When deciding how to spend your time at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, it can be difficult to choose between the two sections of the park: North Rim and South Rim.
Though you can visibly see the South Rim from the North Rim (and vice-versa), the rims aren’t connected by a bridge, so access from one to the other requires at least a two-hour drive. This extensive drive time between destinations sometimes forces visitors to choose just one side.
So which side of Black Canyon of the Gunnison should you visit? Which side has the best scenic overlooks? How many hikes are on each side? Does the North Rim have a campground? Does the South Rim have access to the inner canyon? Is the drive to both rims worth it? Which rim is best visited in the winter? All of these questions and MORE will be answered in this blog post!
This guide is going to help you decide which rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison to visit by covering all of the differences between the two: South Rim vs. North Rim. Who knows, maybe you will decide that both rims are worth the drive and carve out time to see the North AND South Rims of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!
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Black Canyon of the Gunnison: North Rim Vs. South Rim
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South Rim Vs. North Rim Overview
Overall, the South Rim is the most accessible and most popular. This side of the canyon has more services and scenic overlooks than the North Rim and boasts easier, shorter hikes that are ideal for families and day-trip visitors.
Overall, the North Rim is more remote, primitive, and quiet than the South Rim, which can be attractive to some and unappealing to others. While there are fewer services on this side, the North Rim contains more challenging, diverse hikes and shorter walks to the overlooks.
While I believe BOTH RIMS are worth the drive, I acknowledge that seeing both sides might not be possible or necessary for everyone’s personal park experience. I will go through all of the differences between the two rims of Black Canyon of the Gunnison to help you decide which rim (or rims) are worth the drive for YOU!
Getting to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: South Rim Vs. North Rim
Since there isn’t a handy-dandy bridge that connects the two rims, all visitors who want to see both sides of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park will have to drive two hours all the way around the canyon.
The South Rim is about 13 miles northeast of Montrose, Colorado. There is a variety of restaurants and hotel accommodations in Montrose, and the short drive from town to the park makes it easy to commute back and forth.
The North Rim is about 11 miles southwest of Crawford, Colorado. Crawford is a much smaller town than Montrose with fewer accommodations and restaurants.
To get to the South Rim from Montrose, you’ll take US 50 east and turn left on CO-347. Follow this north for about 6 miles to the park entrance.
To get to the North Rim from Crawford, you’ll follow Black Canyon Road for about 7 miles to the unpaved North Rim Road.
To get from the South Rim to the North Rim, you’ll need to follow US 50 out of Montrose to Highway 92 in Crawford.
✈️ Montrose Regional Airport. Small regional airport with limited commercial service just 20 minutes from the South Rim.
✈️ Grand Junction Regional Airport. Small airport located 1.5 hours from the South Rim.
✈️ Denver International Airport. Full-service airport 5 hours from the South Rim.
Getting Around the Rims
There are no shuttle buses in the National Park. A personal vehicle is required to access both rims.
Getting around the South Rim Drive is simple because the entire road is paved. No 4×4 vehicle is required to navigate the road.
Getting around the North Rim Drive will be a bit trickier because the road is graveled. While the road is rougher than the South Rim, 4×4 vehicles typically aren’t required to get around the rim. You’ll just have to drive much slower than you would on the paved South Rim Drive.
Scenic Drive: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim’s Scenic Drive is 7 miles long and fully paved. From Tomichi Point to High Point, there are 12 overlooks and 5 easy hiking trails on South Rim Drive. This road is closed past the visitor center in the winter months, but snowshoers and cross-country skiers are allowed beyond this point.
NOTE: Access to East Portal Road is located just off South Rim Drive. If you want to venture down to the wild Gunnison River without attempting to hike the tricky wilderness routes in the inner canyon, driving East Portal Road would be a great alternative. Picnicking, fishing, and camping are all available at the end of the road. The road is extremely steep and curvy, and vehicles longer than 22 feet are prohibited. This road is closed in the winter and early spring.
The North Rim’s Scenic Drive is 4.5 miles long and graveled. There are 5 overlooks and 3 diverse hiking trails on North Rim Drive. The road is closed to all visitors in the winter.
Scenic Overlooks: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim has 12 overlooks along the Scenic Drive. Most scenic overlooks require a short walk to the edge, usually just a few hundred yards or less. Pulpit Rock, Chasm View, and Sunset View are all handicapped-accessible. The Painted Wall is best viewed from this rim.
The North Rim has 5 overlooks along the Scenic Drive. More overlooks are available along the hikes. The narrowest part of the canyon is best viewed from this rim.
Hikes: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim has 5 short, easy hiking trails ranging from 0.4 miles to 2 miles. This means that you can probably hike all five in one day.
The North Rim has 3 long, moderate-to-strenuous hiking trails ranging from 0.3 miles to 7 miles. These trails are longer, more difficult, and have more elevation change than the hikes on the South Rim.
Both rims have hiking access to the inner canyon. All of these routes are unmaintained, rated as strenuous, require a wilderness permit, and shouldn’t be attempted unless you are fully prepared and educated. I’ll mention more about inner canyon access in the next section.
