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North Fork of the Gunnison River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Paonia State Park to Gunnison Forks
~ 35.4 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The North Fork of the Gunnison is formed in Gunnison County by the confluence of Muddy Creek flowing out from Paonia Reservoir and Anthracite Creek flowing out of the Elk Mountains near Crested Butte. The mining community of Somerset is about 6.8 miles to the west of the headwater at Paonia State Park, immediately below the dam on river right (the park is a day-use pocket park with no overnight parking or camping.) The North Fork of the Gunnison River flows about 35.2 miles from Paonia State Park through the communities of Somerset, Bowie and Hotchkiss to the BLM Gunnison Forks Campground and Access at the end of Pleasure Park Road in Delta County, which runs south from SH 92 just west of Hotchkiss. This river is boatable in canoes, kayaks and rafts by paddlers with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. The confluence with the mainstream of the Gunnison River is about 0.2 miles downstream from the BLM take-out.

Most of the run is rated Class I moving flatwater with Class II to III rapids below ~2,000 cfs, escalating to Class IV- at flows above 2,000 cfs. It usually begins its season in April of snowmelt run-off before ending at about the time most Colorado streams are becoming boatable. It tends to flow somewhat muddy owing to the geology of the area. The rapids are not big, and with a moderate gradient of 33 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 in the upper reach transitioning to an agricultural valley below Paonia. True hazards are few, but some do exist (see descriptions below.) The elevation on this run starts at about 500 feet below that of the take-out on Ruby Fork, dropping from about 6,283 feet to 5,121 feet msl in 35.2 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.

This run is punctuated by numerous bridges crossing the river, but most are not accessible. Most land adjacent to the river is privately owned and many properties have fences running up to the edge of the roadway making access difficult, but possible in an emergency situation. At the top the region is home to extensive, active coal mining operations. The river flows through a rural, agricultural area of southwestern Colorado, particularly between Paonia and the confluence of the Gunnison River. With access points at 0.0, 6.8, 16.0, 27.2, 30.6 and 35.2 miles trips of various lengths and degrees of difficulty can be selected based upon water levels and skill levels.


The Gunnison National Forest of Gunnison and Delta Counties in west central Colorado, southwest of Aspen, northwest of Crested Butte and east of Delta. Nearby towns and cities include Grand Junction, Montrose, Ridgway, Ouray, Telluride and Gunnison, among others.

Distance from major cities

Durango 184 miles; Grand Junction 95 miles; Denver 223 miles; Santa Fe 308 miles; Albuquerque 371 miles; Phoenix 621 miles; Oklahoma City 729 miles; Tulsa 792 miles; Dallas 855 miles; Austin 995 miles; San Antonio 1,016 miles; Houston 1,148 miles; Salt Lake City 378 miles; Little Rock 1,064 miles; Kansas City 826 miles; St. Louis 1,073 miles; (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

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 up to Class III below about 2,000 cfs, and up to Class IV- when flows exceed 2,000 cfs. The water is not drinkable without purification.

Best times to go

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 spring temperatures add to the amount of snowmelt runoff, but may shorten the season.

Hazards to navigation

There are very few hazards on the North Fork. The first three most prominent ones are in area between Somerset and Paonia River Park. At 7.3 miles (0.5 miles below Somerset Access - N 38 55' 37.20" / W 107 28' 40.77") is a weir constructed of very jagged boulders that is a mandatory portage at low to moderate water levels and a whitewater thrill without a defined channel at higher flows. The obstruction can be safely portaged on either side, but be careful about your footing! At about 13.8 miles (N 38 53' 52.31" / W 107 34' 04.38") is a riverwide low-head dam that usually must be portaged on either side, but river right is generally best. At about 15.5 miles (N 38 52' 46.92" / W 107 35' 22.12") is a rock weir about 0.5 miles above the Paonia River Park Access in Paonia requires careful negotiation and is runnable with adequate flow, but there is an easy sneak route on the far right. A fourth rock weir located just above SH 92 in Hotchkiss (N 38 47' 46.59" / W 107 42' 36.34") mostly washes out at flows about 700 cfs, but demands care at all levels, especially at low flow. These three hazards are all the sites of diversion dams, which should not be a problem except perhaps at higher flows for a less experienced paddler. These diversion dams are bounded by private property, so minimize time on private land if portaging one of these obstacles.

Generally, the North Fork is an easy river to paddle. but great care must be taken when walking the riverbed due to the potential for foot entrapments. The North Fork flows over a rock-filled riverbed.

