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Gunnison River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Gunnison River, Colorado

Black Canyon Lakes


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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Forming in the Gunnison National Forest at the confluence of the Taylor and East Rivers in the Town of Almont, the Gunnison River comes to life at an elevation of about 8,021 feet msl on Colorado's Western Slope and flows about 164 miles to just about every point on the compass except east terminating at its confuence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction just east of the Colorado-Utah State Line. Along its route the river flows through the Town of Gunnison, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Sapinero, Cimarron, Morrow Point Reservoir, Crystal Reservoir, Black Canyon (and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park), Gunnison Gorge, out of the mountains and into the high desert to Delta, Escalante Canyon, Dominguez Canyon and Grand Junction where it flows into the Mighty Colorado River.

This reach of the Gunnison includes the three lakes that form the gateway and entrance to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and which will likely never be a major paddling destination for downriver paddlers even though its scenic beauty is hard to equal. Flatwater paddlers will love this area because there are so many places to explore from a canoe or kayak. The problem is access between the lakes - the area between two very tall mountains is dammed to form Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs that act as drinking water and hydroelectric generating reservoirs while moderating the flow of the Gunnison as it tumbles some 980 feet in vertical elevation from the top of Blue Mesa Dam to the Bottom of Crystal Dam. Suffice it to say that these lakes are deep! And COLD! Except during spring run-off the waters of these reservoirs is generally placid with no whitewater or obstructions. But, access is the real issue. Finding places to launch and take out on Blue Mesa is a breeze - there are at least a half dozen points with improved access and many more with primitive access. But, it is a different story on Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs. Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoir trips would be limited by access points, or the lack thereof. Federal laws restrict approaching a dam or other flood control device, so this area is best suited to those with the stamina and strength to paddle down and then back upriver (uplake?) to your launch point. For all its efforts the reward is the awesome beauty of Black Canyon, and you can see this part without having to run Class V rapids and portage nearly 20 foot high waterfalls.

Of the three reservoirs Blue Mesa is the most accessible with numerous paces to launch or recover boats on either bank all the way to just above the dam. Several recent public access areas have been developed or improved, as well as some private facilities in the immediate vicinity on the north side of US 50. Most of the public facilities have paved roads, paved parking and concrete boat ramps, though there are also some places where dirt paths lead onto beaches - be careful of loose sand that can bury your tires and require a very expensive wrecker pull to get you free. But, Morrow Point only has one practical access, so trips there are up and back with a "short" (3/4 mile), moderately difficult carry (232 stair steps to navigate) on each end from parking lot to the river and back, though the scenery justifies the effort. This is in the heart of Black Canyon, but above the death-defying (you hope) whitewater below Crystal Dam. Morrow Point Reservoir is the least accessible of the three lakes beause of the long, step carry. Like Morrow Point, Crystal only has one practical access point, but it is MUCH shorter and easier carry both directions. There is ample parking, covered observation decks looking into the canyon and toward Morrow Point Dam, and a vault toilet overlooking the confluence of the Cimarron River. There is a trail of about 0.2 mile leading down to the river - please use the well worn footpath rather than making new paths to protect this beautiful place. Canoes and kayaks can enjoy down adn back trips on this section of Black Canyon, ad like Morrow Point, this is above the major rapids and waterfalls just a few miles below.

A word (or more) of caution about paddling Morrow Point or Crystal Reservoirs - the canyon walls are steep, rocky and very difficult to traverse. There are no access roads inside the canyon. A dam release while you are inside the canyon could trap you with no way to exit the river and a possibility of a plunge over a big dam which, if you survive, will then funnel you toward the meat of the nastiest Black Canyon whitewater. Contact the dam manager for Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal Dams to check dam release schedules BEFORE embarking! This would be a rather nasty place to get caught in fast moving and fast rising water! Also, in all seriousness, the climbs down and back up at both Pine Creek and Morrow Point are tough enough without carrying boats and gear - take what you really need, but leave the extras in the car! This is NOT a hike, with or without gear, for those with weak hearts, shallow respiration or weak back and leg muscles. Pine Creek is especially difficult because of distance, steepness and the width of the path, which is quite narrow in some places. Remember, it's not the long fall that gets you - it's the sudden stop at the end! WATCH YOUR FOOTING AT ALL TIMES!

Location

Gunnison and Montrose Counties near Montrose, Delta and Grand Junction, where the Gunnison River flows into the Colorado River before it flows through Fruita and into Utah.

