Black Canyon Camping: The Best Campgrounds and Dispersed Campsites

Black Canyon Camping: The Best Campgrounds and Dispersed Campsites

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is full of spectacular sights. And if you’re looking for Black Canyon camping locations, you’re in the right place. There are tons of options for camping here!

But how do you know which one you should stay at during your trip? This article will review the two campgrounds in Black Canyon National Park, some of the closest Black Canyon dispersed camping areas, and a large variety of camping options in the surrounding area.

You’ll have everything you need to make an informed decision to what fits your Black Canyon camping needs the best.

Michael and Kristina at one of the greatest overlooks at Black Canyon, close to the visitor's center

Part of a hiking trail on the South Rim of the Black Canyon


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1. Black Canyon Campgrounds

South Rim Campground

The most popular campground in Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the South Rim Campground. It is one mile from the Visitor’s Center and is the largest campground in the area. The South Rim Campground has 88 campsites and 23 with electrical hookups. Trash disposal and bathrooms are available year round, potable water is seasonal (mid-May through mid-October). There are no showers here.

Like many National Park campgrounds, reservations can be made up to six months in advance via 32 sites are first-come, first-served basis, so all hope is not lost if you can’t make a reservation. Make sure to get there before the busy weekend traffic if you can.

The Black Canyon Visitor's Center

A juniper tree near the South Rim Campground in Black Canyon

Many people choose the Black Canyon’s South Rim Campground because it is the closest to most of the park’s major lookout points. The campground is at the edge of the Black Canyon, close to the main road which runs along the South Rim to the majority of the best viewing areas and hiking trails. It is also more easily accessible than the North Rim Campground.

Additionally, the Night Sky viewing area is nearby. Did you know the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is designated as an International Dark Sky Park? It’s hard to find a better place to stargaze.

If you like to camp inside of established campgrounds and want to be close to the lookout points, the South Rim Campground is likely your best bet for Black Canyon camping.

But it’s not the only option.

The East Portal Campground near Black Canyon, open seasonally

East Portal Campground

The East Portal Campground is located in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, directly east of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. There are main reasons why people enjoy camping here: (1) It is located on the shoreline of the Gunnison River and (2) There are many box elder trees which provide shade to the campsites.

However, the East Portal Campground is a seasonal, TENT-ONLY campground. It is usually open mid-May through mid-September. There are 15 sites at this campground, which are all first-come, first-served. Trash, water, and vault toilets are available when the campground is open.

The East Portal Road is the only way to access this area. The road is an unpaved switchback with grades up to 16%. That’s insanely steep and vehicles exceeding 22 feet in length are NOT permitted on East Portal Road. Severe temperature swings happen at this campground, sometimes exceeding 30° F in one day. Be prepared for any weather, even in the summer.

A mild section of the East Portal Road, open seasonally

North Rim Campground

The North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a more isolated and quiet part of this National Park. That is because most people have to drive all the way around the park and canyon to reach it, which can take over an hour. The last 7 miles of the road to the North Rim are unpaved and the road is closed in the winter.

But if you are looking for a smaller campground to visit in the summer, then this may be worth checking out. There are 13 campsites at the North Rim Campground, and they are more spacious and spread out than the South Rim Campground.

Vault toilets, water, and trash are available during the seasonal operations of the North Rim Campground. There are no electrical hookups.

Looking over the Black Canyon at the North Rim's camping area

A view looking through some trees on the South Rim

Those are the three campgrounds closest to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Click here to continue reading about other campgrounds in the area.

2. Black Canyon Dispersed Camping

Dispersed Camping Near the South Rim

If you don’t mind camping without amenities (no toilets, water, or trash stations), then you’ll be very happy to know that dispersed campsites are available about ten minutes from the entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! Free camping nearby!

Along Highway 347 (the road used to approach the South Rim and Visitor’s Center) there is a turnoff which leads to a maze of dispersed campsites. This unpaved area is full of deeply-rutted dirt roads. They can become nearby impassible when it rains and 4WD is recommended even during dry conditions.

There are a few campsites very close to the road which may be suitable for some larger vehicles, but the best sites are tucked away down the road. We camped at two different sites here. Both had excellent views of the Montrose area and were perfect for watching the sunset. One had a decent amount of shade from the juniper trees, but some sites are fairly exposed to the wind and sun.

One of the dispersed campsites near Black Canyon

One of the beautiful sunsets we witnessed in the dispersed camping area near Black Canyon National Park

If you choose to venture deeper into this area, be prepared to get stranded if it rains. I love using 4WD to get away from crowds, but these roads get insanely slick during rainy conditions and they have areas which are quite steep. The dirt can turn into serious mud pits at times too. Please be careful if you go out here and bring sufficient food and water.

For most people with a 4WD vehicle looking for dispersed camping near the Black Canyon National Park, this is your best bet.

