The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and its associated Wilderness Area offer an impressive variety of outdoor activities. One of the best ways to experience this beautiful, yet rugged, area is to wake up in the heart of it.
The flawless royal blue sky stretches northward until it meets the mountains, while the sun sparkles without so much as a single cloud to sully what is known in these parts as a typical day. There are, so they say, around 245 of these days a year and each and every one of them is perfect for getting outside and immersing yourself in Colorado’s truly great outdoors. To really take advantage of these beautiful Colorado days, though, you’ll need a sleeping bag and a tent.
The Montrose area is brimming with quality camping opportunities, and you don’t even have to go far to find them. Ridgway State Park and Black Canyon National Park are both popular, and for good reason, but an often overlooked gem that happily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with those other sites is the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (GGNCA).
A stone’s throw from downtown Montrose — around 30 minutes or so, depending on which part of the area you want to enjoy — the 62,844 acres of the Gunnison Gorge showcase a wide range of terrain, from desert shrub and sagebrush lowlands to rugged pinyon and juniper covered slopes and the beautiful double canyon that gives the gorge its name. Formerly a Native American hunting ground, archaeological findings from one of the cultural sites along the Gunnison River revealed that it has been continuously occupied by people for nearly 13,000 years, making it the oldest human occupation site in Colorado.
Entering the Gunnison Gorge is to take a step back in time. The 21st century fades away rapidly as you leave the highway and begin climbing until the wilds of this area spread out in front of you like a painting of the Old West. Heading toward Cottonwood Grove campground, one of only a few designated, vehicle-accessible campsites in the GGNCA, you start a rocky descent that requires you to guide your trusty steed (in this case a hot pink 1995 Chevy Blazer) down to the water with the theme song from an unnamed western playing in your head.
Cottonwood Grove campground isn’t particularly far from the highway — around 30 minutes from Highway 92 — but you will still pass several trailheads (North Sidewinder, Smith Mountain Saddle, Sun Cliff Canyon, Cool Rock Canyon), which means the GGNCA is perfect for a few hours of hearty exercise or a night under the stars. And not only is it incredibly accessible (school buses regularly take local kids down to Cottonwood Grove for excursions), it’s free.
Named for the grove of cottonwood trees that stand watch over the campground, there are six sites as well as a wheelchairaccessible fishing pier and a hand-carry boat launch ramp. There is a vault toilet, but no water or trash service, so remember the golden rule of camping: pack it in; pack it out. There are other non-wilderness sites that are marked on maps, so it’s a good idea to stop in at the Montrose Public Lands Center (2465 S Townsend Ave) if you need more information.
Having set up camp earlier in the day, there is one final, essential piece to your camping experience: the campfire. As the final vestiges of light give way to darkness, the campfire offers warmth and light and in a way connects you to everyone who has camped here previously, including cowboys and Native Americans. As the coals that had earlier roasted marshmallows (another camping trip essential), still barely glowing, are extinguished, darkness envelops the campsite and reveals a stark black sky teeming with stars. Your bed beckons. Wrapped up snugly, sleep comes easily as the river flows and offers up the exact soundscape Native Americans would have heard hundreds of years ago.
Plan to spend at least part of the following day enjoying the beautiful and rugged landscape of the Gunnison Gorge. The fishing pier at Cottonwood Grove begs you to cast a line — this is Gold Medal trout fishing country, after all. Or perhaps you would rather explore — on foot or by horseback, in a kayak or raft, on two wheels or four, motorized or otherwise — or use the boat ramp next to the fishing pier to launch an easy, four-mile float trip down to the Orchard Boat Ramp. The river is open to nonmotorized watercraft only.
The Cottonwood Grove campground is located along the 14-mile Smith Mountain Loop, comprised of South River Road and Smith Mountain Road. The loop offers spectacular views from your vehicle of choice: high-clearance four-wheel drive (4WD), all-terrain vehicle, dirt bike, mountain bike, or your own locomotion.
For those looking for a little more adventure, the wilderness beckons.
Located south of Cottonwood Grove is the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area. Such areas, administered under authority of the Wilderness Act of 1964, are managed with solitude and preservation in mind. It is this solitude that defines a Wilderness Area and allows its breathtaking charms to survive and thrive.
Pass through the Gunnison Gorge into the 17,784 acres of wilderness, and a veritable treasure trove of primitive recreational opportunities reveals itself, including more remote and rugged camping opportunities that can extend your time to experience and explore. Access to these campsites is either by boat or via one of several hiking trails, some of which are also accessible on horseback.