Distance from major cities

Durango 155 miles; Grand Junction 115 miles; Denver 215 miles; Santa Fe 280 miles; Albuquerque 340 miles; Phoenix 595 miles; Oklahoma City 755 miles; Tulsa 800 miles; Dallas 860 miles; Austin 1,000 miles; San Antonio 996 miles; Houston 1,095 miles: Little Rock 1,090 miles; Kansas City 795 miles; St. Louis 1,045 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken. Distances are estimated to the Elk Creek Visitor Center on Blue Mesa Reservoir.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally very high flowing into the lakes, and inflows are high during spring snowmelt and run-off, but water quality on the lakes will deteriorate in warmer months with less inflow and more motorboat traffic on te lakes. Peak seasons are typically late-April or early-May through October or November, but will vary according to precipitation and temperature. Flow rates are not relevant on lakes and are not given.

Best times to go

Anytime is a good time to go to a lake if the water level is good and the temperature is moderate, which in Colorado means mid-spring through early-fall. Lake levels can drop to nearly nothing in winters when a lot of snow is expected and the dam manager is preparing for an influx of water in the spring melt season. Roads, especially unpaved roads, may be impassable in winter, and US Highway 50 may be closed if winter conditions warrant. Off road access on the shoreline may be impassable during and right after snowmelt or a heavy rain.

Hazards to navigation

There are no natural hazards on the lakes section of the Gunnison River after you get on the water. Hazards getting to the water are narrow roads, narrow, rocky footpaths and plenty of places to fall and get injured, or worse. Motorboats can also be a hazard, so be vigilant of other traffic on the water with you and carry signaling devices such as Klaxon horns and bright lights. Of course, if you get too close to one of those dams, then it will become what will probably be your LAST hazard!

River Access Points

Blue Mesa Reservoir (N 38 29' 19.31" / W 107 02' 19.12") is at a roadside turnoff onto the shore of Blue Mesa on river right at 0.0 miles; Stevens Creek (NPS) Access (N 38 29' 08.57" / N 107 05' 30.60") on river right at about 3.4 miles; Old Stevens Creek (NPS) Access (N 38 29' 06.33" / N 107 05' 45.84") on river right at about 3.7 miles; Iola (NPS) Access (N 38 28' 26.82" / N 107 05' 53.37") on river left off SH 149 and almost directly south of Old Stevens Creek Access at about 3.8 miles; Elk Creek Visitor Center (NPS) Access (N 38 27' 45.66" / N 107 09' 57.09") on river right at about 8.1 miles; Ponderosa (NPS) Access (N 38 31' 11.15" / N 107 18' 05.64") east of Soap Creek Road on the far northern tip of Sapinero Bay on river right at about 18.7 miles; Lake Fork (NPS) Access (N 38 27' 18.22" / N 107 18' 11.00") off US 50 on river left just about Blue Mesa Dam at about 17.3 miles - this would be the preferred last take-out on Blue Mesa Reservoir (there are other possible access points on Blue Mesa Reservoir above and below the one listed for the lake.)

Pine Creek (NPS) Access (N 38 27' 13.98" / N 107 21' 28.26") just below Blue Mesa Dam off US 50 on river left at 0.0 miles - this is the ONLY practical access point for Morrow Point Reservoir (footpaths MAY be accessible, but the climbs would be long and steep on mostly rocky, uneven terrain.)

Morrow Point Dam Road NPS) Access (N 38 27' 13.38" / N 107 32' 40.06") along side the Cimarron River north from US 50 at the Town of Cimarron on river left at 0.0 miles - this is the ONLY practical access point for Crystal Reservoir (footpaths MAY be accessible, but the climbs would be long and steep on mostly rocky, uneven terrain.)

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are a total of 17 developed, promitive and drive-in campsites on Blue Mesa (10), Morrow Point (6) and Crystal (1) Reservoirs. Of these, ten are boat-in sites of which six are developed sites (fire grates, tables and vault toilets) and four are primitive. Five campgrounds are drive-in accessible from US 50 or a road off US 50. All boat-in campsites are free to use, but there are restrictions on fires and other limitations (see Lakes Camping for details.) Starting at the eastern end of Blue Mesa Reservoir (first access point for this reach) and moving westward toward Crystal Dam, campsites will be listed with mileage stated for the distance from the first access point to the dam below it. The available campgrounds are:

Blue Mesa Reservoir:

