Chasm View Nature Trail (Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO)

Chasm View Nature Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, August 2020

Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in western Colorado is not the largest, nor the deepest, nor the prettiest canyon in the world. But it is dramatic nonetheless: the sharp incision carved by the Gunnison River is an impressive 2,000 feet deep on average, with an incline that is near-vertical, and the rock exposed dates to an impressive 1.7 billion years old (for perspective, the Entrada sandstone of nearby Arches National Park is about 140-180 million years old). The Chasm View Nature Trail at Black Canyon National Park’s seldom-visited North Rim offers an opportunity to peer down into the heart of the gorge and makes for a nice, short hike for those staying at the North Rim Campground. While not expressly wheelchair-accessible, the short, half-mile hike is largely doable with a stroller, and—a rarity in national parks—pets (on leash) are permitted. (Note: There is also an excellent walking guide/brochure to accompany the hike.)

Map of Chasm View Nature Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Reflective of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s relatively low-key profile, there is no bridge spanning the deep gorge, meaning it takes visitors seeking to get from the more-popular South Rim to the quiet, remote North Rim at least 2-3 hours. Access to the North Rim is easier from the towns of Crawford and Hotchkiss, Colorado to the north, a mere 12 and 22 miles, respectively, from the park entrance. Once in the park, the well-graded, gravel track quickly forks; bear right to reach the North Rim Ranger Station and, a quarter-mile farther, the North Rim Campground.

The Chasm View Trail is located at the end of the one-way loop around the campground. (Note: It’s possible to park at the start of the loop and walk south to reach the trailhead.) Pass through the opening in a wooden fence and grab a helpful brochure in the box below the sign reading “CHASM VIEW NATURE TRAIL.”

Start of Chasm View Trail

Head right first, following the interpretive markers (1-10) in order. The wide and level path begins by passing behind the campground (on the right), briefly passing an open patch dotted with sagebrush on the left. The predominant flora in the area, however, are the ubiquitous Utah juniper and pinyon pine, which will be encountered in abundance along the short trail.

After passing the first four markers, the trail—now bearing southwest—emerges abruptly at the rim of Black Canyon. The text for marker 5 in the brochure is headlined by a bolded “WOW!”, which generally captures the expression of hikers who are seeing the dramatic gorge for the first time. Here the distance from rim to river (1,700) is longer than the distance from rim to rim (1,100), exposing massive, precipitous walls of gneiss, granite, and schist, laced with streaks of pegmatite, an igneous rock composed of quartz crystals and other minerals. The rock seen here dates to the Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5-1.6 billion years ago), though it was only much more recently (2 million years ago) that the Gunnison River began cutting sharply through the rock to form the canyon of today. (Note: The rapids, raging below, that run through the park are Class V, making them “unrunnable” to all but the best kayakers.)

Black Canyon and the Painted Wall from Chasm View

From marker 5, bear right on a short spur that descends a set of steps to a fenced overlook. Downstream, one can see part of the Painted Wall, so-named for its elaborate bands of pegmatite. Hikers will likely be thankful for the sturdy railing at the viewpoint—there is little to no easement before the precipitous drop-off, nearly 2,000 feet to the canyon floor.

Stepping back from the edge, return to the main trail and continue straight as the path roughly parallels the rim, passing three more markers and arriving at a second viewpoint at 1/3 mile. Here one can see eastward upriver, no less precipitous than the first but significantly narrower—at one point upstream, the walls come as close as 40 feet from one another.

Viewpoint from the Chasm View Nature Trail, looking east

From here the trail bears left and climbs uphill, leaving the rim and weaving through the pinyon-juniper forest, with occasional Gambel oaks interspersed. After a few minutes, the trail returns to the start, capping off the half-mile circuit. Allot 30 minutes to an hour for the easy loop walk.

Black Canyon from the second viewpoint
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