On the Warner Route: Black Canyon Backpacking Trip

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the newest national parks, established in 1999. It is also one of the lesser visited of the parks - only about 240,000 visitors in 2016 compared to Yellowstone's and Yosemite's 4-5 million visitors. Black Canyon is so called because the steepness prevents the sun from striking the canyon walls, but we didn't let that stop us.

This past weekend, a group of my friends and I descended into the canyon via the Warner Route for an overnight trip. With our tents, sleeping bags, and food on our backs, we hiked the steep 2.5 miles to camp next to the Gunnison River. We only ran into two other groups during our hike down, and they were heading up the canyon, so we had the whole area at the base of the route to ourselves.

We started our descent into the canyon around one PM on Saturday. A 2.5 mile hike might not sound like much but there is an elevation change of 2722 feet over the course of that hike. The steepness of the decline forced us to scoot down on our butts on some parts of the trail and our feet slipped out from under us more than a few times. Covered in sweat and legs shaking, we reached the river around four PM. This left plenty of hours of sunlight to enjoy a little beachy area on an inlet of the river and to find a cozy little campsite shrouded in trees. We snacked, had a few beers, waded in the river, and sunbathed for most of the afternoon on our tiny river beach. The water was cold but refreshing and exactly what our sore legs needed after the relentless hike into the canyon.

(Gear) "Hanging" Tree

As dinnertime and nighttime approached, we set up our campsite. We heated cans of soups and pre-cooked lentils on mini propane tank and burner set ups. The sun disappeared behind the canyon wall around seven PM but the sky was bright until nine PM. After that, the moon and stars came out which, reflected off the canyon wall, created a lot of natural light. Although campfires are not allowed at the base of the canyon, this allowed us to have a little more time playing cards and drinking whiskey. Cards and whiskey eventually turned to stargazing and music (cue "A Comet Appears" by The Shins). Even at ten PM, it was in the upper 50s in the canyon, so we dragged sleeping bags out of our tents and slept under a star-filled sky, the ambient noise of the rushing Gunnison River lulling us to sleep.

The sun was already working its way around the canyon wall when we awoke Sunday morning at seven. Incredibly well-rested, I started the day with a stretch, a splash of cold river water on my face and neck, and some coffee made in my friend Amanda's AeroPress. I wouldn't mind starting every day like that.

Sunrise in the canyon

Coffee in the canyon

We were packed and headed up the canyon by nine. The hike up was more of a calf workout than the descent had been, which was a blessing for our quads, but was difficult nonetheless. There were a few times hiking up that the trail was so steep that we had to grab onto roots, rocks, and branches as if we were rock climbing on the trail itself. It was difficult, and a little scary at times, but so exhilarating. We emerged from the backside of the canyon and were greeted with some beautiful views on Warner Point, which is a popular overlook. We set our backpacks down to take a breath, take in our surroundings, and take a few pictures. Exhausted and dusty, we returned to the cars. 

Overnight on the Warner Route

Below is the trip itinerary we followed and packing list of what we brought. If you're considering doing the Warner Route overnight trip, make sure you check out a map of the park here and read up on the route here. Adventure is out there!

Trip Itinerary

Day #1: Roadtrippin' to the Park

  • From Denver, it is a 5 hour drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (enter South Rim Visitor Center into your maps app)
    • Consider stopping in Buena Vista to camp along the way
      • Fourmile Campground off of N Colorado Blvd
        • Cost: Free
    • Visit Main St while in BV. The Buena Vista Coffee Roastery is an awesome local watering hole

Day #2: Arriving at the Park and Descending the Canyon

  • As with any national park, there is a $15 entrance fee per vehicle
    • Free if you have the interagency pass
  • You will need a backcountry permit to hike on any of the inner canyon routes
    • Talk with a ranger at the South Rim Visitor Center 
    • Cost: Free
  • Stop at some of the scenic overlooks as you drive along South Rim Road to the Warner Point trailhead
    • Cross Fissures View is an excellent overlook
    • Cedar Point will allow you to see Painted Wall as well as the Chasm View
  • Park at the Warner Point Trailhead, make sure you've got all your gear (see packing list below), and start hiking!
  • Leave about 4 hours to descend the canyon
    • Rim to river is 2.5 miles and change in elevation of 2722 feet. Maneuvering the steepness is what requires time.
  • At the base of the canyon, you can either turn left or right off the trail
    • We found excellent camping by turning left off the trail but turning right will take you to the outhouse and the little beachy area on the river
  • Camp and be merry

Day #3: Ascending the Canyon and Heading Home

  • Leave about 4 hours to ascend the canyon, again because of the steepness
  • Return bear canister (if borrowed) and permit to the South Rim Visitor Center
  • Marvel at the Blue Mesa Reservoir on your way out of the park. The Gunnison River is dammed up here before reaching the canyon.
  • If you're looking for a hot meal, be prepared to drive 1.5 hours to the city of Gunnison for restaurants
    • El Paraiso provided delicious Mexican food in large quantities
    • We would have stopped at the Firebrand Delicatessen for their notoriously epic sandwiches, but they close at 3 PM everyday. Next time!
  • Revel in the wonderful experience you had in Black Canyon, and try not to think about how sore your legs are


Packing List

  • Water filter
  • Sleeping bag
  • Tent (check the weather as it may be warm enough not to need it)
  • Food
  • Sunscreen (apply frequently when hiking as the sun beats down into the canyon most of the day)
  • Headlamp/flashlight/lantern
  • Mini Propane Tank and burner (if your food requires heat, since campfires are not allowed)
  • Bear Canister (can be rented for free from the South Rim Visitor Center)
  • Hiking shoes
  • Water sandals (for wading in the Gunnison River)
  • Shoe Spikes (I did not bring these and I think it would have made some the steep scrambles much easier to manage)