Black Canyon of Gunnison - America's Best Adventure Climbing

© Jack Geldard

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Did those simple words strike fear deep in to your heart? No? Well, you've obviously never been then.

A team on the classic Jimmy Dunn  5.11 big wall of Stoned Oven  © Jack Geldard
A team on the classic Jimmy Dunn 5.11 big wall of Stoned Oven
© Jack Geldard, Feb 2010

'The Black' as it is affectionately known, is located around 60 miles from the town of Gunnison in Western Colorado, USA and is a huge vertical-walled canyon, cutting a 700m chasm through the earth. The Black is a kind of Yosemite antidote, there is no El Cap meadow, no Camp 4 cafe, just huge rubble-strewn gullies housing perched death-blocks and poison ivy. The rock is at times suspect and at other times total choss. The routes are long and retreat is difficult. Conditions are hard to get right, route information is at best vague and protection can be somewhat psychological.

In short 'The Black' is awesome!

A wide shot of the team on Stoned Oven - check the size of this wall!  © Jack Geldard
A wide shot of the team on Stoned Oven - check the size of this wall!
© Jack Geldard, Feb 2010


The walls of the canyon are up to 700m high and are made mainly of gneiss. However the gneiss is so heavily enriched with feldspar it is virtually identical to granite in physical attributes and very close in composition too. Pegmatite veins slice through the gneiss walls and range from a few centimetres in width to huge scary snakes several metres wide. To my inexperienced eye the pegmatite seemed to be just like quartz. So it's black and gold granite-type-rock shot through with loose 'quartzy' veins.

The canyon is extremely deep and narrow, a geological wonder, and was formed by the raging Gunnison river. Usually, when faced with such hard rock, a river would cut a much wider canyon than The Black, which at it's narrowest point (rim to rim) is a mere 335m. However on top of the hard gneiss sat a layer of softer rock, through which the river carved its initial passage. This left it no choice but to continue cutting when it reached the gneiss, as it was 'stuck' in the trough it had already carved, thus creating the climbing paradise we have today.

Black Canyon Climbing Skills

The shortest routes in The Black are around 6 pitches and the longest are around 26 pitches. All involve descents down steep gullies. The primary skill that any visiting climber should have is experience on routes of at least 6 pitches in length.

If you are new to the canyon then choose a short route to start on and factor in extra time to navigate gullies, avoid poison ivy, get lost, fall over and generally punter around. After a couple of days you will find yourself flying down the gullies in record time and can then tackle the bigger routes with confidence.

Although The Black is a rock climbing destination, the feel is more of an Alpine nature, with loose rock, big routes and cold shady temperatures mirrored by scorching hot temperatures when in the full sun. Your Malham redpoint grade won't cut much mustard here.

Ian Wilson high on the Scenic Cruise, Black Canyon  © Jack Geldard
Ian Wilson high on the Scenic Cruise, Black Canyon
© Jack Geldard, Feb 2010

An Alpine apprenticeship will do you well in terms of moving fast over moderate ground, dealing with loose rock, route finding and generally surviving in a hostile environment. A good background in crack climbing will also help, and might make those 5.9 pitches feel a little less like E5!

Dangers: Ticks, Poison Ivy and Loose Rock

Ticks: On our trip in September and October we encountered no ticks whatsoever, however we have been told that they are more prevalent in the Spring. The canyon wasn't quite the raging tick-fest we had been told to expect. See this UKC Article for advice on ticks, but don't get too worried, the ticks in The Black don't carry Lyme disease.

Poison Ivy: After hearing many horror stories we gingerly inched our way down the canyon gullies, ready to be engulfed in ticks and poison ivy. Neither really happened. Poison ivy doesn't grow on the rims of the canyon, only inside the gullies. It is usually in big clumps and is fairly easily avoided during day light. See the following photos for help with identification.

Poison Ivy in the Black Canyon  © UKC Articles
Poison Ivy in the Black Canyon
Poison Ivy in the Black Canyon  © UKC Articles
Poison Ivy in the Black Canyon

Ian Wilson setting up the portaledge on the Hallucinogen Wall, Black Canyon
© Jack Geldard, Feb 2010
Although some people come out in a terrible rash from just going near the stuff, we clambered past it, brushed it with our clothes and generally stumbled around like idiots and had no ill effects. We didn't grab it with our bare hands and we didn't fall in to it, I suspect if we had, I would be writing a slightly different article! As it stands I would rank poison ivy alongside nettles, neither are great for rolling around in, but don't pose a life threatening problem.

