Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Hiking the SOB Draw on the North Rim

By: Lysianne Peacock + Save to a List

A guide to exploring the inner depths of Black Canyon of the Gunnison on the north rim side of the park (disclaimer: it is an SOB).

Originally published on out-spiration.com.

Back in September, my friend Nick and I planned a trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It was one of the two national parks in Colorado we both had yet to visit and wanted to check off our list so we packed up my car for an epic adventure to the canyon that boasts steeper walls than the Grand Canyon. Our #1 priority was to venture into the inner canyon to fully immerse ourselves in the experience. Here is OUTspiration’s guide to exploring the inner depths of this underrated canyon on the north rim side of the park (disclaimer: it is an SOB) .

About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Established as a National Monument in 1933, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was officially designated as a national park in 1999. Black Canyon is located in Western Colorado. The south rim entrance is located 15 miles east from Montrose, CO while the north rim entrance is located 11 miles north of the town of Crawford, CO. While the park itself only contains 12 miles of the 48-miles of canyon, these 12 miles are the deepest, steepest, and most dramatic parts of the canyon. This park gets its name because some parts of the canyon only see 33 minutes of sunlight per day.

South Rim Versus North Rim

The South Rim is the busier and more developed side of the park. With paved roads, 12 overlooks, four hiking trails, and four inner canyon routes, it is easy to see why. The North Rim is quieter and less developed than the North Rim. In the winter, the North Rim is not accessible by car because the road is not maintained. If you are looking for a primitive and solitary experience with dramatic views of the canyon during your trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, then don’t overlook the North Rim. It has five overlooks, three hiking trails, and three routes into the inner canyon. While visiting both sides of the canyon is possible if you plan for a two to three hour drive between the two but splitting your trip into two days will fully maximize your experience.

Hiking the SOB Draw on the North Rim

For our trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we chose to visit the North Rim. Our time was limited since we only had two days for traveling and adventuring, and we wanted to get the most out of our experience by hiking into the inner canyon. We chose the North Rim because it was quieter and because the Hipcamp site we booked was closer to that entrance. After doing some research on the inner canyon hikes, we decided that the SOB Draw was the best option because the National Park Service (NPS) recommended it as a suggested route for first time inner canyon hikers. When I saw that it was only a two mile round-trip hike, I thought “Man, that will not be bad.” Even though I knew that there was 1800 feet of elevation change in a mile, my peak bagging mindset made me think it would be a piece of cake since it was so short. Boy, was I wrong.

Nick and I dragged ourselves out of our Tipi HipCamp to drive the thirty minutes from Hotchkiss, CO at around 6AM. We wanted to get to the Ranger Station as early as possible so we could obtain the required inner canyon permit without issue. The permits are on a first-come, first-serve basis so I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hike into the canyon. Because it was a weekday and it was 7AM by the time we pulled into the Ranger Station. Nick took care to write our hiking plan on the Inner Canyon whiteboard. We hopped in the car again and drove around the campground area until we found the pull-out by the campground sign to park at. The hike began east of the campground at an access ladder along the fence line. If you are traveling to the campground from the ranger station, the trailhead is on the right side of the road.

The SOB Draw started off pretty mild as we hiked through a field of gamble oak and sagebrush that is relatively flat. Do not let that fool you.

After we got this sense of false hope that this hike was, in fact, not going to be an SOB, the trail started dropping in elevation rather dramatically. Soon we were greeted with a steep descent, several short ledges that we needed to climb down, and an abundance of poison ivy as we neared the Gunnison River.

While the trail is a substantial social trail, the cairns were especially helpful because route-finding was made difficult by the variety of paths that previous hikers had taken. I am an avid user of hiking poles but this trail required extensive use of my hands so I quickly stashed them in the gear loop on my Camelbak Sequoia 18. With every step, I saw the river getting closer but with every step I still felt miles from the end.

It was a breath of relief when we came upon the large boulders at the end of the trail that indicated that we were almost at the bottom of the canyon. I threw my backpack off as soon as we reached the river and took my trail runners off to let my feet breathe. It took us about two hours to descend into the inner depths of the canyon. It was truly spectacular being surrounded by cliff walls thousands of feet high. They towered ominously, dark and free of the sun.

I closed my eyes as I nestled into a pothole in a rock and let the sound of the river lull me into a light nap. After about five minutes, I reluctantly opened my eyes as I knew we needed to get going. Nick and I snapped a few pictures to commemorate our feat and then look dreadfully back up the trail as we realized with sinking hearts we needed to hike back up what we hiked down.

If you think the hike down was hard, you will be in for a rude awakening when you ascend out of the canyon. It was largely stop and go, and it was clear why the NPS site recommended four liters of water per person. I was guzzling water at every stop. Every rock that I sat on was a welcome seat. My arms burned as I pulled myself up the steep rock ledges that we had to climb down previously. Avoiding the poison ivy was much more difficult going back up because it seemed to be in every convenient hand hold. It was with joy that we reached the gamble oak and sagebrush field and knew that we were almost back to flat ground. It took us about a total of three hours to climb out of the canyon. After dropping off our permit to show that we arrived back safely, we headed out to grab much deserved burgers and brews at Pat’s Bar and Grill in Hotchkiss.