NPS Stevens Creek Campground (N 38 29' 08.57" / N 107 05' 30.60") is a drive-in / boat-in developed campground off US 50 on river right at about 3.4 miles; NPS Turtle Creek Campground (N 38 27' 41.13" / W 107 09' 27.01") is a boat-in developed campsite on river left at about 7.8 miles; NPS Elk Creek Visitor Center Access (N 38 27' 45.66" / N 107 09' 57.09") on river right at about 8.1 miles; NPS Curecanti National Recreation Area (N 38 27' 54.15" / W 107 10' 54.36") primitive boat-in campsite just past Elk Creek Visitor Center on river left at about 9.5 miles; NPS Dry Gulch Campground (N 38 28' 57.98" / W 107 10' 19.92") on river right just past Elk Creek Visitor Center at about 10.5 miles; NPS Red Creek Campground (N 38 29' 02.71" / W 107 11' 18.05") is a drive-in campsite ONLY - NOT accessible from the river/lake without walking across US Highway 50 - on river right at about 10.7 miles; NPS Cebolla Creek Campground (N 38 25' 55.60" / W 107 10' 40.07") is a boat-in developed campsite on river left about 2.9 miles into and at the end of a narrow inlet to the campsite at about 14.0 miles; NPS West Elk Campground (N 38 30' 15.53" / W 107 16' 22.12") is a boat-in developed campsite on river right about 1.7 miles into and at the end of a narrow inlet to the campsite at about 17.1 miles; NPS Ponderosa Campground (N 38 31' 11.15" / N 107 18' 05.64") is a developed campsite accessible by road or boat on river right about 2.8 miles into a narrow inlet to the campsite on river left at about 18.9 miles; NPS Lake Fork Campground (N 38 27' 21.15" / N 107 19' 22.24") - the FINAL access point above Blue Mesa Dam - is a developed campground accessible from road or river, with boat inpection facilities on river left at about 17.6 miles.

Morrow Point Reservoir:

The Narrows NPS Campsite (APPROX. N 38 26' 57.90" / W 107 22' 36.10" - exact location uncertain) is a boat-in primitive campsite on river left about 1.1 to 1.9 miles below Pine Creek Access; Blue Creek NPS Campsite (N 38 26' 59.86" / W 107 24' 45.72") is a boat-in primitive campsite on river left at about 3.2 miles; Curecanti Creek NPS Campsite (N 38 27' 04.99" / W 107 24' 52.65") is a boat-in developed campsite on river right at about 3.3 miles; Nelson's Gulch NPS Campsite (N 38 26' 51.34" / W 107 27' 55.34") is a boat-in primitive campsite on river right at about 6.1 miles; Dead Man's Curve NPS Campsite (APPROX. N 38 26' 41.68" / W 107 29' 44.93") is a boat-in primitive campsite on river right at about 8.0 miles Hermit's Rest NPS Campsite (APPROX. N 38 27' 02.84" / W 107 31' 07.63") is a boat-in developed campsite and the last campsite above Morrow Point Dam on river right at about 9.2 miles (Morrow Point Dam is at about 10.3 miles, but there is no access at the dam.)

Crystal Reservoir:

Crystal Creek NPS Campsite (N 38 29' 41.07" / W 107 35' 17.24"), the ONLY campsite on Crystal Reservoir, is a boat-in developed campsite on river right at about 4.2 miles below the Morrow Point Road Access for this reach - the ONLY access point for Crystal Reservoir. Crystal Dam is at about 6.5 miles. The Gunnison Tunnel diversion is right at the dam on river left in the restricted zone above the dam.

NOTE ABOUT ACCESS: Though you can paddle on Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs to enjoy the spectacular beauty you MUST consider the difficulty getting to and from the river with boats and gear because of the strenuous climbs down and back up to the parking lots, especially at Pine Creek below Blue Mesa Dam. You must also check the dam release schedule and pending weather forecasts to avoid getting trapped in a narrow canyon with fast-rising water and nowhere to go except over a dam several hundred feet high. The dam release schedule will also let you know about how much current you will encounter coming back upriver. The other major factor is wind, and when it blows through this canyon it can be fierce, especially when coming from the west or northwest, which is predominant on the Gunnison. Allow plenty of time to get back upriver unless you are camping in the canyon overnight. If you pack it in then please pack it out!

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known outfitters or livery services serving the lakes section of the Gunnison River.