One way that NCAs and Wilderness Areas differ is how access is controlled. Motorized use is permitted in NCAs, but in the wilderness, motorized vehicles or any form of mechanical transport is prohibited. Access is limited to two feet, four hooves, or a robust upper body for paddling, which means no wheels of any kind — not even a wheelbarrow. Only wheelchairs for mobility-impaired people are exempted from the rule.
Peach Valley Road, a two-wheel drive (2WD) dirt road, leads to the access roads that in turn lead to the four main wilderness trails: Chukar, Bobcat, Duncan, and Ute. The trail names each correspond to their respective access roads, which are all dirt roads and vary in difficulty. Keep in mind that 4WD roads in the GGNCA are impassable when wet.
Chukar Road, which leads to the Chukar Trailhead, requires a 4WD vehicle with high clearance as the road is rough, particularly as you near the trailhead. Chukar Trail provides the easiest wilderness access to the river and features vehicle camping with covered picnic tables at the trailhead. Chukar Trail drops about 600 feet over the course of a mile to reach the river. It’s a moderate hike and is also used to carry boating gear from the trailhead parking area to the river via horses. This is the river access point for all whitewater rafting trips through the wilderness. There are hiker camps down at the river, as well as a vault toilet. Watch for poison ivy near the river.
The Chukar Geologic Trail features captivating views of the river and takes you back over a billion years through geological history. The hike begins at the gravel parking area along the drive to Chukar Trailhead, about one-third of a mile from the end of the road.
Like the approach to Chukar Trail, Bobcat Road, which leads to the Bobcat Trailhead, is rough and steep (but much shorter), and requires a 4WD vehicle with good clearance. Bobcat Trail offers quick access for experienced hikers, but it’s quite steep and, therefore, requires a bit of fortitude. There is a very necessary rope to hang on to at the steepest section, which rules out bringing along your canine and equine companions. Once you reach the bottom, relax for the night at two hiker camps.
Duncan Trail accesses a nice stretch of shoreline, which makes it popular with fishermen. Bighorn Trail follows the inner rim of the gorge between Bobcat and Duncan trailheads and, while it doesn’t access the river, it’s quite scenic and suitable for horses.
The longest, and arguably the most scenic, wilderness trail with river access is the 4.5-mile Ute Trail. As with many of the trails in the wilderness, the access road to the trailhead (where vehicle camping is available) isn’t too long, but it’s steep, rugged, and requires a high-clearance vehicle. A consistent gradient makes it a great trail to tackle on horseback, but the 1,200-foot descent to the river can be taxing to you and your steed, especially on a hot day. Along the river, Ute Park offers more shoreline than any of the other trails (which means great fishing) as well as four hiker camps and a primitive pit toilet.
South River Road is a dirt and gravel road that can be used by 2WD vehicles. With the exception of one sharp, steep turn that leads down into the canyon, the road is generally easy. A rougher section of South River Road extends about a mile from Cottonwood Grove campground to the West River Trailhead. This route offers the chance to drive to the river and hike the relatively flat West River Trail that meanders 2.5 miles along the river into the wilderness. Easy access to remote fishing opportunities and three wilderness campsites add more reasons to embark on this Gunny Gorge hike.
The river itself offers plenty of activities for all, whether a family on camping holiday or day trippers looking for a relaxing few hours away from it all. A number of outfitters are authorized to provide commercial boating and fishing opportunities — everything from jet-boat access up into the canyon, to multi-day wilderness float fishing trips on Class IIIIV whitewater, to day trips floating and fishing calmer water (see page 46 for more information). For those equipped with their own boats and gear, there are several good public river access sites.
The changing seasons bring additional opportunities to the gorge, including hunting in the fall (see page 45 for more information). Relatively light snowfall during winter means trails often stay open. The area is also quite popular with photographers, thanks to the diverse range of wildlife in the GGNCA and wilderness that includes mule deer, elk, collared lizards, mountain lions, wintering bald eagles, spotted bats, river otters, and kit foxes.
There are countless camping opportunities in the vast expanse of public lands surrounding Montrose, including in the San Juan Mountains, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and nearby Black Canyon. Gunnison Gorge is a spectacular example of the wide scope of recreational experience and interests that make Montrose so appealing to so many. It’s just the tip of the recreational iceberg.
As night comes and the Milky Way lights its path across the swath of sky above your camp, consider this: “With so many choices, how shall you play tomorrow?” .