The legislation establishing the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness provides protection for and mandates BLM's continued management of the area's outstanding wilderness qualities, which include scenic, historic, geologic, and wildlife resources in addition to "unsurpassed" recreational activities including whitewater boating, Gold Medal trout fishing, hiking, and horseback riding. Common wildlife in the Wilderness include mule deer, elk, mountain lion, coyote, ringtail cats, small mammals, neo-tropical birds, raptors, chukar, river otter as weel as rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout. Sensitive species in the Wilderness include: clay-loving buckwheat, Montrose penstemon, Rocky Mountain thistle, Delta lomatium, Unita Basin hookless cactus, wintering bald eagles, spotted bats, river otters, and kit foxes. There are 17 miles of trail to explore in this wilderness.
Leave No Trace1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
You must obtain a permit and pay a fee for any use of the wilderness. Permits are self-issued at the primary wilderness trailheads (Chukar, Bobcat, Duncan, and Ute). Day-use fees are $3/person. Overnight use is $10/person for one night, $15/person for two nights. The maximum stay length is 2 nights/3 days. The Gunnison River within the wilderness has technical Class IV whitewater. Boaters must have strong whitewater skills. The river access is via a 1.1 mile wilderness trail. All equipment must be hiked in to the put-in, or packed in by horse. A commercial horse-packing service is available from mid-May through September.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
All camping in the river corridor is limited to designated campsites. Boaters register for camps at the put-in on the day of the launch. Hikers register at their trailhead on the first day of the trip.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
All trash, including toilet paper, must be packed out. Trash and toilet paper may not be burned. Boaters must carry and use an approved river toilet (groover) or EPA approved disposable bag system such as Wag Bag or Restop 2. Hikers may use the vault toilet at the Chukar campsite, or the primitive toilets at the Duncan camps and Ute Park. Within the river corridor people should urinate directly into the river.
4. Leave What You Find
Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts. Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them. Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species. Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
Wood fires are prohibited in the wilderness. Charcoal may be used for cooking. A firepan is required for charcoal use. All ashes and coals must be packed out.
6. Respect Wildlife
Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them. Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers. Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely. Control pets at all times, or leave them at home. Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail. Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock. Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (NCA) is located about seven miles northeast of Montrose in west central Colorado, just downstream from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The Gunnison Gorge NCA/Wilderness is located approximately 50 miles south of Grand Junction and just east off U.S. HWY 50 near the Town of Olathe. Falcon Road, east off HWY 50, about 10 miles north of Montrose and just south of Olathe, provides access from the north and southwest.
Delta County Road 2200, approximately 10 miles east of Delta on Colorado Highway 92 near Austin, also provides access to the NCA from the north. Follow the signs to Peach Valley Road and continue down Peach Valley until you come to the Chukar Road turnoff. Peach Valley also provides access to three other Wilderness trails - the Ute, Duncan, and Bobcat trails.
The northern end of the NCA can be acessed from the BLM Gunnison Forks Day Use Area located approximately 13 miles east of Delta. Look for the Gunnison Forks/Pleasure Park sign and paved County Road 28.10 south of Colorado Highway 92.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
- Fetching MyTopo from Database
- USGS Store
Rules & Regulations
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas. This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Learn more about why regulations may be necessary in wilderness.
Applicable Wilderness Law(s)
Date: October 21, 1999
Acreage: 17,700 acres
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area Act of 1999 - Public law 107-76 (10/21/1999) To redesignate the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument as a national park and establish the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, and for other purposes
General Trip Planning Information
Please download our brochure and map here:
Hiking & Horseback Trails
General description: A winding hike through a gulch into the canyon and along the river. Interesting geology, great views and exceptional fishing.
Type of trip: Out-and-back
Distance: 4.8 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 560 ft.
Maps: Trails Illustrated Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park/
Gunnison Gorge Recreation Area,USGS “Black Ridge”, BLM Land Status Map “Paonia”
Start point: Turn west off Peach Valley Rd. onto Chukar Rd and drive 7 miles to the Chukar trailhead parking lot. You’ll need a fourwheel drive vehicle that has good clearance. The road becomes progressively rougher toward the trailhead and is impassable when wet. Facilities: There is an outhouse, shaded picnic tables and user registration and fee collection box at the trailhead. There is another outhouse and user log at the river end of the trail.