Reviewer's comments

Being a whitewater boater, paddling lakes is not my forte, but every now and then you run into something beautiful that is flatter than a pancake. To be sure, Blue Mesa is nice, but nowhere nearly as nice as Morrow Point or Crystal Reservoirs, each of which sits inside Black Canyon and is very narrow compared to the wide open and huge Blue Mesa, which stretches almost 20 miles east to west along US Highway 50 between Gunnison and Montrose. Blue Mesa has many access points, both improved and very primitive - like turning off the highway onto hard-packed shoreline, but Morrow Point and Crystal each have but a single practical access point which mandates down and back trips starting just below Blue Mesa and Morrow Point Dams respectively. While Blue Mesa is a large lake well suited to motorboat activities the other two are tighter, prettier and best enjoyed in the quiet solitude of a paddle pulling through the water as you gaze at the wonderment of those huge mountain walls that get a LOT taller the further you venture into Black Canyon. The river drops 900 feet or more from the top of the dam at Blue Mesa to the bottom of the Crystal Dam, and the mountains continue to grow making them even taller.

Access at Blue Mesa is a piece of cake - just drive up to a ramp or unimproved, accessible shoreline and launch (there are some restrictions about getting trailers into the water, so check with Rangers if in doubt.) Things are not so easy at Morrow Point or Crystal Reservoirs. Each has a paved road ending at a parking lot with vault toilets, covered observation pavilions, information kiosks and at least partially improved pathways down to the river's edge. But, while the carry down with boats and gear is only about a quarter mile on a shallower gradient at Crystal below Morrow Point Dam along the Cimarron River, the carry at Morrow Point below Blue Mesa Dam is about three quarters of a mile on a steeper, sometimes narrower, sometimes less improved footpath to the floating dock where the Black Canyon scenic tour boat (NPS) launches and returns. In either case, after your trip you will carry everything back uphill to the parking lot. This is no easy task, especially on Morrow Point Reservoir because of its long distance and steepness. This is all the more reason to (1) go light and (2) take your time exploring the gorgeous Black Canyon of the Gunnison. One thing you definitely want is your camera, and other things would be warm and rain clothing. Except for Blue Mesa, you will be inside a narrow canyon where little sun shines, so rocks stay cold and a paddler can become chilled when it is a hot summer day on Blue Mesa.

Loving canyon paddling, even short trips, I would paddle Morrow Point or Crystal anytime for their scenic beauty. Morrow Point Reservoir, especially, would be a great place for an overnight trip. It is about 8 miles from the Pine Creek launch site to Hermit's Rest campsite, and another 1.2 miles to the dam making it a long flatwater day trip or a very comfortable overnight trip. Crystal Reservoir would be a shorter version of Morrow Point both in terms of carrying distance and paddling distance, but could also work for a Black Canyon overnighter. These are places where even novice paddlers can truly enjoy the splendor of Mother Nature's work IF they have the strength and stamina to make that trek from the parking lot to the river and back! The walk down and back up at Morrow Point is 232 steps plus many yards of shallow gradient walkway with boulders strategically placed as resting locations for those needing catch a breather. Keep it light and tight. But, the hikes down and up are the ONLY bad parts I have had on three trips to these lakes. The rest of it was majestic spendor and a gorgeous place to paddle, though I did them as day trips only. As mentioned above, you do need to be aware of planned release schedules from Blue Mesa Dam BEFORE paddling into either Morrow Point or Crystal Reservoirs because the steep, rocky walls and no road access make them potential death traps in high, fast moving water.

As a side note, in the event you may be in a haze and having delusions about running them, Blue Mesa Dam is 390 feet tall, Morrow Point Dam is 468 feet tall and Crystal Dam is 323 feet tall. That gives the Gunnison river a surface elevation drop of some 1,050 feet from the top of Blue Mesa Dam to the bottom of Crystal Dam at an average gradient of about 31.8 feet per mile - and then you get to the meat of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison where the river contunues to drop. These are deep lakes, but the falling distance from the top of a dam to the surface of the water below is still more than 200 feet. It is not the long fall that will kill you - it's the sudden stop at the end!

Technical Data
Class Rating I
Length N/A miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in (SEE ACCESS POINTS)
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out (SEE ACCESS POINTS)
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 7,590 to 7,527 feet msl (Blue Mesa)
7,172 to 7,134 feet msl (Morrow Point)
6,764 to 6,757 feet msl (Crystal)
Gradient 3.58 fpm (Blue Mesa)
4.13 fpm (Morrow Point)
1.1 fpm (Crystal)
USGS Gauge Web: Gunnison WW Park
Boats Any seaworthy vessel
Season March thru ? (Run-off dependent)
Permits No (but, Invasive Species stickers and inspection are required)




















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