Flowing very near Anthracite creek and the mining community of Somerset is the North Fork of the Gunnison River, a section that is boatable in canoes, kayaks and rafts by paddlers with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. The North Fork flows from below Paonia Reservoir, through Somerset, Bowie and Hotchkiss to Delta, and its confluence with the mainstream of the Gunnison River. However, both natural and man-made obstructions below Somerset make boating dangerous and impractical, so this review is limited to the 8.8 miles above Somerset.
The nearly nine miles of the North Fork below Paonia Reservoir is rated Class III below 2,000 cfs, escalating to Class IV- at flows above 2,000 cfs. It usually begins its season in April, before ending at about the time most Colorado streams are becoming boatable. It tends to flow somewhat muddy oweing to the geology of the area. The rapids are not big, and with a moderate gradient of 41 fpm, this section is mainly haystacks and small holes. However, the scenery is awesome. Sheer granite walls rise from the river along its banks, punctuated by beautiful Aspen trees and near-distant mountains. True hazards are few, but some do exist. The elevation on this run starts at about 500 feet below that of the take-out on Ruby Fork, dropping from about 6,270 feet to 5,910 feet msl in 8.8 miles. The water is cold, so wear a drysuit or wetsuit with base layer, Neoprene gloves and hard-soled river boots to protect against hypothermia and rocks.
The Gunnison National Forest of Gunnison and Delta Counties in west central Colorado, southwest of Aspen, northwest of Crested Butte and east of Delta.
Durango 200 miles; Grand Junction 165 miles; Denver 286 miles; Santa Fe 412 miles; Albuquerque 412 miles; Phoenix 654 miles; Oklahoma City 955 miles; Tulsa 1,060 miles; Dallas 1,064 miles; Austin 1,254 miles; San Antonio 1,334 miles; Houston 1,440 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The North Fork of the Gunnison River flows clean, clear and cold, turning muddy at higher flows because of unstable soil and rock in and near the riverbed. It is rated Class III up to about 2,000 cfs, and Class IV- when flows exceed 2,000 cfs. The water is not drinkable without purification.
Typically, the prime season for the North Fork is April and May, occasionally extending into June, depending upon conditions of the winter snowpack and/or substantial early spring rainfall. Warmer temperatures add to the amount of snowmelt runoff.
There are very few hazards on the North Fork. The two most prominent ones are in the final stretch below the community of Somerset. After passing the town, a huge boulder in midstream divides the flow left and right. The strong current and downed trees find their ways to the left. Paddlers should stroke hard to the right to avoid pinning in the left channel. Shortly below this hazard sits a collapsed rock dam that can be run, but that can also pin and damage boats and causing injuries to paddlers. The general consensus is to take-out above the dam and end your run there. Downstream awaits natural and man-made debris and hazards that are not runnable.
Put in below the dam at Paonia Reservoir at 0.0 miles; Take out at the small dam just below Somerset at about 8.8 miles.
There are no developed campgrounds in the immediate area of the North Fork. Many primitive campsites can be found along the river, but take care where you choose to make your camp. Off the river, but nearby, are several good campgrounds including the Sweitzer Lake State Recreation Area just southeast of Delta, the Crawford Reservoir State Recreation Area on the South Fork of the Gunnison River southeast of Delta, on the mainstream of the Gunnison River near Montrose, and in the areas of the Ruby Fork and Cystal Rivers to the northeast in Gunnison National Forest.
There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on or near North Fork. However, outfitters on other rivers in the not-too-distant vicinity may be able to provide rentals, outfitting and shuttles. Ask local paddlers for advice.
The 8.8 miles of the North Fork, from Paonia Reservoir to just below Somerset, is a great trip for canoeists, kayakers and rafters looking for Class III to IV- whitewater. There are occasional boulder gardens, log jams and strong cross currents that must be negotiated, but these are relatively easy to avoid for anybody possessing intermediate level or higher whitewater river skills. It is a very pretty river with many photographic opportunities, so bring along a camera (waterproof, or in a water-tight, rugged case that is lashed to the boat) to capture some incredible memories. The North Fork starts flowing a little ahead of other area streams, but it also becomes too low to paddle after late May or early June, depending upon winter snowpack. Nearby campgrounds and primitive campsites along the river make this an ideal place to enjoy moderate whitewater.