Loose Rock: The rock of the canyon is very Alpine in character, perhaps as a result of being water-cut instead of glacier-ground. The surface of the rock is generally very sound, with nice granite-esque crimps and cracks. However there are booming flakes and large detached blocks, much like climbing on big mountains. The Black is loose on a 'macro scale' not a 'micro scale'. The pegmatite bands are a little different, usually being quite shattered and flaky and perhaps more akin to what British climbers would call 'loose', similar to North Stack Wall at Gogarth. Overall though the rock is of a very solid nature and the climbing is very enjoyable, especially on the more well-travelled routes.

The author wearing a fairly stiff pair of shoes slightly bigger than his normal size, on a long route in the Black Canyon, USA
© Jack Geldard, Feb 2010

Recommended Routes List

  • Journey Home (5.10-), North Chasm View
  • Southern Arete of the Painted Wall (5.10+), Painted Wall
  • Scenic Cruise (5.10+), North Chasm View
  • Stoned Oven (5.11+), North Chasm View
  • Astro Dog (5.11+), South Chasm View
  • Atlantis (5.11+), Long Draw Area
  • Tague Yer Time (5.12)
  • Quailgeist (5.12), North Chasm View
  • Black Magic, aka Free Nose (5.12), North Chasm View
  • Black Sheep (5.13c), North Chasm View

Shorter Routes, good for an intro

  • Escape Artist (5.10)
  • Comic Relief (5.10)
  • Checkerboard Wall (5.10)


When to Go

The two main climbing seasons in The Black are spring and autumn. Summer is way too hot in the direct sun and winter is well, cold and snowy. Routes have been climbed here all year round but to make the most out of a trip you would be advised to stick to the main seasons. These being Mid April to early June and mid September to early November. Be prepared for hot or cold weather at the start or end of each window.

How to Get There

Fly to Denver International Airport, Colorado. From there you need to drive. The Canyon is located 60 miles West of Gunnison. We drove there via Glenwood Springs (there's a climbing shop there) by taking the Interstate 70 out of Denver to Glenwood Springs, then going through Carbondale, Hotchkiss and Crawford and finally arriving at the North Rim. You will need a map of some description.

The Gunnison river in the base of the canyon is very difficult to cross, meaning that you must descend the canyon on the same side as your intended route.

The South Rim is the easiest to get to and has a large visitor centre and road access. There are many great climbs on this side of the canyon but for the first time visitor the North Rim is 'where it's at dude'. The South Rim is just off highway 50 around 35 miles West of Gunnison.

The North Rim is more tricky to get to. Follow Highway 50 West out of Gunnison (as for the South Rim) for around 25 miles and turn North on to the Highway 92. Follow this smaller highway to just a couple of miles before the village of Crawford. Here you turn left (West) on to a small road called Black Canyon Rd. After a few miles this road turns to a dirt track which is followed for 6 miles (how's that hire car looking!) to the North Rim campsite. The turn off on to Black Canyon Road is quite easy to miss but is very close to Crawford Reservoir and several campgrounds including Iron Creek Campground.

NB. If you are visiting in winter (you masochist) be aware that the dirt road to the North Rim will be closed and you will need to walk or ski the 6 miles to the campsite.

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This is America. The food is excellent! I would recommend the Gunnison Brewery for beer and the W Diner (almost next door). Food can be bought all over, the nearest place is Crawford, a few miles from the North Rim Campsite. Crawford has a couple of small shops and a couple of bars and restaurants and a petrol station.


The Black Canyon Guidebook

Gear and Supplies

Gear can be bought in Gunnison and in Glenwood Springs. Gunnison is around 50 miles away and Glenwood Springs is around 100 miles away.

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Other Activities

Amazing mountain biking and hiking.

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Thanks are due to Ian Wilson and Jeff Hollenbaugh for their help and input in to this article.

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18 Mar, 2010
Great Jack. It's certainly an awesome place. We did Scenic Cruise in 1996. An American team let us go past them about 3 or 4 pitches up - and then sat on their belay until we were a clear pitch above them. I remember clipping three of the WORST bolts I've ever seen, on the pegmatite band. Our American friends paid dearly for their generosity as they were caught in the mother of all thunder storms - I imagine on that three bolt pitch - as we topped out... Brilliant, but we've never been back!
18 Mar, 2010
It's big-wall Gogarth with wide cracks. The only route I've done is a big 5.11+ which had an offwidth crux! We paid heavily for the mellow 9am start by getting darked before topping out. Had to split the last pitch into 3 as we found we had only 1 headtorch between us. Brilliant, but never been back either!
18 Mar, 2010
should be black canyon of the gunnison, no?
18 Mar, 2010
Actually it should (whatever should means) be The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. But it is commonly known as 'The Black' or Black Canyon of Gunnison. Hope you found the article and PDF topo useful as well as taking umbrage with the title. Thanks, Jack
18 Mar, 2010
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