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Crystal River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Crystal Gorge
~ 1.8 Miles


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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Crystal Gorge is the consummate whitewater run on the Crystal River, and possibly in all of Colorado. This is definitely a run for expert kayakers only. The channel is narrow, the canyon walls are straight up and high, huge boulders populate the riverbed everywhere you look, eddy lines are few to non-existent, the runnable flow is a very narrow range, long portages with bad access around some major hazards are required, and if all that is not enough, several waterfalls, including Zute Chute with its 40-foot drop, challenge even the best kayakers (you STILL want to run it?)

Starting at an elevation of 8,550 feet msl, the river through the Gorge drops to 7,950 feet msl at a rate of up to 475 fpm (220 fpm is the "flat" section.) This Class V to V+ run is nothing but challenging from top to bottom. The sun rarely shines on you in the Inner Gorge, so if you get wet and cold up top, then it is not going to get any better later in the day. Run this section ONLY if you are truly up to the task and accompanied by other expert whitewater kayakers.


Gunnison County in the Gunnison National Forest, west of Denver and near the ski resort towns of Crested Butte, Aspen and Snowmass. Nearby streams include the Roaring Forks, Fryingpan, Colorado, Gunnison and Taylor Rivers, with many feeder streams in close proximity.

Distance from major cities

Fort Collins 268 miles; Durango 220 miles; Grand Junction 136 miles; Denver 206 miles; Santa Fe 432 miles; Albuquerque 432 miles; Phoenix 674 miles; Oklahoma City 831 miles; Tulsa 936 miles; Dallas 990 miles; Austin 1,170 miles; San Antonio 1,181 miles; Houston 1,370 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Clean, clear and cold, but not drinkable without purification. Snowmelt water temperatures mandate wearing layered water-repelling garment, wetsuits, drysuits or combinations to prevent hypothermia. This section is rated Class V at flows from 150 - 350 cfs, and Class V+ at flows exceeding 350 cfs. DO NOT run this section at flows that are high for the Crystal Mill Falls section at the risk of it being your last paddle trip!

Best time to go

Typically, this section of the Crystal River has a short 2-month season in July and August, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains.

Hazards to navigation

The first hazard is the decision to run Crystal Gorge. Self-rescue is next to, if not, impossible, and rescue by fellow paddlers is difficult, at best. You can probably forget about outside help in an emergency because of the tall canyon walls, narrow channel and the inability to communicate the need for assistance to the outside world. That being said, the river hazards are as follows:

Pine Tree Falls, at nearly a mile into the run, is a steep double drop with the main channel carrying toward a mountain canyon wall of solid rock. The drop is big and the turbulent water is truly white, both literally and figuratively. The "pucker factor" should be enough to keep you glued to the seat of your boat. Exiting Pine Tree Falls, the river carries paddlers around a couple of corners, then down a short, straight section before a very rocky, steep drop that ends at the bottom of the first (upper) gorge where an old ore trail above, on right left, offers a place to scout the second (lower) gorge. Here, you have the option of exercising the perogative to exit the gorge without paddling any further (discretion IS the better part of valor!) About three tenths of a mile after this point is Zute Chute, with its 40-foot waterfall that cannot be scouted from the lip of the drop. Take the left line at the top and let it take you to the middle of the falls. Do NOT allow the current to carry you to the right! About six or seven drops after Zute Chute is Perfect Piton, the last drop before the take-out. After Perfect Piton, you MUST climb the left bank for a half-mile hike down an ore trail around Miller's Falls, an unrunnable drop that is a killer, to where you can put in again. Paddle about a quarter mile or so to a berm that separates Beaver Lake from the river, drag your boat over the berm, then paddle across Beaver Lake to the take-out at the end of the Crystal Gorge run. Beaver Lake is near the Town of Marble.

River Access Points

Getting to the put-in is almost as difficult as the run through Crystal Gorge. Take the road from Beaver Lake toward the ghost town of Crystal, then veer right after about 1.1 miles to Lizard Lake. The access is down a rough road that will probabaly require a 4-wheel drive vehicle to negotiate. Hiking down may be the best option. Take out across Beaver Lake, the ONLY take-out point on this section of the Crystal River where, hopefully, somebody in your group left a car.

Campgrounds and accommodations

The National Forest Service operates 5 campgrounds along the banks of the Crystal River. From top to bottom, these are on the North Fork at the end of FR 315 on river left; Bogan Flats off FR 314 on river right; Below Redstone (just above Meatgrinder) on river right; Above Avalanche Creek on river right; and the BRB Campground on river right below Nettle Creek. There may be other primitive campsites available along various sections of the Crystal River.

Liveries, Outfitters and Shuttle Services

There are no liveries or shuttle services known to be operating along this section of the Crystal River. Liveries and shuttle services off the river may be available - ask local paddlers or outfitters in nearby towns.

Reviewer's comments

If you are an expert whitewater kayaker and are accompanied by other expert whitewater kayakers sharing the same death wish, then Crystal Gorge will give you an experience few can claim to have had. If you are less than an expert whitewater kayaker and you attempt this run, then it is likely to be a suicide run about which others will tell stories around campfires for many years to come. Crystal Gorge is a desolate place amid high mountain canyon walls, parts of where the sun rarely shines. It is what hell might be like if it were flushed with cold water. Nobody would question the natural beauty of the Gorge, but few will have the skills AND nerves required to actually attempt this run. Be sure to bring a waterproof camera so you can prove to your friends that you were actually there. Most paddlers will probably question the sanity of anybody who run the Gorge, and that would not necessarily be too far off the beaten path. Crystal Gorge is a hairboater's paradise!

Technical Data
Class Rating V+
Length 1.8 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow 350 cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Lizard Lake
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Beaver Lake
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 8,550-7,950 feet msl
Gradient 220, 475 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Redstone
Season July through August
Permits No

Canoeman River Guide Services offers river trips, trip planning and instruction on rivers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

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

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Crystal River where you want to paddle.

[ Crystal River Homepage ] [ Crystal Mill Falls to Crystal Gorge ] [ Bogan Canyon ]
[ Meatgrinder to The Narrows ] [ Avalanche to BRB Campground ]

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Last updated September 12, 2014

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