But if you need a space for a larger vehicle or one without 4WD, then the next option might be suit your needs better.

A mild part of unpaved road in the dispersed camping area near the entrance to Black Canyon National Park

The Gunnison River flowing through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Montrose Town Park aka Cerise Park

The town of Montrose, Colorado is located about 25 minutes away from the Black Canyon’s Visitor’s Center (located on the South Rim of the Park). It is a quaint Colorado town located in a flat valley.

The Montrose Town Park (aka Cerise Park) offers overnight parking. Only one night is permitted and it is RV friendly. The parking lot is located close to the West Main trailhead on the Uncompahgre River. A trail runs along the river and is great for walking and biking.

Kristina on one of the South Rim's lookout points

There is a toilet in the parking lot, but it is seasonal and may be closed during the winter. The parking lot is about 5 blocks from Montrose’s main intersection (Main Ave and Townsend Ave), where a large variety of shops and stores are located. Dump and water fill stations are located nearby, as discussed near the end of this article.

While this is not the most isolated or the most beautiful camping spot, it serves a purpose for those looking to crash overnight near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Best of all, it’s free!

One of many juniper trees in the area

Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area

If you know dispersed camping, then you likely know of BLM lands. And this is the best option for dispersed camping near Black Canyon if you don’t have 4WD and want to stay in beautiful surroundings.

The Gunnison Gorge National Conversation Area is located north of the Black Canyon National Park. Which means the closest area of the Park is the North Rim. The Gunnison Gorge NCA consists of 62,844 acres of BLM land and wilderness areas. There are a few different camping options for this area.

If you are in one of the Wilderness areas in the Gunnison Gorge NCA and you want to camp along the river, you MUST pay for a permit at the Chukar boat launch and stay in designated areas. There is a two night maximum stay for hikers, while boaters can only stay for one night.

The lookout point at the South Rim Visitor's Center at Black Canyon

Outside of the Wilderness areas, you can camp along the Gunnison River at the Cottonwood Grove campground and other BLM-designated campsites. If you stay at a campsite without restrooms, you must have your own portable toilet system. A bit more complicated than other dispersed campsites.

Want fewer restrictions? Don’t worry, the Gunnison Gorge NCA offers dispersed camping in many other areas away from the river. You can stay for up to six consecutive nights. For more information, visit the BLM website for this wonderful (and giant) conservation area.

Please remember to leave no trace.

Here is a brochure with much of the information needed to camp near the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

That sums up the top three places for Black Canyon dispersed camping. Next up, the wilderness backpacking available near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. After that, I’ll review the other campgrounds and dispersed campsites in the areas surrounding the Park, including Blue Mesa Reservoir.

The entrance to one wilderness area for backpackers in Black Canyon

3. Wilderness Backpacking Near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Before we go over some of the backpacking options for camping in Black Canyon National Park, it’s worth knowing that the majority of these sites are only accessible via unmarked trails which can be very steep. Poison ivy is abundant throughout the park and sometimes can be over 5 feet high along the riverbed. Bear canisters are not required, but are highly recommended.

The backpacking sites in the Black Canyon are generally not for beginners. You must obtain a permit before venturing into the Canyon trails. If you choose to make this part of your visit to the Black Canyon, be prepared for serious hiking and isolation. Knowledge of self-rescue techniques is vital.

A sign describing the self-registration process for wilderness backpacking permits

South Rim – Gunnison, Tomichi, & Warner Routes

There are three different main routes along the South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The Gunnison Route is recommended for most first-timers to the Black Canyon for overnight backpacking. The trail is 1.5 miles long with over 1,800 feet in vertical drop. It starts near the Visitor’s Center. While 1.5 miles sounds short, this is a difficult hike and requires careful route selection for every footstep.

The Tomichi Route is a longer, more advanced backpacking area in the Black Canyon. It is very steep in parts and brings you to one of the narrowest sections of the Black Canyon. The ascent time is close to 5 hours, more than three times longer than the estimated descent time.

Finally, the Warner Route is the longest backpacking route in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and is recommended only as an overnight hike. (The other trails can be done as day-hikes if desired.)

For more information on the backpacking sites and wilderness hiking in the Black Canyon, visit the NPS website.

A view of the backpacking sites in the wilderness areas of Black Canyon of the Gunnison

North Rim – S.O.B. Draw

The S.O.B. Draw is the recommended route for first-timers wanting to backpack overnight on the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Poison ivy is abundant and isolation is nearly guaranteed. Be prepared with plenty of water and the understanding that the ascent will be challenging.

It is named S.O.B. for a reason.

For more information on the North Rim routes, see the NPS website.

Kristina hanging out near the Gunnison River

East Portal – Devil’s Backbone

Are these names getting to you yet? During the summer months when the East Portal Road is open, backpacking is available along the Gunnison River via the Devil’s Backbone trail.