River access points

Put in at Paonia State Park (N 38 56' 23.52" / W 107 21' 32.98") below the dam at Paonia Reservoir on river right (day use area ONLY!) at CR 12 and the river just south of SH 133 at 0.0 miles; Somerset Access on River Road (N 38 55' 31.88" / W 107 28' 14.96") south from SH 133 and King Av. on river right at about 6.80 miles; Paonia River Park (N 38 52' 29.93" / W 107 35' 47.82") in Paonia off SH 187 / Grand Av. south from SH 133 on river left at about 16.0 miles; SH 92 right-of-way (N 38 47' 46.85" / W 10742' 39.60") in Hotchkiss immediately below the bridge on river right at about 26.2 miles; BLM Gunnison Forks Campground (N 38 47' 03.74" / W 107 50' 03.30") at the end of Pleasure Park Road (on the North Fork) south from SH 92 between Hotchkiss and Delta at the confluence of the Gunnison River (day-use ONLY!) on river right at about 35.2 miles; BLM Gunnison Forks Campground (N 38 47' 03.74" / W 107 50' 03.30") at the end of Pleasure Park Road (on the Gunnison immediately below the confluence south from SH 92 between Hotchkiss and Delta at the confluence of the Gunnison River on river right at about 35.4 miles. There MAY be other access points that have not yet been indentified.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no developed campgrounds in the immediate area of the North Fork other than the private campground/RV park adjacent to the BLM Gunnison Forks site at the take-out for the North Fork. Cottonwood Grove Campground (BLM) is located on the Gunnison river on river left about 1.5 miles below the Gunnison - North Fork confluence. Many primitive campsites can be found along the river, but take care where you choose to make your camp because over 95% of the land adjacent to the river is privately owned. Islands are legal campsites, but may be prone to flooding during run-off periods due to rain or snsowmelt. 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.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There is one known outfitter / shuttle service 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.

Reviewer's comments

The North Fork of the Gunnison River in southwestern Colorado is a gorgeous and exciting river that begins in mountains and 35 miles later ends in the desert just east of Delta. It is not a heavily paddled river, but those who venture here will find a great trip awaiting - IF there is adequate water. A flow of 800-1,000 cfs would be great, but you will be lucky to catch the river at much over 600 cfs except during the snowmelt season after a normal or larger winter snowpack. Most of the river is easy, but the hazards mentioned above deserve careful scouting before running, portaging or lining. In low water conditions walking the riverebed can be dangerous due to the potential for foot entrapments - this is a very rocky river! Most of the flow comes from Muddy Creek, which is dammed to form Paonia Reservoir, but there will be some flow introduced from Anthracite Creek at its mouth at Paonia State Park, with additional flow being fed by numerous small creeks and streams that enter the North Fork along this run.

While the recommended minimum level is 500 cfs the river can be run at much lower levels though it will require some walking through shoals, ledges and rapids, and that is where the risk of foot and/or ankle injuries increases, so be careful where you put your feet. Take a camera because this place is gorgeous, starting with the confluence of the Muddy Creek outflow from Panoia Reservoir and Anthracite Creek at the top down past the coal mining operations and the small towns along the way through the farmland to the Gunnison River confluence. For longer trips continue down the Gunnison for 17 miles to confluence Park in Delta. Cottonwood Grove Campground on the Gunnison River about 1.5 miles below the confluence offers a camping opportunity about 15.5 miles above Confluence Park in Delta (where the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers join.)

Most paddling on the North Fork is done between Paonia State Park and Somerset, or between Somerset and Paonia River Park. The rest of this river is equally as interesting and scenic. The last take-outs at the confluence of the North Fork and the Gunnison is the normal take-out for Gunnison Gorge trips. Unfortunately, the BLM access at Gunnison Forks is a day-use only area just like at Paonia State Park at the top of this run. What that means for overnight trips is the need to have somebody shuttle you because vehicles cannot be left overnnight at either end, though that is not the case at intermediate access points. The real determining factor of which reach to paddle will be determined by flow at the time of your trip. Generally, the river is navigable from April through June, or perhaps July in a wet or heavy snowpack year, and though this river is not nearly as challenging as various reaches of the Gunnison itself it is nonetheless a great trip that almost anybody can enjoy if they take care at those diversion dams. The North Fork truly is a great trip with totally remote characteristics even though highways are right beside the river much of the run's length.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to III (< 2,000 cfs)
IV- (> 2,000 cfs)
Length 35.4 miles
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 700-1,200 cfs
Maximum Flow 2,000 cfs
First Put-in Paonia State Park
Lat. / Long. N 38 56' 23.52" / W 107 21' 32.98"
Last Take-out Gunnison Forks CG (BLM)
Lat. / Long. N 38 47' 03.74" / W 107 50' 03.30"
Elevation 6,283-5,121 feet msl
Gradient 33 fpm (max. ~ 44 fpm)
USGS Gauge Web: Somerset
Boats Canoes w/ flotation, Kayaks, Rafts
Season April through May, June (?)
Permits No

North Fork of the Gunnison Slideshow

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

Paonia State Park Access
Paonia State Park Access

Somerset Access
Somerset Access on River Road

First diversion dam below Somerset
First diversion dam below Somerset

Second diversion dam below Somerset
Second diversion dam below Somerset

Paonia River Park Access
Paonia River Park Access

Hotchkiss diversion dam just above SH 92
Hotchkiss diversion dam just above SH 92

Hotchkiss SH 92 Access
Hotchkiss SH 92 Access

Approaching the confluence access on the North Fork
Approaching the Gunnison Forks confluence access on the North Fork

Approaching the Gunnison Forks confluence access on the Gunnison
Approaching the Gunnison Forks confluence access on the Gunnison

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

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Last updated April 21, 2019

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