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

Headwater to Blue Mesa Reservoir
~ 19.7 Miles

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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, Marrow Point 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.

This uppermost reach of the Gunnison River, or Gunny as it is locally known, is mostly a shallow, moderately narrow, Class I stream with possible Class II obstructions in the form of small rapids and irrigation diversion dams, the latter frequently made of river rock and vegetation which makes for a more cosmetically appealing obstruction, but an obstruction nonetheless, and care should be exercised when approaching these structures in moderate or high flow conditions. There are several road crossing bridges that are inaccessible from the river and a couple of foot bridges that serve private property, but all should allow adequate clearance unless your boat is very tall or the river is very high. The second access is less than a mile below the Almont access, the third access is the boat ramp off SH 135 at about 8.25 miles and the fourth access is at Gunnison Whitewater Park in the Town of Gunnison at about 12.6 miles, but it may be possible to find other access points, especially in and around Gunnison. The last take-out is on Blue Mesa Reservoir at a point accessible by car at about 19.7 miles below Almont, but there are many other possible access points on the lake if a different debarcation point is preferred.

This reach of the river is primarily surrounded by farmland and occasional houses. It is rural and beautiful, with the river banks lines with several species of trees, including groves of cottonwoods and aspens. Much of the channel flows through a cut bank with near vertical walls of a few inches to 10 or more feet, which gives the river an isolation from roads and traffic except at crossings. This being a lightly populated area, it is possible to run this river without seeing anybody except around Gunnison, though you might occasionall see or hear a car on SH 135, which closely parallels the river from Almont to Gunnison, and then US 50 as it parallels the river from Gunnison to Blue Mesa.


Gunnison Forest of Gunnison County in western Colorado at the Town of Almont at the confluence of the Taylor and East Rivers flowing generally westward to Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Distance from major cities

Durango 180 miles; Grand Junction 140 miles; Denver 210 miles; Santa Fe 270 miles; Albuquerque 335 miles; Phoenix 635 miles; Oklahoma City 750 miles; Tulsa 790 miles; Dallas 856 miles; Austin 995 miles; San Antonio 990 miles; Houston 1,090 miles: Little Rock 1,085 miles; Kansas City 790 miles; St. Louis 1,040 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken. Distances are estimated to the first access listed for this reach.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Gunnison River usually flows clean, clear and cold with a beautiful blue color, but it is not drinkable without purification. Potential hazards include fecal form bacteria, agricultural runoff and similar cntaminants to water quality. The nearest USGS gauge for this river is nearly a dozen miles downstream from Almont, so add the flow from the Taylor and East gauges at Almont to calculate flow between Almont and Blue Mesa Reservoir, allowing for additional flow from the many creeks and streams that feed the Gunnison all along its course.

Best times to go

This uppermost reach of the Gunnison River is free flowing and runs best from the spring runoff in March or April until early or mid-summer in most years, dropping earlier in drought or low snowpack years. Be prepared for cold water and dress accordingly, especially before June.

Hazards to navigation

There are no major hazards to navigation on this reach of the Gunnison River. Depending upon flow rate there may be some swiftwater currents around river bends where debris has collected and there will occasionally be small rapids that are easily negotiated by moderately experience paddlers, but not a big deal if do flip - just stand up (unless the river is running rapidly, in which case DO NOT STAND UP!) Thwere are several bridge crossings, some for vehicles nd some for pedestrians, some public and some private, but access is not available at them except in an emergency, in which case climbing a near vertical embankment of a few feet may be necessary for egress. Under normal paddling conditions these bridges should not pose a threat to navigation. In the Town of Gunnison, on the west side by the airport, is Gunnison Whitewater Park, which features several consecutive drops, the largest being perhaps 3 feet and all with obvious lines, but this could be a challenge for less experienced paddlers (portaging the rapids is easy via a foot path paralleling the river. No natural or man-made hazards exist between Gunnison and Blue Mesa Reservoir.

River Access Points

SH 135 Access (N 38 39' 48.87" / W 106 50' 50.33") in Almont on river right at the confluence of the East and Taylor Rivers at 0.0 miles; USFS Almont Campground Access (N 38 39' 20.23" / W 106 51' 16.33") off SH 135 in Almont on river right at about 1.0 miles; SH 135 boat ramp access (N 38 34' 50.34" / W 106 55' 21.01") on river right at about 8.3 miles; Gunnison Whitewater Park (N 38 31' 57.55" / W 106 56' 58.51") in the Town of Gunnison off US Hwy. 50 on river right at about 12.6 miles; McCabe's Lane (NPS) Access (N 38 31' 03.45" / W 106 59' 41.80") east off Hwy. 32 just south of US 50 on river right at about 15.9 miles; Cooper Ranch (NPS)Access (N 38 30' 26.83" / W 107 01' 25.53") on river right at about 18.1 miles - NOTE: to access Cooper Ranch from upstream it is mandatory to move into the far right channel at N 38 31' 03.36" / W 106 59' 56.59" (about 0.25 miles below McCabe's Lane Access) to avoid having to paddle back up to it, though paddling "upstream" on the lake would generally not be a problem; Blue Mesa Reservoir Primitive Access (N 38 29' 19.31" / W 107 02' 19.12") on river right at about 19.7 miles (there are other possible access points between Gunnison and Blue Mesa Reservoir above and below the one listed for the lake.)

