Photographing Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Park Overview:

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was elevated to national park status in 1999. It’s called the Black Canyon because it has high, narrow walls that only allow sunlight to reach the canyon floor for about an hour a day. As a result, the canyon is most often in shadows, causing the gray walls to appear black.

Unlike other canyons of the Southwestern United States, the walls of the Black Canyon are formed by the erosion-resistant metamorphic rocks, gneiss and schist. The extreme verticality of the canyon is caused by a number of geologic processes acting together, but most significantly, the Gunnison River flowing through the center of the canyon, drops an average of 34 feet per mile (5 m/km). In comparison, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile (1.4 m/km). The greatest descent of the Gunnison River occurs at Chasm View, dropping 240 feet per mile (45 m/km).

At its highest point, the walls of the canyon rise to 2,900 feet (880 meters) and at its narrowest point, they are only 40 feet (12 meters) from rim-to-rim. The park contains 12 miles (19km) of the deepest and most dramatic section of the 48-mile (77 km) long canyon.

Both rims of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park feature numerous overlooks, each with their own character. Several of the overlooks are easily accessible, but a few require a short hike.

Before You Go:

Note that this is a difficult park to photograph well. The canyon is so deep and narrow that sunlight only reaches the bottom during a short window of time around noon. Although the park is incredible to see, we only recommend it as a photographic location if you have other nearby locations on your itinerary.

There is no food, lodging, or gasoline available on either rim and water is only available from mid-May until mid-October. Be sure to stock up before you head into the park!

When to Go:

South Rim: Open every day. The South Rim Road is open to vehicles from early April to mid-November. In winter, the South Rim Road is open to Gunnison Point. The remainder of the road is closed to vehicles, but open to cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

North Rim: North Rim Road and ranger station are closed in winter. The road typically closes late November and reopens mid-April.

We recommend May, when the weather is great and the crowds are light, or July, when wildflowers are in bloom.

Important Information:

Standing at the edge of this canyon and seeing the sheer verticality of the canyon walls will cause you to feel slightly dizzy, even if you aren’t afraid of heights. Be careful where you stand! Also watch for loose stone.

Be aware that there is no bridge between the north and south rims of the canyon. You will have to allow between two and three hours to drive from one side to the other, so if you’re short on time, factor that into your plans.

If you decide to hike the Inner Canyon, poison ivy is nearly impossible to avoid, and can be found growing 5 feet tall along the river. You should also be bear aware if you’re making this hike! Plan to bring high energy food and at least 4 quarts of water per person per day and note that giardia is in all water sources, including the river; therefore, all water must be purified. A backcountry permit is required even for day hikes and a limited number are available.

Other Useful Information:

For Commercial Filming and Photography, see the information and resources on the National Park page.

Allow 2-3 hours to stop at several of the overlooks. If you’re limited on time, visit Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall and Sunset View. Those stops will give a great overview of the canyon and how it was formed.

Recommended Gear:

Camera body
Medium range lens will cover most shots
Ultra-wide angle lens to shoot canyon walls and the river below
Long telephoto lens to shoot wildlife
Polarizer to cut down on haze and reflections on the river
A gradient lens can reduce the contrast between the sky and canyon walls
Tripod for sunset shots

General Photography Tips:

Although it’s usually not recommended to shoot landscapes at noon time, this is one of the few places where you’ll want to break that rule. In fact, there is a limited window of time in the middle of the day when there is enough sunlight to see directly down to the bottom of the canyon.

Due to the contrast between the dark walls and the bright sky, you’ll want to shoot with a gradient filter. If you’re shooting the river, or it’s a particularly hazy day, you’ll want to use a polarized filter. Shoot a variety of compositions and try to include something in the foreground to give your image perspective. Also look for views of the walls that help to show its depth, or views of the Gunnison River cutting its way through.

Along the South Rim there are several miles (kilometers) of hiking trails, as well as multiple overlooks, many of which are easily accessible.

The canyon walls along the North Rim are nearly vertical, offering some of the most impressive views found in the park. The North Rim has six overlooks and far fewer visitors. Allow at least 2-3 hours for a leisurely tour of either rim and another 2-3 hours to travel from rim-to-rim.

Defining Photos:

Chasm View – Provides excellent views of the narrowest part of the canyon.

Cross Fissures View – This view gives you a great look at the rock walls and the ancient sediments that were melted, faulted, fractured, uplifted, and eroded.

Gunnison Point – This is where the visitors’ center is located on the South Rim, and offers your first deep view into the canyon.

Painted Wall – This is the highest cliff in Colorado, at nearly 2300 feet (700 meters).

Pulpit Rock Overlook – Juts out into the canyon and provides beautiful views of the Gunnison River below.

Sunset View – You’ll see the sunset reflecting off the waters of the Gunnison River.

Other Photos:

Descending to the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not for everyone, but for those who want to make the hike, you may discover an unusual view of the river and canyon walls.

The National Park Service warns that hiking the inner canyon is strenuous and only those individuals who are in excellent physical condition should attempt these hikes. There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon, and hikers should be prepared for self-rescue.

Remember that sunlight only reaches the canyon floor for about an hour each day (around noon), so plan your hike accordingly. For most of the day, the walls will be in shade, making the canyon black.

Once you have reached the river, the terrain makes it difficult to move around, so choose a point that will allow you to emphasize the power of the river in your photos and work quickly. Shoot various compositions with and without the sky.

For more information about hiking the inner canyon and available routes, visit the National Park website.

Wildlife:

Mule Deer can be found throughout Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Be careful driving along U.S. Highway 50 and CO Highways 347 and 92 at dawn and dusk, as they frequently cross the road and can cause major damage to your vehicle. You may occasionally see Elk, or Wapiti, in early fall and winter, but they spend most of their time at higher elevations during the summer months. Also occasionally seen are Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, but they also like higher elevations in the summer.

Walking along the trails, you’ll most likely see Smooth Green Snakes, Great Basin Gopher Snakes, Striped Whipsnakes, Garter Snakes, and a variety of lizards and salamanders. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Least and Colorado Chipmunks, and Mountain Cottontails can be seen throughout the canyon and if you look carefully, you may spot Yellow-bellied Marmots, large rodents who love to sunbathe on rocky outcrops and ledges.

Additionally, the canyon is home to a number of bird species including the Great Horned Owl, the American Dipper, Magpies, and Steller’s Jay. A number of migratory birds such as the Mountain Bluebird, Peregrine Falcon, White-throated Swift and Canyon Wren can also be seen.

Coyotes are frequently heard, especially before dawn, but rarely seen. Skunks, Badgers, Long-Tail Weasels and Ringtail Cats are also occasionally seen at dawn and dusk along the trails and along the roadsides.