken for all routes. So while sitting and waiting for over 3 hours wasn’t ideal, especially in the heat, I downloaded some podcasts and chatted with some others waiting and it went by pretty quickly! And it was worth it to know we had permits!

Note: Something we didn’t know beforehand is that if hikers are backpacking the day before and are spending the night in the canyon, they take a permit for the next day as well. When we went there were only 10 being given out that day because of this.

Non Busy Season (late October-mid April)

During the off season you will get your permit on the same day of your adventure. You can get your permit from a ranger in the visitor center or a self registration station if the visitor center is not staffed. We recommend still arriving early to do this so you can ensure you get one.

For all North Rim routes there is a permit self-registration station at the North Rim ranger station and the permit is obtained on the same day, regardless of the month. Although the North Rim is closed in the winter, keep that in mind if you’d like to do one of the routes there instead!

Ranger talk

When obtaining your permit, you will listen to a ranger talk where they will review the basics of the routes, discuss what you will encounter, give safety tips, and show you photos of specific landmarks to look out for to help guide your way. 

We cover a lot of what they will tell you in this guide, but it’s beneficial to hear it again and told directly to you. 

One other important thing to know about this is that they highly suggest your entire party is there for this talk. While I waited by myself for the permits and Adam stayed with Kona, he joined me for the quick ranger talk. This was not required, but highly recommended.

After you finish the route

Lastly, for all routes, when you have made it back to the rim you must check out with a ranger. If the visitor center or ranger station is closed, you will put your permit in the drop box of the self registration box. This will mark you “checked out” of the canyon, so that the rangers will know you made it out safely. 

What to bring to hike the Gunnison Route

Gunnison Route Trail

As always, we recommend having the 10 essentials on you when doing any hike, but it is especially important to be prepared for this journey. This is not your typical hike and anything can happen. And while unlikely, the park service recommends you should be prepared to spend an unexpected night in the wilderness. 

Here are some items we especially suggest bringing for this hike!

Alltrails map

We’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails map before you go, using the Pro membership, which is $30 a year and so worth it! 

Since there is no marked trail and you’ll need to keep a very close eye on several landmarks on the way down, the map will help you if you veer too far off the general path. We had heard that the satellite signal wasn’t great going down into the canyon and that the map may not work, but it worked well for us.

Hiking Shoes

For this adventure you’ll want a sturdy hiking boot or shoe. We wore our Lowa Renegades (Kathryn) and Altra Superiors (Adam). They had a pretty good grip on the very loose dirt we encountered.

Gloves 

Gloves were recommended in many reviews and by the ranger in the ranger talk. You will be on all fours at many points during the adventure and the rocks can be sharp, jagged, and get hot in the sun, so gloves really help keep your hands more protected. We wore some thin cold weather gloves that had some slight grip on them and they worked fine!

Hiking Poles

Hiking poles can be helpful on an adventure like this. We don’t typically use them because it makes filming and handling Kona extra difficult, so we did not use them on this hike. The ranger told us she didn’t find them especially helpful on this route, but many have found them helpful on AllTrails reviews, so if you have some, bring them!

Long sleeves and pants

Although we didn’t see any on our hike (we also weren’t heavily looking for it) we were warned during the ranger talk about how abundant poison ivy is along the river. It is more on the North side, but it’s best to wear long sleeves and pants and keep your eyes open for it.

Layers and a rain jacket

Afternoon thunderstorms are likely in the summer months, so make sure to bring at least a rain jacket. It’s also a good idea to have a layer you can take on and off if you need to, as the higher elevation of the park makes the rim a lot cooler than down by the river.

Water and water filtration

The park service recommends having 4 liters of water for this hike. We love our Camelbak bladder for hikes because it stores a ton of water and it’s easy to drink from while moving. 

Since our Camelbak was not 4L, we also brought a water filtration system so that we could fill up from the river, which we highly recommend. There is Giardia in all water sources, so make sure to filter it or purify it. 

High calorie foods

When you get to the bottom it’s a good idea to eat a few high calorie snacks before you head back up. 

Some of our favorites are:

Sunscreen

It is very sunny in Colorado, so sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen are a must! We have been using Bare Republic, which is a “better for you” sunscreen, although it may give you a nice white, vampire-esque sheen. 

Headlamp

If you are starting before sunrise you will want a headlamp to help you on the path. Also, it is always a good idea to have a solid light source just in case you’re out there longer than planned. 

Things to know before attempting the Gunnison Route

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Cost to enter

It costs $30 per vehicle ($25 for motorcycles) to enter Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which covers 7 days. This fee does not cover you at any of the other Colorado National Parks, so you will have to pay for each park, even if you visit them within 7 days.

If you’re visiting more than one National Park on your trip, we highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass which is $80 per year and will get you into any National Park, monument, or forest for free.

Parking and restrooms

To access the Gunnison Route you will park at the Visitor Center. It isn’t a huge lot, but since you most likely will start early, you shouldn’t have an issue. There are restrooms at the visitor center and a pit toilet at the river at the bottom of the canyon.

Pack light

It may be obvious, but you’ll want to bring as little as possible with you to make your journey back up as easy as it can be. But don’t skimp on the important items we listed above!

Pets are NOT allowed

There are many areas in the park where pets are allowed, but the Gunnison Route, or the inner canyon in general, is not one of them. This would be a very challenging adventure for even the most skilled furry friend, so please leave your pup at home or in a safe place. 