The main advantage to this area is that the trailhead begins at the base of the canyon, along the Gunnison River. Meaning you do not have to hike upwards of 2,000 feet in elevation change.

Once again, this trail does offer a serious challenge with areas of scrambling and abundant poison ivy. But many fisherman say it is an ideal route for overnight backpacking near many fishing holes along the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon National Park.

Now it’s time to review some of the other popular camping areas outside of the Black Canyon National Park, mainly the areas near the Blue Mesa Reservoir and in the town of Montrose.

A sign near the Gunnison River at the base of the East Portal Road

Some of  the rules and  regulations for the East Portal area of Black Canyon

4. Camping Areas East of the Black Canyon National Park

Soap Creek Horse Coral and Soap Creek Campground

This area is located east of the Black Canyon, about an hour from the South Rim Visitor’s Center and 1.5 hours from the North Rim. Obviously, not the closest campsite for Black Canyon.

There is free, dispersed camping at the Soap Creek Horse Coral, which may be a bit busy with… horse trailers. After all, it is a horse coral.

Just up the road, the Soap Creek Campground is an established campground for people who prefer to have vault toilets and water (hand-pumped) nearby. $12 per night. No reservations; first-come, first-served at all 21 sites.

People love the hiking trails in the area as well as the abundant shade, which is not available at many of the other campsites near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

A view from the Gunnison River near the East Portal Campground

Mesa Creek Campground

The Mesa Creek Campground is located east of the Black Canyon and is closer than the Soap Creek area. However, access to the South Rim takes longer because you have to travel east to cross the Gunnison River. The North Rim is about 1 hour away.

This is a smaller, seasonal campground with no toilets available.

Kristina enjoying a windy part of the day at Black Canyon

Blue Mesa Reservoir

The Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest body of water close to the Black Canyon National Park. There are a few different options for camping along its edge, but all of them have very little shade and some suffer from the noisy highway running next to the reservoir.

The best part about this area is that you are close to the city of Gunnison, without being too far away from the South Rim area of the Black Canyon National Park.

The top choices for campgrounds on the Blue Mesa Reservoir are: (1) Lake Fork Campground, (2) the Elk Creek Campground, and (3) Steven’s Creek Campground.

Michael looking southwest from the South Rim of Black Canyon

5. West of Park – Camping in Montrose, Colorado

The town of Montrose is about 30 minutes away from the South Rim’s Visitor’s Center. I’ve already touched on one of the dispersed campsites in Montrose which allows one night of overnight parking and may have a vault toilet available in the summer.

If you prefer campgrounds with more amenities and want to stay in Montrose, then there are two places you can check out.

Montrose KOA: Like many KOA’s, the Montrose KOA has lots of amenities, including WiFi, pool, and dog park.

Montrose – San Juan RV Resort: This is an RV park which also has some small cabins.

Montrose WalMart: This isn’t the fanciest camping spot but overnight parking is permitted. Stay along the grassy section by the highway. I recommend checking out the Montrose Town Park as mentioned above if you are considering this location. But this may be an option if you need to stay more than one night.

A portrait view of the massive Black Canyon and Painted Wall

6. More Notes about Black Canyon Camping: Water, Dump, and Other Things to Do

The Shall Gas station in northern Montrose offers a water fill and dump station. It is free if you purchase at least 10 gallons of fuel, or available for a small fee if you’re already full.

Another water fill stations is located at the Conoco in Montrose.

Kristina looking out at the western end of Black Canyon, toward the town of Montrose

If you are in the Black Canyon area, there are two things worth checking out nearby. First, the incredible San Juan region, located south of Montrose. The towns of Ridgeway, Ouray, Telluride, Silverton, and Durango are all within a relatively-short drive.

This is where a portion of the famous million-dollar highway is at. This is one of my absolute favorite areas in Colorado and if you have never visited, I strongly encourage you to check out this area. Ziplining near Durango is always fun, or some of the many other tours there, like Durango Jeep tours.

If you are going north or east from the Black Canyon National Park (like many from Denver and other central-Colorado mountain towns), then I recommend going through a major Colorado winery area. The towns of Paonia and Marble offer quite a few places with wine tasting and can be a fun stop.

Kristina climbing some of the rock formations on the South Rim of Black Canyon

7. Important Items to Bring to Black Canyon

Visiting the Black Canyon is a blast, but you need to be properly prepared. There is some vegetation, but most of it is short shrubs or juniper trees. Because of that and the intense altitude, staying hydrated is a must.

We love the Hydro Flask lineup of reusable water bottles. With the many water stations available on the South Rim, having a reusable water bottle is the most ecofriendly way to stay hydrated.

Another essential item for the Black Canyon, especially if you are considering backpacking or dispersed camping is a quality first-aid kit. No, not the $10 ones from Walmart with nothing more than a coupe band-aids and pain killers. Instead, check out the incredible first aid kits from MyMedic.