Campgrounds and accommodations

USFS Almont Campground (N 38 39' 20.23" / W 106 51' 16.33") off SH 135 on the outskirts of Almont is roadside (see USFS Almont CG for details and fees) is less than one mile from the top fo this run.

Nearby campgrounds can be found at several locations including USFS Cold Springs Campground in Taylor Canyon on the Taylor River off Gunnison CR 724 (see Cold Spring CG for details and fees); USFS North Bank Campground off Gunnison CR 724 (see USFS North Bank CG for details and fees.) Other BLM, USFS and commercial campgrounds can be found in thet near vicinity. Few, if any, bank camping opportunities exist for this reach.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are numerous fishing guide and outfitter services serving the Upper Gunnison River and surrounding streams. Self shuttles are easy to set up for this run if not using a local service. Raft and kayak rentals may be available from some outfitters for guided or self-guided trips.

Reviewer's comments

The truth be told, I sought out the Upper Gunnison just because I had not done it before for numerous reasons including the time and distance to get there for me, the lack of substantial whitewater and the availability of so many truly great rivers very nearby. But, not all paddling has to be breakneck hairboating, and occasionally I enjoy a more leisurely river, especially as each year passes. The Upper Gunnison was a gem. Starting in the tiny hamlet of Almont at the confluence of the East and Taylor Rivers, each another Colorado gem with moderate whitewater and a lot of scenery, the river was narrow and shallow with banks alternating from a shallow gradient to steep cut banks of 5-12 feet, perhaps taller in some places. Access is limited, but considering the total length of the run (19.7 miles) and access points below the top two (which are 1 mile apart) at 8.3, 12.6 and 19.7 miles trips can be shaped to meet any time or distance contraints. There are some bridges across the river, both vehicular and pedestrian, that could be acessed in an emergency, but where access would not normally be found due to steep banks, very limited right-of-way and fences blocking access to the bridges, in addition to trees, bushes and brush that clog the banks.

Most of the land along the Upper Gunnision's banks is private property, so please exercise caution to avoid trespassing except in an emergency situation. The surrounding topography is largely rural agricultural with sparse structures other than in small enclaves of residences near the river. You might do a trip here and see nobody other than an occasional car with passengers at one of the bridges, so if you are looking for solitude, then the Upper Gunnison is a beautiful trip on Class I (mostly) to II water that you might enjoy. Typically, it is not a deep river and it has rocks in it, so go lightly loaded and when there is at least enough water that you are not walking a lot because the water will probably be very cool on your feet and ankles.

If you start at the Taylor-East Rivers confluence in Almont, then your trip will begin at about 8,012 feet above sea level where it is usually a few degrees cooler - July being the hottest month with an historical average of 80² F, though the coldest July on record was 23° F in 1968, so dress accordingly, especially if you think you might take an unplanned swim. With an average gradient of about 25 feet per mile the current carries you nicely downriver allowing for a more relaxing trip taking in the scenery and dreaming about what it would be like to paddle across Blue Mesa, Morrow Pointn and Crystal Reservoirs into Black Canyon ... and you you snap back to reality and relish this much more leisurely journey through Colorado's High Desert just northeast of Montrose and southeast of Delta. Much of Gunnison still looks like a frontier town and Almont is even more so. With a flow of at least 500 cfs a canoe should be able to easily sustain a rate of 3+ mph so the entire trip of 19.7 miles can be done in a day (or less, depending upon your paddling speed.) With camping available at USFS Almont Campground at the second access (about a mile below the first access) and the road closely paralleling the river for most of its journey logistically this is an easy trip to plan and execute. And, if camping is not available at Almont, then there are several other nearby options to accommodate your plans.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 19.7 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow 500-3,000 cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in SH 135 Access in Alton
Lat. / Long. N 38 39' 48.87" / W 106 50' 50.33"
Last Take-out Blue Mesa Reservoir
Lat. / Long. N 38 29' 19.31" / W 107 02' 19.12"
Elevation 8,012 - 7,526 feet msl
Gradient ~ 25 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Taylor River @ Almont
East River @ Almont
Boats Any seaworthy vessel
Season March thru ? (Run-off dependent)
Permits No

Taylor - East Rivers confluence in Almont
Taylor - East Rivers confluence in Almont

Looking downriver below the Almont confluence access
Looking downriver below the Almont confluence access

Upper Gunny between Almont and Gunnison
Upper Gunny between Almont and Gunnison

Upper Gunny between Almont and Gunnison
Upper Gunny between Almont and Gunnison

Upper Gunny between Almont and Gunnison
Upper Gunny between Almont and Gunnison

Upper drop at Gunnison River Whitewater Park in Gunnison
Upper drop at Gunnison River Whitewater Park in Gunnison

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 ]
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