Black Canyon of the Gunnison – A Quick Guide To Photography

March 2, 2016 ·

QT Luong
Narrows from North Rim, afternoon
Narrows from North Rim, afternoon

Steep, narrow, and deep, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the most impressive river gorges in North America. To give you an idea of the sheer verticality of the canyon, in some places the bottom  gets less than an hour of sunlight a day. Although I am used to exposure on sheer cliffs, standing at the edge often made me feel dizzy. While the canyon is as impressive as any, because it is one of the most recent additions to the National Parks System, it has not been extensively photographed, which means there is opportunity here for fresh, unseen perspectives.

The national park sees relatively few visitors, almost all of them coming to view the South Rim overlooks, most of which are a short stroll from the paved main park road. It takes an 80-mile drive to go from the South Rim to the less developed North Rim, where the park road is unpaved and there are few facilities. In addition to the solitude, the North Rim rewards you with views distinctly different from the South Rim. If you are looking for river-level views, the only easy access is at the end of El Portal Road.. You can scramble from other areas into the inner canyon, but is the routes are for seasoned hikers and make for an adventurous day’s outing.

Late spring and early fall are graced with more pleasant temperatures than summer and even fewer visitors, as well as a light green or bright yellow accent of color from the trees. Winter snows, which can blanket the park from November to April, close the road to the entire North Rim and to the South Rim beyond the Visitor Center.The road remains open year-round up to the Visitor Center. A dusting of snow contrasts beautifully with the dark rock.

South Rim Viewpoints

Painted Wall from Cedar Point, morning
Painted Wall from Cedar Point, morning

Each of the twelve overlooks from the South Rim presents a different view, and all are worth checking out. My favorites are the Painted Wall View and Cedar Point (0.7 mile round-trip), because they offer great views of the Painted Wall, which is one of nature’s masterpieces, showcasing contrasting pegmatite intrusions coursing through the dark rocks of the tallest vertical wall in Colorado.

Gunnison Point, down a short trail from the Visitor Center, can be accessed year-round. Although the river is barely visible from here, there is an open view of impressive spires across the canyon. The best light is in the early morning and late afternoon, and the light is more even in the pre-sunrise dawn. At sunrise and sunset, only the top of the cliff is illuminated. Although the Oak Flat Loop Trail doesn’t descend to the river, it does drop down below the rim, unlike the other moderate trails in the park, making it worth the effort if you are looking for a different perspective.

North Rim Viewpoints

Narrows View, late afternoon
Narrows View, late afternoon

Only a few make the drive to the North Rim, but it generally offers more favorable angles of light and deeper views into the canyon and the river. There are six overlooks in this section of the park, including Islands Peaks View, which features impressive spires, and Chasm View, which has a great angle on the Painted Wall. My favorite is Narrows View, which looks deep into the narrowest part the Black Canyon. On a late afternoon, I was fortunate to have encountered the ideal light for the Narrow Views composition: Sun rays streamed under a dark sky during one of the thunderstorms that occur regularly in the park, creating an atmosphere perfectly suited to the forbidding canyon.

East Portal Road

Gunnison river in fall, East Portal, afternoon
Gunnison river in fall, East Portal, afternoon

The East Portal Road has a different character than either of the Rim roads. Instead of staying on a plateau bordering the deep chasm, it snakes through slopes, passing aspen groves and other deciduous trees that add a touch of color in the autumn. The road descends to the Gunnison River in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, at the edge of the park. Here, the canyon opens up and is much less narrow than the inner canyon. This made it possible to hike downstream on a user trail that provides the only easy river access in the park. Towards the end of September, cottonwoods along the river added a yellow color accent to the dark canyon walls.

North Vista Trail

Canyon from North vista trail, afternoon
Canyon from North vista trail, afternoon

The 7-mile (round-trip) North Vista Trail climbs gradually above the rim, which is unusual as most trails either hug the rim or descend to the river. Those who do make the climb are rewarded with a higher view than those available from the rim. From the trail, I got a striking glimpse of the dramatic incision of the Black Canyon into the flat and forested Uncompahgre Plateau. The view most clear of trees, is from a switchback leading east, above stair steps before the summit itself (where the view is more obstructed). Mid-afternoon light works best. In the spring, after 5 p.m., I found that too much of the landscape was in the shade. On the way, do not miss the short detour to Exclamation Point (3 miles round-trip from the trailhead), where you’ll see the longest straight stretch of river visible from any point in the park. The light there is best from mid to late afternoon.

Inner Canyon

Gunisson river near Narrows. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, USA.
Gunisson river near Narrows. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, USA.

The Park Service warns that hiking the inner canyon is a wilderness experience, with “extremely difficult, steep, and unmarked routes.” They require a wilderness use permit even for day trips. The most-used and easiest inner canyon trail is the Gunnison Route, which starts behind the South Rim visitor center. I hiked instead the Long Draw route from the North Rim, because it descends right into the Narrows. After parking at the Balanced Rock Overlook, I found the descent walking northeast to the bend in the road. Past a small area of trees at the rim, the gully to the river descends quickly, with a vertical drop of 1,600 feet in half a mile. Although there was no trail, the route was obvious, as it followed the narrow gully. However, because the terrain was rather treacherous, with loose rocks and a few short ledges to climb down, it took me an hour and half to cover the short distance. The feeling of wilderness was intense, as I hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the road. The position, next to a roaring river, below the towering cliffs, was awe-inspiring, but I had to be careful because poison ivy was over 5 feet tall in places. The sun reaches the bottom of the canyon only briefly at midday, creating dramatic contrasts of light and shadows; however, I preferred the soft light of open shade to preserve the textures in the swiftly moving water. After making a few photographs, I was packing up my camera when my tripod, balanced on slick rocks, suddenly tipped over and was swallowed by raging waters. Unable to use my large-format camera anymore without it, I scrambled up the steep gully.

See more  Images of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


QT Luong
February 2016

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QT Luong is a full-time photographer from California, known for being the first to photograph all 59 US National Parks - in large format. Ken Burns featured him in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009). His photographs, published in dozens of countries around the world, have been the subject several magazine profiles, solo gallery and museum exhibits. He the author and photographer of "Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America's National Parks" (treasuredlandsbook.com), a large format book where photographs of the 59 US National Parks are augmented with detailed photography locations notes from which this series of articles is drawn.

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