Learn what we do with Kona when she cannot join us. For this park, she stayed at an Airbnb we rented in Delta, Colorado since it was 100 degrees out and we couldn’t safely leave her in the van while we hiked or did non dog friendly activities.

Be bear aware

There are black bears in the park (we did not see any), so it’s a good idea to carry bear spray and if you’re staying overnight, you need to take a bear resistant food container with you.  

Cell service is limited or non-existent

Cell service is basically non-existent in the canyon, so be sure to download the AllTrails map before you venture to the park. 

Take note of the route behind you as you go down

As you go down on the route, make sure to take pictures of major landmarks behind you so you can reference this when you aren’t sure where to go on the way back up. When you’re chugging your way back up it’s easy to keep your head down to keep pushing and you start to ignore what direction you’re going in, so make sure to pause every few minutes and look up and make sure you’re not veering off the route. 

You can camp at the bottom

There are three established campsites at the bottom of the canyon, as well as a pit toilet. We would love to camp down here next time, although the thought of lugging the gear down and back up is daunting.

As we mentioned above, you will need to be bear aware and bring a bear-proof canister for your food and toiletry items. 

Our experience hiking the Gunnison Route

Watch our full experience hiking the Gunnison Route, plus exploring the South and North Rims!

After waiting for 3+ hours and getting our permit for the Gunnison Route the day before, we hit the hay early so we could start the route around sunrise the following morning. The area was experiencing a heat wave, so the temperature for the day of our hike was going to reach over 100ºF, so starting very early was key.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

When we arrived at the Visitor Center the following morning, there were only one or two cars parked, so getting a spot was a breeze, and after packing up our items, we hit the Oak Flat Trail, which is the trail you take to start the Gunnison Route.

The trail starts out as a regular trail, with a clearly defined path and 0.3 miles in, you’ll reach a Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness sign that says “wilderness permit required,” which is where the Gunnison Route begins!

The beginning of this route is still a mostly defined path, but it definitely starts to get more rugged and steeper, with some switchbacks that are pretty steep and slippery from the loose dirt. We had to crouch down a few times to help ourselves down, but it wasn’t too bad!

About 0.75 miles in, we reached the famous chain section. We had thought there were multiple chains, but it turns out there is just one long 80 foot chain and the purpose of this is to help you down this steep, dirt section. We had been warned though that there were harder sections without chains, so despite getting some help here, that didn’t mean this was the hardest part.

The chains section was a lot of fun and they definitely helped a lot! After this section, the trail goes back to a lot of just loose dirt and scree, which is super slick when going downhill and we had to crouch down a lot to use our hands to help us feel more secure. 

One thing we want to stress is that we never felt in danger on this route. Unlike some hikes we have done where things can be narrow or slick and there is a huge dropoff on the side, there aren’t drop offs on this trail and if you were to slide, there is plenty to catch you. That’s not to say you can’t get hurt, but we never really felt scared. The biggest thing about this trail for us is that we just had to go slow and it was extremely steep.

As we got closer to the bottom, the views kept getting better and better! At this point, we had only seen two people going down, plus a couple backpackers coming back up, so the solitude on this “trail” was incredible!

Closer to the river there starts to be some confusing spots, where you aren’t 100% sure where to go. This is when the ranger talk from the day before and using AllTrails helps a TON! Going down it was usually pretty obvious where to go, but going back up was more confusing.

The trail becomes rockier towards the bottom, with bigger boulders to climb over, which isn’t too challenging, but definitely slows you down. But after these big boulders we finally reached the river!

The Gunnison River is gorgeous, with beautiful water surrounded by the crazy rocks of the canyon walls. When we first arrived at the bottom, the sun had yet to pop over the canyon, but as we stayed longer, the sun rose higher and we were able to see first hand how some parts of the canyon stay dark due to the narrow walls.

At the bottom, there is a pit toilet (warning: I am pretty sure I saw ticks in here) and some rocky areas where you can sit along the river and enjoy the views. We ate some snacks and filled up a bit more water as well. We ran into one other hiker while down here, but still felt like we mostly had it to ourselves.

Unlike heading down, where you start on a more regular trail and it eventually gets trickier, going up is immediately steep. And with the sun now out more, it was pretty hot, making things even harder.

We were able to use photos we took, plus our AllTrails app to stay on route the entire way up thankfully. But for me (Kathryn), I found going up to be harder and scarier. I thought going down would be scarier because of the fear of falling down, but while going up, some parts were so steep and I was on all fours and still did not feel like I had enough grip to push my body upwards without sliding backwards.

But with Adam’s help and encouragement, we made it back to where the route connects with the Oak Flat Trail, which despite its name is not flat! After huffing and puffing our way up the route, we were disheartened to have more elevation to gain back to the Visitor Center. But about 5 hours after starting the route, we successfully made it back and DANG, did we feel accomplished…and extremely exhausted!

If you have a lot of time in the park, we’d suggest resting after the Gunnison Route, but since we only had one full day, we explored the rest of the South Rim, before going over to the North Rim. And we’re glad we did because one of the coolest stops we made (on the South Rim) after the hike was the Pulpit Rock overlook, where you can see the Gunnison Route from a new perspective, which left us feeling even more proud of what we had just tackled.

Looking for other things to do before or after you conquer the Gunnison Route? Read our detailed guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, including the best things to do, where to stay, getting to the park, itinerary options, and so much more!

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about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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