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Gunnison River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Delta to Escalante
~ 15.4 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Gunnison River, which is a principle tributary to the Colorado River, forms in Almont at the confluence of the Taylor and East Rivers in the Gunnison National Forest in Gunnison County on the southwestern Colorado Plateau, then flows generally south by southwest through the Town of Gunnison, then generally southwest to west where it is dammed to form Blue Mesa Reservoir. Flowing out of Blue Mesa Reservoir the river heads west by southwest through Morrow Point Reservoir and then Crystal Reservoir (these reservoirs forming the Upper Black Canyon area) below which it bends slightly north by northwest as it enters the Lower Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Montrose County through Gunnison Gorge to its confluence with the North Fork. From there, the Gunnison weaves and bends around the mountains generally heading any direction except east flowing through the Town of Delta in Delta County, then turning north again, where it flows through Grand Junction to its confluence with the Colorado River in Mesa County. Along the way the Gunnison cuts through a diverse cross-section of Colorado topography and offers a wide variety of runs to fit the skills and paddling interests of canoeists, kayakers and rafters, from beginner to expert level. The Gunnison River is fed by a number of major and minor rivers, creeks and streams including the Taylor, East, Uncompahgre, Smith Fork, Big and Little Cimarron, Lake Fork and North Fork Rivers, as well as Big and Little Dominguez, Escalante, Henson, Cebolla, Tomichi, Cochetopa, Daisy and numerous other creeks, many of which are exciting boating runs unto themselves.

Flowing between Confluence Park in Delta and Grand Junction this reach of the Gunnison River runs about 15.4 miles to the Escalante Canyon Access. The run is easy flatwater with a couple of Class I+ riffles that can escalate to Class II in high, fast water conditions, but generally this is an easy trip that those with less experience can enjoy without the risk to life and limb that comes on many Colorado rivers. The reach runs generally parallel to US Highway 50 between Delta and Grand Junction so setting up shuttles is easy. You may have to look to find the access at Confluence Park in Delta, but it has ample paved parking and easy entry into the river. The take-out at Escalante Canyon Access is a couple miles off the highway, but it is clearly marked from both directions and while not paved it is still large enough to accommodate a lot of vehicles with easy access to a dirt ramp into the river.

The run begins on the outskirts of a developed urban area then quickly turns agricultural and then high desert wilderness the further you progress downriver. A rail line parallels the river on the right after you cross under the bridge just outside of Delta. After that signs of civilization melt away and it seems like you are totally remote even when cities are nearby on each end and the highway is never far away, though it is far enoughaway and shielded by mountains to eliminate the sight or sound of vehicluar traffic. This trip is popular with Boy and Girl Scout, church and school groups because of its gentle nature and the sight to see alonmg the way, including a very nice set of petroglyphs near the Escalante Canyon Access where this trip ends. And for those wanting to turn 15.4 miles into an overnight trip there are plenty of places to thrown down a tent for the night.

The topography tells you that you are in canyon country, though very young canyon country. The walls are not high, but they give the impression of canyon paddling while secluding you from the world outside. And if 15.4 miles is not enough for you, then you can paddle another 26 miles through Escalante and Dominguez Canyons to Whitewater, or another 15 miles beyond that to Grand Junction. Each access is off US Highway 50.

Location

Mesa County, between Delta to the southeast and Grand Junction to the northwest, where the river ends at its confluence with the Colorado River. Surrounding this reach of the river are the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, as well as the Uncompahgre Plateau on which Grand Junction sits.

Distance from major cities

Grand Junction 40 miles; Durango 128 miles; Denver 276 miles; Salt Lake City 322 miles; Albuquerque 343 miles; Phoenix 618 miles; Oklahoma City 824 miles; Dallas 931 miles; Austin 1,069 miles; San Antonio 1,066 miles; Houston 1,164 miles; Little Rock 1,160 miles; Kansas City 879 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally good to very good, but not drinkable without purification, especially when a beer-drinking toober crowd is on the river (remember the book, The Little Yellow River by I.P. Freely?) Sediment loads make filtration difficult. Flow is dependent upon dam released water from Crystal Reservoir many miles upstream, where releases are based upon conservation levels at the lake. Years with below average snowmelt and spring rainfall will likely have a lower flow and lower water quality. When there is adequate water the flow will be slow, at best, except after a significant local rainstorm or the spring snowmelt, the latter of which can quickly raise the level of the river and the speed of the current.

Best times to go

Navigable flows are usually best in late spring to mid-summer, but may be extended or shortened according to the status of the water table at and above Crystal 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. Typically, May through late June is the optimum season, though the river may be navigable at most other times of the year. Navigable flows extend down to at least 700 cfs and possibly a little lower depending upon boat loading.