Safety Considerations for Hiking the SOB Draw at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Primitive Trail

The park states that the trails are not maintained. With that being said, the inner canyon is remote and provides a rugged experience incomparable to other experiences in the park but it requires experience, skill, and planning ahead. If rescue were required, it would require extended periods of time so make sure to bring everything necessary to spend a night in the wilderness.

Water

The NPS site recommends that hikers bring at least four liters of water or two liters and a water filter. Trust me when I say you are going to need it. I am terrible at staying hydrated but my body was begging for water on the way back up and four liters of water almost wasn’t enough. Dehydration is a real and dangerous condition when hiking. Another thing to take into consideration is the possibility of having to stay the night out there if something were to go wrong. It is best to err on the side of caution and bring more water than you think you will need or is recommended.

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is abundant in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Poison ivy lives in riparian (by rivers or wetlands) environments and it thrives in sunless, wet areas which Black Canyon is famous for. Wearing long pants for any inner canyon hike is recommended. Additionally, bringing an anti-itch ointment would be beneficial just in case you get yourself in an “itchy” situation.

I recommend calamine lotion, an OTC medication used to treat mild itchiness. It also dries out oozing and weeping that may be caused by poison ivy.

Winter

While the road to the North Rim is not accessible in the winter, that does not stop avid hikers from trying to access the inner canyon from this side. If you decide to brave the inner canyon in the winter, you are doing so at your own risk. The NPS recommends winter inner canyon hikers to be equipped with snowshoes, crampons, an ice axe and possibly a rope.

Planning Your Inner Canyon Black Canyon Trip

Here are the steps I took to planning this trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison and a few other recommendations to help make planning your own trip a bit easier.

Where to Stay

Vacation Rental: Hipcamp

When we visited the North Rim side of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we booked a tipi tent at Riverwalk Yurts for $60+fees a few miles outside of Hotchkiss, CO and a thirty minute drive to the North Entrance Ranger Station. The tipi itself came with two foldable foam mattresses, a table and two chairs, and a chest that contained reused 64oz juice jugs with water in them. Keep in mind, you do need to bring your own bedding and towels. These came in handy for our inner canyon hike. The tipi sits right in front of a beach with access to the Gunnison River. There is also a fire pit, picnic tables, and Adirondack lounge chairs. A short walk away, we had access to a cute shower house and bathroom.

Camping

The North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison also has a nice campground with pit toilet facilities that are in close proximity to the trailhead for the SOB Draw trail. Campsites are on a first come, first serve basis. The Standard camping fee is $16.00 per night. For more information on the North Rim Campground, visit the NPS Site.

Permits

Permits are required for both the South Rim and North Rim inner canyon hikes because the inner canyon is a designated wilderness area. While they are free, as mentioned above, they are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Planning on arriving early is essential to securing your permit for your inner canyon hike. For more information on obtaining an inner canyon permit visit https://www.nps.gov/blca/planyourvisit/innercanyon.htm.

What to Wear

Having the right apparel to hike the SOB Draw will help ensure you’re comfortable and protected against trail debris.

Moisture Wicking Top

The hike down and back up will produce a lot of sweat. Wearing a moisture-wicking top made of polyester or nylon will ensure breathability.

Long Pants

As mentioned above, the SOB Draw trail and other inner canyon hikes contain a plethora of poison ivy. If you risk wearing shorts for your hike, you risk brushing up against poison ivy. Save yourself an itchy experience, and wear long, breathable hiking pants.

Wool Hiking Socks

You will want a thick sock to help prevent the rubbing that is bound to occur on your toes and heels from the steep descent and ascent.

Hiking Boots

I swear by my trail runners and hiked this trail in them but part of me wished I had hiking boots. Trail runners are breathable and lightweight but they do little to prevent debris from entering your shoes or bruising the tips of your toes when you shit a rock, all of which is very present on the SOB trail. Hiking boots help keep the debris out and protect your toes from impact.

What to Pack

Packing the right gear and amenities will ensure you are prepared for an epic day in the inner canyon.

Rain Gear

Unexpected storms are common in Colorado, so make sure to bring a rain jacket and rain pants so you can stay dry. A rain cover is also recommended for your pack but if you do not have one of those, garbage bags inside your pack work well too.

The Ten Essentials

Navigation such as a GPS device, map, or phone with a map downloaded on it. If you plan on bringing a phone to use as navigation, I recommend also bringing a portable charger.

A headlamp with extra batteries.

Sun protection including sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen.

A first aid kit as well as a blister kit.

Utility knife and a gear repair kit.

Shelter or an emergency bivy because you never know if you’re going to have to spend the night out in the wilderness due to extenuating circumstances

A fire starter kit preferably with matches and/or a lighter.

Food + extra (at least an extra day’s worth). You’re going to be expending a lot of energy in two miles so make sure to stay fueled.

Water + extra (at least an extra day’s worth). Trust me when I say you are going to want A LOT of extra water for this hike.

Extra clothes layers because it’s easier to cool off or warm up with layers instead of one heavy layer.

    Conclusion

    Hiking the inner canyon is the best way to get intimate with Black Canyon of the Gunnison; however, in the words of other inner canyon hikers that we ran into, “There is an easier way to see the park. Sight-seeing.” While that may be true, hiking the SOB Draw gave us more than a taste of adventure. Next stop: the South Rim!

    We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

    Do you love the outdoors?

    Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.