Finally, if you need more gear before you hit the road, consider shopping at REI. This outdoor gear retailer is different from many other companies because it is a Co-Op. That means investors do NOT run the show. REI is owned by its employees and customers, sort of like how a credit union operates. Become a member for a lifetime of awesome deals and to support a great organization which puts an environmental focus on everything it does.

A magnificent view of the Pained Wall

Hotels Near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Do all of these Black Canyon camping areas not fit your needs? Then check out the nearby hotels in Montrose (south rim) and Hotchkiss (north rim).

View the listings for Montrose here. Or check out the options for Hotchkiss, a smaller town.

Michael and Kristina enoying the day at Black Canyon

Summary of Black Canyon Camping

There is no shortage of Black Canyon camping options. For most people, the South Rim Campground is the obvious choice. But there is dispersed camping for Black Canyon near the entrance of the park (if you have 4WD) and there are plenty of other camping options nearby. The town of Montrose is a hub for many people visiting Black Canyon, as is the Blue Mesa Reservoir closer to the town of Gunnison.

Now it’s time for you to make your choice and finish planning your trip to this awesome National Park. I hope you enjoy!

Want to keep reading camping-related posts? Check these out:

Camping Solar Panels – Ditch the noisy gas generator and get with the times. Go solar!

25 Cool Camping Gadgets – Some of the latest and greatest tech for outdoorsy people.

Camping Near Mesa Verde National Park – Visiting Mesa Verde before or after Black Canyon? Here’s another in-depth look at the camping options.

What Black Canyon camping area seems best for your needs? Leave a comment to share your thoughts so we can continue to find the best options for our readers!

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Camping in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Best Campsites in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, USA

6 thoughts on “Black Canyon Camping: The Best Campgrounds and Dispersed Campsites”

  1. Hi there! Great tips and article thank you for this!

    I’m heading up there tomorrow and am confused about the turn off you’re talking about for South Rim dispersed camping. We’d like to be under shade if possible, do you have a pinpoint on which turn off we should take?

    1. Hi Adeline! The BLM dispersed camping area closest to the south rim entrance is located here: 38.53234, -107.71714. Here’s a link to that location on Google Maps.

      Hopefully you can find one of the spots with shade! Some have a good amount while others are a bit more exposed.

  2. I stumbled onto your travel blog and so glad I did. Best article and info I’ve found on this area. Exactly what I needed to know and made me more excited as I read. We will be driving up from Durango and make stops along the way. My question is similar to the previous one – would 1/2 day and full next day be enough to hike, splash in the river, see the views?
    Thanks for your time. Look forward to reading more on your travel adventures!
    C. from Arkansas

    1. Hi C! I think a day and a half at Black Canyon is enough for most people. I’d probably go to the visitor’s center and a few lookout points once you pull in. Then the next morning go for one of the shorter hikes, the rest of the upper lookout points, and drive down to the water’s edge. Enjoy the drive up from Durango! We love stopping in the postcard-perfect town of Silverton. If you manage to find the time, there are some great hot springs in Ouray.

  3. Jerry Frostick

    Great tips, thanks for taking the time to help East coasters like us navigate this beautiful part of our country. We have a 27 ft airstream and are staying in Salida 6/19-6/22. We probably could not get to the South rim campground until 2:00ish Monday the 22nd. Obviously not looking for a guarantee, but in your opinion, is it worth trying to get site that late or should I just book a site at a local campground. We do not have many days, but definitely want to get at least 1 epic hike in this region. Also, advise on “must do hikes”?
    Thanks again for your help and hope all are safe and healthy.

    1. Hi JF, we’re happy to help! Tough call about the campground; you might get lucky arriving then since it’s a Monday, but sometimes that doesn’t make much of a difference. I’m tempted to suggest trying for a spot in the South Rim Campground, and if that doesn’t work out, drive the 20/25 minutes back to Montrose to stay at a different campground. The South Rim Campground is much more beautiful than anything in town (Montrose isn’t one of the stunning Colorado mountain towns people flock to). Otherwise, maybe finding a spot in the campgrounds east of BCNP would be a nice compromise.

      As far as hikes go, if you want an easier hike inside the Park, we enjoyed the out-and-back trail at the western end of the Park near High Point. And while you can find plenty of challenging hikes inside the park (from the canyon rim to the water), I’d actually suggest venturing to a nearby area of Colorado. The BCNP is beautiful, but the area immediately surrounding it is somewhat drab. Outside of the Park, I’d suggest heading either south toward the town of Ouray and into the Uncompahgre National Forest (you could maybe even stay a night at Silver Jack Campground). Or head northeast toward Telluride. For specific trails, it might be good to check out to see what suits your needs best.

      Enjoy your trip!

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