This is by far the most heavily used trail in Gunnison Gorge Wilderness. During the boating season kayakers, rafters and fisherman use the trail to carry down boats and gear for day and overnight trips and at peak times it can be quite crowded. However, if you go on weekdays in the off-season you may be the only one there.
The trail starts at the large BLM information board and fee registration station and winds down along the narrow, rock-walled gulch. If you look to the left and study the formations, you’ll notice the dramatic transition from the hard, dark, erosion-resistant metamorphic rock of the Gunnison Uplift to the softer, pastel-shaded sedimentary layers laid down on top of it by ancient inland seas. On the other side of the trail, notice how erosion has cut through the sedimentary layers to reveal the maroons, oranges, buffs and grays of the Estrada sandstone, Morrison formation and Mancos shale.
From the boat put-in the trail winds upriver through the tall grass and over rocks. Keep an eye out for the lush hedges of poison ivy. About a mile upriver you climb several hundred vertical feet up and over a rock formation blocking river passage. If you are lucky, you may spot the mountain sheep that frequent this end of the gorge. Sandy-beached Margaritaville campsite is opposite a rapid just before you get cliffed out and can go no farther.
General description: Rough trail from the ridge to the river. The last half-mile is a steep descent with patches of loose rock underfoot.
Type of trip: Out-and-back day hike or overnight camping
Distance: 1.5 miles from ridge to river.
Another 3.5 miles of river is accessible to hiking.
Elevation change: 800 ft.
Maps: rails Illustrated Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park/
Gunnison Gorge Recreation Area or USGS “Black Ridge”
You must register for your campsite at the trailhead registration book.
Start point: From Peach Valley Rd. turn west onto the fourwheel drive road at the BLM Bobcat Trail sign. This access road is 1.5 miles of rough dirt and rock and dead ends on the ridge top at the trailhead. A 4 wheel drive vehicle is strongly recommended. It’s impassable when wet. Facilities: shaded picnic table, grill, outhouse, fee & trail information signs, trail register & fee pay slot.
The trail winds yucca, mountain mahogany and juniper. It’s switchbacks follows and crisscross a ravine. Several sections are steep. Watch for loose rock underfoot. The last 1/2-mile is the steepest and one drop has a 20 ft. rope anchored to a juniper tree to make the climb down easier. This trail is not as clearly distinguishable as others. Looking across the canyon on the way down, notice the dramatic, steep walls of the rock cleavage near the river. This rock is very hard and erosion resistant compared to the sandstone and other sedimentary rock above it. And much older, too--it was formed up to 1.7 billion years ago.
If you do some rock scrambling and one serious climb over the rock formation across from Buttermilk Rapids, you can hike downriver as far as the Ute Trail. Keep an eye out for poison ivy.
General description: Rough trail from Black Ridge to the Gunnison river.
Type of trip: Out-and-back day hike or overnight camping
Distance: 1.5 miles from trailhead to river; 3--6 miles round trip
Elevation change: 840 ft.
Maps: Trails Illustrated Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park/ Gunnison Gorge Recreation Area or USGS “Black Ridge
Options: Camp up to 2 nights at one of the 4 designated hiker campsites. With short sections of climbing you can hike the river up to the Bobcat Trail or down to the Ute trail.
Start point: From Peach Valley Rd. turn west onto the 4 wheel drive road at the BLM Duncan Trail sign. This access road is 2 miles of rough dirt and rock and dead ends on the ridge top at the trailhead. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is strongly recommended. It’s impassable when wet. Facilities: shaded picnic table, grill, outhouse, fee & trail information signs, trail register & fee pay slot.
Shortly after you start to descend, the easy-to-follow trail curves north. Looking east across the gorge you can see the broad, juniper-studded Pitts Meadow fanning down from Buttermilk Ridge. On the horizon to the southeast look for the jagged ridgeline indentations of the Black Canyon.
