Snowshoeing in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Story and photo by Lu Anne Tyrrell

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, with its cavernous walls and shadowy rock walls, was carved by the powerful force of the Gunnison River over millions of years. The canyon has unique seasonal beauty and a number of recreational activities that can be enjoyed year-round by visitors from around the world. It is located 15 miles east of Montrose, Colorado, at an elevation of roughly 8,000 feet. 

Winter visitors can observe the canyon’s stunning natural setting covered in layers of peaceful snow through cross-country skiing and ranger-guided snowshoe tours.  

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” said Paul Zaenger, retired supervisory park ranger. Zaenger colorfully recalled his many snowshoe experiences and tours he gave. “Snowshoeing the rim of Black Canyon allows you to follow the activities of animals that are out in winter,” he said. “There are usually many trails from rabbits and deer but look closely for tracks of other animals like ermine, voles, bobcats and coyotes. Their tracks tell stories of what the animal was engaged in – like hunting for food or escaping a predator to survive winter.” 

In addition to being an excellent low-impact winter aerobic activity, Zaenger added that snowshoeing offers the chance to observe the sky in a way not common during the summer. 

“Leaves fall away and snow covers and softens the landscape,” he continued. “What remains above the landscape is the open colorful sky. The sun is mollified in the winter while it treks at low angles during the darker period of the year.”

A typical group outing averages around 15 people of all ages and families are encouraged to partake in the trek along one of the scenic trails such as Oak Flat or Rim Rock on the South Rim of the canyon. The scenic trek lasts about two and a half hours. Make sure you have your camera handy and ears and eyes open as the ranger will stop along the 1.5-mile excursion to point out a variety of wildlife and their tracks around the trails. Rangers offer their own personal touch to the memorable trek, which has included winter contemplative readings from literature sages like Tennyson and Frost. 

Upon your return to the visitor’s center, warm your bones with a hot beverage they have set up for you. This is also time for a few more questions and answers about your snowshoe experience with the ranger staff and exchanging stories with newfound friends from the tour.

Nature’s grandeur, perhaps especially in winter, will leave a lasting impression on those visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison.