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Big Cimarron River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Big Cimarron Campground to Cimarron Road Crossing
~ 10.2 Miles


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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Big Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River flowing through the Big Cimarron Valley, runs between Silver Jack Reservoir north to Morrow Point Reservoir. The river is very scenic and equally treacherous. The run starts at Big Cimarron Campground, and obstacles begin to appear almost immediately. A combination of diversion dams, downed trees, barbed wire fences, house-sized granite boulders, major log jams and other potential dangers make this Class V to V+ run a real challenge for expert kayakers, and a death wish for everybody else. Its gradient changes at least 8 or 9 times in just over 10 miles, with the steepest part dropping at 240 fpm and the "flattest" part at about 80 fpm. This is a river where expert kayakers portage because there are no other survivable options.

The river forms in the Uncompahgre National Forest of southwestern Gunnison County, then flows north into southeastern Montrose County, beginning at the nose-bleed elevation of 8,640 feet msl, then descending some 1,480 feet in 10.2 miles at an average gradient of about 140 fpm. Along the way paddlers encounter very steep, technical drops that are well known for breaking boats and bones. Beautiful, tall trees rise along the banks forming a soft contrast to the hardrock boulders in the channel. As gorgeous as this river is, there will be little or no time for sightseeing while running the Big Cimarron River.


The Uncompahgre National Forest of Gunnison and Montrose Counties in west central Colorado, between Denver to the northeast, Grand Junction to the northwest and Durango to the southwest.

Distance from major cities

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.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Gunnison River usually flows clean, clear and cold from Silver Jack Reservoir, the source of most of the navigable water in the Big Cimarron River. Good runs begin at about 350 cfs, but beware the river when the flow exceeds about 600 cfs. A high flows the Big Cimarron River is a truly dangerous place to paddle. Drysuits or wetsuits with a base layer, Neoprene gloves and Neoprene hard-soled river boots are recommended to prevent hypothermia if you go swimming.

Best times to go

May and June are customarily the optimal months, depending upon conditions at Silver Jack Reservoir. A light winter snowpack portends a shorter season, and a heavy snowpack, with or without heavy late spring or early summer rains, signals a slightly longer season.

Hazards to navigation

Danger on the Big Cimarron River begins in the first mile below the Big Cimarron Campground access, and continues throughout the run. Tight slots through boat-breaking boulders, huge log jams in rapids and river bends, steep drops high in technical difficulty and big standing waves make up most of the run. Just as all that treachery starts to end barbed wire fences come into play. About the only two places without major hazards are the put-in and take-out. The Class V to V+ whitewater is challenging and very demanding upon skill and concentration.

River access points

Put in at Big Cimarron Campground off FR 858 just north of Silver Jack Reservoir at 0.0 miles; Take out at 10.2 miles where Cimarron Road crosses the river about 2 miles above the SH 50 split.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are campgrounds along the Big Cimarron River near the dam at Silver Jack Reservoir. Big Cimarron Campground is located about 1.5 miles below the dam. Other campgrounds are available on the Gunnison River just west of the confluence of the Gunnison and Big Cimarron Rivers off SH 50 near the Morrow Point Reservoir. Another campground is located on the Little Cimarron River off SH 50, southwest of its confluence with the Big Cimarron River.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on or near the Big Cimarron River. 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.

Reviewer's comments

The Big Cimarron River is another of the classic Colorado whitewater streams that seem to be custom-made for expert kayakers only. This is a Class V to V+ hairboat run with hazards and obstacles everywhere you look. One really great feature is that there are several good campgrounds on or very near the Big Cimarron, so finding a place to set up a base camp is relatively easy. Like almost all Colorado rivers, the water is cold, so dress accordingly to prevent hypothermia. This tributary of the Gunnison River offers a great side trip for those with the skills and guts to challenge it.

Technical Data
Class Rating V to V+
Length 10.2 miles
Minimum Flow 350 cfs
Optimum Flow 400-500 cfs
Maximum Flow 600 cfs
First Put-in Big Cimarron Campground
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Cimarron Road crossing
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 8,640-7,160 feet msl
Gradient 80-240 fpm (9 changes)
USGS Gauge Web: Cimarron
Season May through June
Permits No

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Gunnison River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

Gunnison River

[ Gunnison River Homepage ] [ Headwater to Blue Mesa ] [ Upper Lakes ] [ Black Canyon ] [ Gunnison Gorge ]
[ North Forks to Delta ] [ Delta to Escalante ] [ Escalante to Whitewater ] [ Whitewater to Colorado River ]


[ North Fork ] [ East River ] [ Taylor River ] [ Lake Fork River ] [ Ruby Fork Anthracite Creek ] [ Cimarron River ] [ Cebolla Creek ] [ Henson Creek ] [ Kannah Creek ] [ Uncompahgre River ]

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