The trail descends and follows a gully. The black tar of desert varnish seeps down rock faces like the war paint on a native American warriors face. The last .5-mile is very steep with loose scree. Stay on the north side (to your left) of the ravine. At about .25 mile from the river, you may be tempted to walk down the ravine. It’s possible to descend to the river this way, but more dangerous since you’ll have to climb along the smooth ravine wall over a steep drop. Stick to the trail on the left side of the ravine instead and climb over the small ridges.
There’s no poison ivy along the trail, but keep an eye out for it along the river. You can hike along the river up to the Bobcat trail and, with a climb over the rocks across from Buttermilk Rapids, down to the Ute trail.
The first campsite upriver has an outhouse. You may notice bushes and trees cut down along the river and at campsites. It’s not vandalism: it’s part of program to control invading, non-native tamarisk.
General description: Long winding trail from the ridge into the Gorge, then along the river.
Type of trip: Out-and-back day or overnight hike.
Distance: 4.5 miles from ridge to river
Plus up to 3.5 miles of accessible river.
Elevation Drop: 1,200 ft.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult. Grades are not steep but it is uphill most of the way.
Maps: Trails Illustrated Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park/Gunnison Gorge Recreation Area or USGS “Black Ridge”
Options: Camp for up to 2 nights at one of the 4 designated hiker campsites. You can hike along the river all the way up to the Bobcat Trail if you’re willing to climb over the rock formation across from Buttermilk Rapids.
Start point: Take Peach Valley Rd. to Ute Trail turn off. Immediately after passing the BLM sign take the road to the left and follow it up to the ridge. This access road is 2.4 miles over rough dirt and rock and dead ends at the trailhead. A 4-wheel drive vehicle strongly recommended. It’s impassable when wet. Facilities: shaded picnic table, grill, outhouse, fee & trail information signs, trail register & fee pay slot.
The grade is not too steep and the path is clear and easy to follow as you descend through mountain mahogany, sage, juniper, pinyon, and prickly pear cacti. As you descend into the gorge, you’re literally walking down through the geological ages, starting with the most recent softer sedimentary deposits at the ridgeline down to the oldest, the dark, hard metamorphic rock at river level. The trail continues to drop down and parallels the river passing a teepee (in summer, a BLM ranger station) almost to Buttermilk rapid. The Utes used this trail to migrate from their winter camping ground along the Gunnison and Uncompaghre rivers to the high country of the West Elk Mountains for the spring and summer months.
For those sure of foot and unaffected by heights, the river is accessible all the way up stream to Bobcat Trail by passing over the rock formation across from Buttermilk rapid.
Smith Fork Trail
General description: A moderately difficult hike along the Gunnison River from the wide, sage-covered hills at the confluence of the Gunnison and North Fork rivers into the narrowing, mesa-topped canyon of Gunnison Gorge. The terrain is varied with some moderate climbing.
Type of trip: Out-and-back day hike or overnight.
Distance: 7.4 miles
Elevation change: 200 ft.
Maps: USGS “Lazear” and “Black Ridge.”
Options: Fish, Leave No Trace camping.
Start point: Gunnison Forks is located off Hwy 92 between Austin and Hotchkiss. Turn south off Hwy 92 onto 28.10 Rd. Look for the Gunnison Gorge Pleasure Park sign on the corner. Follow 2810 Rd. to the end and park your vehicle(s) in the BLM parking lot. Walk to the North Fork River. Facilities: There are outhouses, shaded picnic tables and grills near the parking lot. Nearby Gunnison Gorge Pleasure Park has showers, food, fishing gear, guide service and camping.
Walk upstream along the bank of the North Fork river until you find a shallow place to cross. Depth and current varies with season and rainfall, but is generally fordable without going past your knees (a walking stick comes in handy). In spring it can at times be impassable but you may be able to hire a boat to ferry you across. Call Gunnison Gorge Pleasure Park (970-872-2525) to get a river report and boat info.
On the far side, pick up the obvious dirt trail through the salt bush and follow it around the confluence of the North Fork with the Gunnison river and on up the Gunnison river. The trail follows this stretch of gentle rapids and usually clear water. There are many excellent fishing spots. If you look closely you may spot brown and rainbow trout nosing upstream against the languorous current or as dark shapes silhouetted against the pebbly bottom. Keep an eye out for poison ivy in the streamside grass and bushes.
You’ll have a short rock-hopping climb pressed up close to a jaggedy, layered rock formation that juts almost to the river, followed by a trail that wanders from hillside to water. The trail fades off and on or splits into several parallel paths at different heights on the hillside. Note the abundance of pockmarked, volcanic rocks, hurled here from the volcanoes that formed the West Elk Mountains eons ago. You’ll also see some magnificent examples of several types of breccia (stones imbedded in a matrix of hardened volcanic ash). Hiking becomes more challenging as you ascend and the canyon narrows. Stay high above the water or you’ll get cliffed out before you reach the edge of the spectacular 200-ft. precipice with the boulder-strewn Smith Fork Creek directly below.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness provides near year-round accessiblity due to the area's favorable climate though users shold be aware that a winter snow or spring rain can render the access roads impassable for a while. Winters are usually mild in temperature with 30 -50 degree temperatures. Days are generally sunny and bright. Spring and summer time temperatures can be very hot - over 100 degrees and all visitors need to bring water with them (there are no potable water sources available), along with lots of sunscreen. Poison ivy exists as undergrowth and in shrub and tree-size versions throughout the river corridor.
Special Leave No Trace Guidelines:
1. Avoid trampling vegetation or creating new tent sites or trails at existing camps.
2. Keep kitchen areas clean by using floors or tarps.
3. Wash dishes and bathe 150 ft. away from water sources. Use biodegradable soap sparingly and not in springs or side streams.
4. Strain dishwater and pack out residue. Dispose of dishwater in the main current of the river.
5. Hikers, use existing toilets at trailheads, Chukar put-in, Duncan, or Ute Park, or bury waste 6” deep using the “cat hole” method 150 ft. from water sources. Pack out toilet paper and sanitary items in a plastic bag.
6. Urinate in the river to reduce smells and fly problems near camps.
7. Leave natural objects and cultural artifacts where you find them. It’s illegal to remove artifacts.
8. Avoid disturbing wildlife and other visitors.
Safety and Current Conditions
SEARCH & RESCUE INFORMATION
Delta County Sheriff - Dial 911 (non-emergency # 970-874-2000)
Montrose County Sheriff - Dial 911 (non-emergency # 970-240-6606)
Real-time river flow information available from USGS here:
Difficulty: Class III –IV
Elevation Drop: 5400—5100 ft.
No Permit Required for non-commercial trips
Fees and Regulations: Fee required. See the Gunnison Gorge Appendix for camping/boating regulations/registration, equipment requirements and Leave No Trace guidelines.
Flow information: Colorado WaterTalk (303) 831-7135 (Division
#4, Station #6), or the BLM Hotline (970) 240-5388
Shuttle: It’s long: 53 miles one way. Gunnison River Pleasure Park will shuttle your vehicles for a fee (970-872-2525).
Chukar Trail Put-In
Turn east off Hwy 50 onto Falcon Rd. south of Olathe. Turn east on Chukar Rd. (look for the BLM sign). It’s a rugged road. Four-wheel drive is recommended. Thick mud makes the road impassable immediately after a rain. Park in the BLM parking lot. You can either carry your boat down the one-mile trail or have it packed in by a BLM-permitted horse packer. Contact Larry Franks (970) 323-0115
Gunnison Forks Take-Out
The Gunnison Forks Take-out is located approximately 13 miles east of Delta or 6 miles west of Hotchkiss on Hwy 92. Look for the Gunnison Forks Pleasure Park sign on the paved County Road 28.10 on the south side of the highway.
Take out at the BLM Forks Day Use Area, or the private Gunnison River Pleasure Park adjacent to the Forks (the Pleasure Park charges a fee). There is no camping on the BLM area but there is a restroom, parking and a sanitation dump. The Pleasure Park offers camping, showers, a restaurant, parking, boat ramp, raft rentals, shuttle service all for a fee. Call the Pleasure Park (970) 872-2525 for more information.
Washable, reusable toilet systems are required for all overnight boating groups. Stoves and/or fire pans with charcoal are required for cooking.
State regulations require that each raft must carry an extra oar or paddle, adequate first aid kit, repair kit, and an extra personal floatation device or PFD. All boaters should wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type 111/ lV life jacket.