Inner Canyon Access: South Rim Vs. North Rim
Both rims have access to the inner canyon. There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Instead, there are “wilderness routes,” or unmarked scrambles to the river. Wilderness use permits are required to access the inner canyon. For more information on Inner Canyon Use, click here.
The South Rim has three routes to the Gunnison River: Gunnison Route, Tomichi Route, and Warner Route.
The North Rim has three routes to the Gunnison River: Pinyon Draw (formerly S.O.B. Draw), Long Draw, and Slide Draw.
Camping: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim has one campground. Located one mile from the Visitor Center, the South Rim Campground has 88 sites. There is seasonal potable water and vault toilets but no showers. Reservations may be made on recreation.gov from mid-May to mid-September, and after that, sites are first come, first served. The campground is open year-round.
There is also a campground at the end of East Portal Road, which is accessible from the South Rim. Located along the Gunnison River, East Portal Campground has 15 sites. There is seasonal potable water and vault toilets but no showers. All sites are first come, first served.
The North Rim has one remote campground. There is seasonal potable water and vault toilets but no showers. There are only 13 sites, and all sites are first come, first served. The campground is closed in the winter.
Visitor Centers: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim has the only visitor center in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The visitor center is open year-round; check their current hours here. Inside, you can find knowledgeable rangers, interesting exhibits, the park film, and a stocked bookstore. Obtain a map, newspaper, junior ranger book, or permit from the visitor center. Wilderness permits can be obtained here either by self-registration when it’s closed or by ranger assistance when it’s open. There is limited RV parking at the visitor center, and the parking lot fills quickly in the summer.
The North Rim doesn’t have a visitor center, but there is a ranger station. The ranger station is open intermittently in the summer and is closed in the winter. Maps and newspapers can be found on the porch. Wilderness permits can be self-registered here.
Picnic Areas: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim has picnic tables at 5 different overlooks along the Scenic Drive: Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock, Sunset View, High Point, and East Portal.
The North Rim has picnic tables at the North Rim Campground. You are allowed to picnic here as long as the site is unoccupied.
Dogs: South Rim Vs. North Rim
Dogs are allowed on both rims in certain areas.
The South Rim is dog-friendly. Dogs are permitted in picnic areas, the campground, parking lots, paths to overlooks, and along roads open to vehicles. Leashed pets are also permitted on the Rim Rock Trail.
The North Rim is also dog-friendly. Dogs are permitted at the campground, parking lots, paths to overlooks, and along roads open to vehicles. Leashed pets are also permitted on the Chasm View Nature Trail.
Winter Access: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim is open year-round, but in the winter (usually between mid-November and mid-April) the Rim Drive beyond Gunnison Point and the South Rim Visitor Center is closed to vehicles. Instead, it is groomed for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
The North Rim is closed in the winter from around mid-November to April. Check for current conditions and closures here.
Water: South Rim Vs. North Rim
At the South Rim, water is available in the summer only. Water fill-up stations are located at the visitor center and the campground. The NPS asks that you be prepared with your own water because all of the potable water is trucked in. This means that water is scarce here and shouldn’t be relied on or taken advantage of.
At the North Rim, water is available in the summer only. Water fill-up stations are located at the ranger station and the campground. Just like the South Rim, all of the water is trucked in so use the fill-up stations conservatively.
Food: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The South Rim is about 20 minutes from Montrose, which has a variety of restaurants and food options. Some of the best-rated restaurants are Ted Nelson’s Steakhouse, Colorado Boy Pizza & Brewery, and The Stone House.
The North Rim is about 11 miles from Crawford, which has limited food options. If you get hungry during your visit to the North Rim, stop by North Fork Boardwalk in Crawford or venture to Hotchkiss for some local dining at Zack’s BBQ.
Hotels: South Rim Vs. North Rim
The North Rim is about 11 miles from Crawford, which has limited accommodations. The Stone House Inn has great reviews.
Need more help planning your trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park? Click here to read my complete park guide!
Which Rim Is the Best? South or North?
As I’ve said earlier, both rims are worth the visit. And maybe, after reading this article, you are in agreement with me.
But sometimes, one rim can be better suited for certain visitors, so here is the verdict for the BEST RIM TO VISIT in each of the following categories:
- Easiest to Access: South Rim
- Best Scenic Drive: South Rim
- Best Overlooks: South Rim
- Best Hikes: North Rim
- Best Inner Canyon Routes: It’s a tie! (Although South Rim has the most popular route – the Gunnison Route).
- Best Campground: It’s a tie! Although South Rim reservations are easier to obtain since there are more sites, and sites can be reserved in advance.
- Most Amenities/Services: South Rim
- Most Variety of Picnic Spots: South Rim
- Most Dog-Friendly: It’s a tie!
- Most Family-Friendly: South Rim
- Best Winter Activities: South Rim
- Fewer Crowds: North Rim
If you only have ONE day to spend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I’d suggest that you spend it at the SOUTH RIM.
If you are looking for a little solitude and prefer experiencing the park without crowds, visit the NORTH RIM.
If you are visiting in the WINTER, visit the SOUTH RIM.
If you have TWO OR MORE DAYS to spend in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, drive to BOTH RIMS!
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some suggestions!