Fall for Gunnison

 South Rim Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  Photo Neill Pieper

South Rim Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Photo Neill Pieper

Get awestruck in Colorado’s central playground

By Steve Graham

Fall may be past the peak time for camping and there’s not enough snow yet for skiing, but there’s still plenty to do in the Gunnison Valley.

Visit Colorado’s largest body of water, see one of the world’s largest aspen groves or enjoy 750 miles of mountain bike trails. It’s a huge outdoor playground in all seasons.

“It’s all about access. There’s over 2 million acres of public land in the Gunnison Valley,” said Andrew Sandstrom, public relations manager for the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association.

Gunnison is an easy drive west on U.S. Highway 50 from anywhere on the Front Range. If you’re using Gunnison as a base camp, Sandstrom recommends the Inn at Tomichi Village on the east end of town, or the Wuanita Hot Springs Ranch between Monarch and Gunnison in the Gunnison National Forest. The former dude ranch is a destination event site and bed-and-breakfast hotel with a large pool fed by a natural hot spring.

Either way, get some rest because fall in the Gunnison Valley is all about playing in the great outdoors.

“If you’re adventurous, it’s one of the best times for mountain biking,” Sandstrom said. “The summer crowds have subsided. You’re past the afternoon thunderstorms and you kind of have the trails to yourself.”

 Hartman Rocks.  Photo Dave Kozlowski

Hartman Rocks. Photo Dave Kozlowski

Just west of Gunnison is the Hartman Rocks, a “mecca of Bureau of Land Management land that feels like Moab,” according to Scott Cline, brewmaster at Gunnison’s High Alpine Brewing Co.

When he’s not crafting creative beers, he is often riding on the 73 miles of bike trails in the 2,500-acre wilderness. A favorite is the Hartman Rocks loop, 12 miles of mostly singletrack on steep sculpted granite, with 1,500 feet of climbing.

There is also an abundance of road biking in the Gunnison area. Ohio Creek Road winds uphill from Gunnison toward Kebler Pass, home to one of the world’s largest aspen groves, which of course will be showing its fall colors.

Plenty of aspen are also reflected in the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. With 100 miles of beachfront, it is Colorado’s largest body of water, and the nation’s largest lake trout and Kokanee salmon fishery.

 Blue Mesa.  Photo Petar Dopchev

Blue Mesa. Photo Petar Dopchev

“Fall is definitely one of the most popular times to fish,” said Sandstrom, adding that salmon run up the Gunnison River from Blue Mesa in October, trying to reach the East River. Brown trout are also spawning around the same time, he said.

Cline also loves the fall fishing season. “We have some of the most incredible fishing in the country,” Cline said. 

He started to describe his favorite spot along Mill Creek, but stopped before sharing too many details.

“I don’t even know if I want to tell people about that,” he said. 

Much of the Blue Mesa Reservoir is accessible along U.S. 50, but some remote tributaries are only accessible by boat or unpaved roads, allowing for some rare solitude on the water.

Further west is another piece of the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP), Morrow Point Reservoir. It’s technically not in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but the National Park Service runs a leisurely 90-minute boat tour around the reservoir and into the canyon. The tours run through mid-September.

The final piece of the CRSP is the remote Crystal Reservoir, which is in the national park.  

 South Rim Black Canyon.  Photo Neill Pieper

South Rim Black Canyon. Photo Neill Pieper

The south rim of the Black Canyon offers a large visitors’ center and full services. The north rim is more rugged, and more intense.

“There are a few spots where you can hike down into the canyon, but you go down quickly and it’s very steep,” Sandstrom said.

He said one of the best drives in the area is on Colorado Highway 92 over the Blue Mesa dam. 

“You go through aspen groves and shrub oak,” he said. “Then you can see down into the canyon and down in the San Juans.”

Continue past the national park and the road heads toward Hotchkiss and Paonia, with plenty of wineries and apple orchards in full autumn bloom.

If some of these areas remain too crowded for your tastes, even in the fall, Sandstrom recommends the Fossil Ridge Wilderness Area. Its 32,000 acres remain largely underutilized, but it has 26 miles of trails, climbing opportunities and a chance to hunt for namesake fossils.

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.