The use of flat-water canoes, single chambered rafts, inner tubes, etc. is not advised.
Uncompahgre Field Office River Hotline: (970) 240-5388
Colorado WaterTalk (303) 831-7135 (Gorge is Division 4#, Station 6#)
The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness offers a technical and remote experience for rafters, kayakers and whitewater canoeists. The boating changes with every flow and is very dependent on winter snowpack. Expect high spring releases of 2,000 to 10,000 cfs (Cubic Feet per Second) in late May and early June. Summer flows very from 300 cfs in a very low water years to 2,000 + cfs during big water years. At flows below 800 cfs the Gorge is very technical and is not recommended for rafts over 12 feet in length. Flows over 5,000 cfs make the Gorge very dangerous for boating. Currents become very swift and swirly, eddies disappear, and swims are very long. Rescue is very difficult in the Gorge. If in doubt, SCOUT! See river map for locations and class of rapids. Each raft must carry an extra oar or paddle , first aid kit, repair kit and an extra PFD.
Located just down stream of the put in is Chukar rapid. Chukar is a single drop class III. Most choose to run center at higher water and the right slot at lower flows. Watch out for the pyramid rock center right thirty yards down stream. Next you encounter One Miler rapid running left of the large center hole or rock depending on flows. Improvise rapid (Class III) is located at mile 1.5 and is recognized by a small vertical cliff on river right and a prominent rock slide on river left. Scout on river left.
At mile 2.5 and 3.0, you encounter Upper and Lower Pucker. Both consist of narrow slots at lower flows. At flows over 6,500 cfs Upper Pucker has very large standing waves and a giant hole on river left. At mile 4.0, Buttermilk rapid (Class III) offers a wild wave ride. Run straight down the tongue and watchout for the cliff on the left.
Just below Buttermilk rapid you swing the corner and enter Ute Park. Ute Park widens out as the Gunnison River hits the Indian Fault Zone. On river right you notice red Entrada Sandstone and the left consists of black Precambrian granite. The river gradient drops and the canyon broadens.
As you leave Ute park you dive back into the Black Canyon and the steepest section of the Gunnison Gorge. Gradient picks up to 35 feet per mile. Crystal creek enters from the right at mile 6.0 forming Red Canyon Rapid (Class III). Red Canyon rapid is very rocky requiring technical boating skills to navigate the run. Scout on river right.
Beyond mile 7 is the Boulder Garden (Class III/IV). Look for Baby T-Rex Rock on the right upstream of Boulder Garden. Scout Boulder Garden on river left. Two routes are most commonly run. At flows above 1,000 cfs most will navigate the narrow slot on river right. At flows below 1,000 cfs a more technical route is required running left and ferrying back to river right at the bottom slot. Beware of Fang Rock at the bottom on river left. Many boats have high sided here.
Just below Boulder Garden is Paddle Keeper (Class III). Paddle Keeper is very technical. The rapid is most successfully run on river left and ferrying back river right. Scout river right. Cliff on river left. T-Dyke rapid (Class III) is located at mile 7.5 and is the last camp until Smith Fork. At mile 9 you encounter the steepest, most difficult section of the Gorge. S- Turn rapid (Class III) throws you into the cliff on river left. Immediately below is The Squeeze rapid (Class III+). The Squeeze is a deceptive, rocky rapid and has wrapped rafts and pinned kayaks. Most common run is through the narrow slots river right. Scout on river right.
Next are the three Drops, which contain many large holes and narrow slots. Scout all from river right. Cable rapid (Class III/IV) is located at mile 9.5. It is very technical. Scout river right. Many large holes enter into two narrow slots. Most run the right slot avoiding the cliff wall on river left. Below Cable is Jumpin' Jack Splash rapid (Class III). Jumpin' Jack Splash is run left of the large boulder, finishing river right avoiding the large hole on river left. Watch out for the lateral wave.
The Gate Keeper (Class II/III) follows, which requires navigating a narrow slot either center at higher flows or left against the cliff at flows below 600 cfs. Grande Finale (Class III) rapid finishes the run. Scout river right. Common run start river right and avoid the rocks on river left. Four miles of Class II water remains until the take out at the confluence of the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.