Hazards to navigation

There are no significant hazards on this section of the Gunnison River. Rapids in this section are Class I to II-, with little in the way of dangerous waves, holes, cross currents or other conditions that can result in accidents. However, even a small rock in a slow-moving current is capable of pinning and wrapping a canoe or kayak, so don't get TOO relaxed on this, or any other, river.

River access points

Delta Confluence Park (N 38 45' 12.66" / W 108 04' 44.02") on river left at 0.0 miles; G 50 Rd (N 38 44' 53.47 / W 108 07' 11.89") on river right at about 3.3 miles; Escalante Canyon Access (N 38 45' 30.03" / W 108 15' 29.88") on river right at about 15.4 miles. There are no other access known points to this reach of the Gunnison River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Saddle Horn Campground off SH 340 in Grand Junction offers camping with drinking water, restrooms and other amenities. There are no other campgrounds located along this reach of the Gunnison River. Motel accommodations are available in Grand Junction and Delta. Several campgrounds are available within 50 miles of Grand Junction for those wanting a more remote campsite.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

Numerous commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and river information on the Gunnison River.

Reviewer's comments

This is an easy and enjoyable trip, not the least of which owes to the ease of setting up your own shuttles. The run is not going to "wow" an experienced whitewater paddler, but it is a beautiful trip down a flat river through a mostly undeveloped landscape that gives a hint of desert mountains in the making. The area is rife with history and there are First Nations petroglyphs on at least two locations adjacent to the river including a large site near the Escalante Canyon Access where this trip ends. It is accessed by a footpath to the north of the parking area and entails a round trip hike of about 0.8 miles (unless you get lost - take a GPS with you!)

The trip begins at Confluence Park, a city-owned recreation facility in Delta located just west of US Highway 50 at the Gunnison River where the trappings of civilization quickly get left behind for a journey into a remote, high desert river trip that is suitable for canoes and kayaks, as well as rafts when the flow is adequate to accommodate a big boat full of people. At first, the adjacent land is low to the horizon and is largely agricultural, but after about 6 miles it starts to be more canyon-like, albeit a short-walled canyon - the Tower of Babel it is NOT!. Starting at about 7.7 miles - just about the mid point of the trip - the adjacent land loses all vestiges of agriculture and assumes a true desert wilderness topography. Along the way there are some places with swift currents that sometimes include microeddies that, if you are not careful, can quickly spin a boat sending paddlers swimming, but this condition occurs mainly in higher flows over about 1,500 cfs. At just 15.4 miles it is an easy day trip for most paddlers, though some may be a little tired at the end. It can also be an overnight trip for those seeking am more leisurely pace. Still, the scenic nature of the trip and the easy of the river makes this a wonderful experience for many people, especially those just learning to paddle and who are getting to experience the beauty and serenity of rivers up close.

The take-out is a little tricky - the "ramp" is a dirt path at a downriver angle into the current. At higher flows there is a rather strong current right at the bank, so landing required concentration and hard paddle strokes to beach the boat, get out, then drag your boat out of the way for the next boat to land. Two boats can land simultaneously, but any more than that will get crowded rather quickly. If you fail to beach and get washed downstram don't panic - there is another access only 27.8 miles downriver!

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II-
Length 15.4 miles
Minimum Flow ~ 700 cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Confluence Park Delta
Lat. / Long. N 38 45' 12.66" / W 108 04' 44.02"
Last Take-out Escalante Canyon Access
Lat. / Long. N 38 45' 30.03" / W 108 15' 29.88"
Elevation 4,935-4,918 feet msl
Gradient 1.1 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Delta
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season April through December
Permits No


Boat launch at Confluence Park in Delta
Boat launch at Confluence Park in Delta

The railroad bridge is the last trace of development along this reach of the Gunnison River
The railroad bridge is the last trace of development along this reach of the Gunnison River

Click HERE to visit the website of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Low hills line adjacent river banks along most of this reach
Low hills line adjacent river banks along most of this reach

Volcanic ash piles and sandstone debris form the hills along the Gunnison River
Volcanic ash piles and sandstone debris form the hills along the Gunnison River

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Early spring looks a lot like winter on the Gunnison River
Early spring looks a lot like winter on the Gunnison River

Escalante Canyon Road Bridge just before the take-out on river right
Escalante Canyon Road Bridge just before the take-out on river right

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

Take-out on river right at Escalante Canyon Access
Take-out on river right at Escalante Canyon Access

River information kiosk at Escalante Canyon Access
River information kiosk at Escalante Canyon Access

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 Fork comfluence to Delta ] [ Delta to Escalante ] [ Escalante to Whitewater ] [ Whitewater to Colorado River ]

Tributaries

[ 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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Last updated November 8, 2020

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