There are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon. Instead, there are “wilderness routes,” or unmarked scrambles to the river. Only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt these routes; they are not meant for small children.
Hikers are expected to find their own way and be prepared for self-rescue. While descending, study the route behind, as this will make it easier to wayfind when confronted with a choice of routes and drainages on the way back up. The routes are the easiest, and sometimes only, path to the river.
Poison ivy is nearly impossible to avoid, and can be found growing 5 feet tall along the river. Pets are not allowed in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area.
The hike into and out of the canyon and is very strenuous. Giardia is in all water sources, including the river, therefore all water must be purified. In your pack, you should include:
You may camp at the “bottom” of the wilderness routes, by the Gunnison River. There are established campsites at the bottom of each route. You may also camp in the backcountry along the Devil’s Backbone Route, which leaves from East Portal. Some wilderness camping areas have vault toilets. We highly recommend you bring a bear-proof canister. Wilderness Use Permits are required.
The Routes in Winter
Exploration of the wilderness during the winter is at your own risk. Winter hikers attempting the inner canyon routes should be prepared with snowshoes, crampons, ice axe, and possibly a rope.
Most of the South Rim routes are snow covered from November to April. Water is not available at either rim during the winter months, so make sure to bring your own.
This route is recommended to persons attempting their first inner-canyon hike; however, it is still very strenuous. Because this is the most popular route on the South Rim, visitors are encouraged to come early during the busy summer months to get a wilderness permit.
Gunnison Route begins at the South Rim Visitor Center. Follow the Oak Flat Trail for 1/3 mile, down the first few switchbacks. You will come to a sign that says, "Wilderness Permit Required." Continue the steep descent to the chain down the drainage. An 80-foot chain is located 1/3 of the way down. Once you reach the river, an outhouse and campsites are located a short distance upstream.
This route is considered the steepest South Rim route and is very difficult. The entire length of the route is loose rock and receives full sun exposure. There are several steep inclines near the top of the route that require scrambling. Use extra caution while descending. The bottom of this route brings you to a narrow part of the canyon.
Park at Tomichi Point overlook or use the parking area near the South Rim Campground. Take the Rim Rock Trail (which starts near Loop C) to post #13. This is the start of the Tomichi Route. Descend the route until the junction with another draw is reached. Continue to follow the main drainage down the slope to the river.
This is the longest route and overnight travel is highly suggested. The bottom of this route takes you to a wider point in the canyon and offers great fishing opportunities.
Hike along the Warner Point Nature Trail and walk up the hill past post #13. Look for a large Utah serviceberry bush on the left that is marked with a small silver sign, titled "Serviceberry Bush." This is the start of the Warner Route. The path leads off to the left. Avoid the first drainage and continue west to the lowest saddle on the ridge before descending.
East Portal Routes
Devil's Backbone Route
This route follows a ridge along the river. Hike downstream on the south side for about 1/2 mile until you reach the ridge that runs down the cliff. The top 30 feet of this 400 foot scramble is airy and a haul rope can be handy. The bare rock can be slippery with gravel at the top, and you are somewhat exposed to the edge of the cliff. The downstream side is more gentle. You can then hike another mile or more downstream with smaller ridge lines to scramble over.
Although it is in the canyon, Devil’s Backbone does not require a permit for day hikes. Overnight backpackers do require a permit, available at the South Rim Visitor Center.
North River Route
There is a small boat launch at the registration board that provides a good landing for boating across the river for this route. Once across the river you can hike nearly 2 miles down river to the cliff at Flat Rock Rapid. There is only one low ridge to scramble over at Deadhorse Gulch.
Boaters and overnight backpackers require a Wilderness Use Permit, available at the South Rim Visitor Center.
*Walking Along the River
The mileages listed as "River Access" are the maximum distance available to a hiker along the river at low water levels (300-350 cubic feet per second). Wading in the cold river (50F) is hazardous and not recommended, and at levels above 450-500 CFS the combination of high, swift water and cold temperatures increases the danger. Rocks along the shore can be moss encrusted and very slick. Many individuals have been swept to their death in the Gunnison River.
Last updated: January 11, 2022