Flash flood makes mark on Pleasure Park near Gunnison River Canyon
Three old high school chums finally succumbed to the pressure of stories about large trout “stacked in there like cord wood,” and traveled to the Gunnison River Pleasure Park, 14 miles east of Delta last week.
There, Leroy Jagodinski took my buddies Bruce and Ed for a jet-boat ride four miles up the main stem of the Gunnison River as it flows out of the magnificent Black Canyon. I followed later by wading thigh-deep across the North Fork of the Gunnison at the Pleasure Park, then hiking up the main stem of the river to our designated campsite.
The Gunnison River Canyon is actually 53 miles long, according to the National Park Service. The deepest, most spectacular 12 miles of the gorge lie within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
That’s not the stretch we visited. We were downstream and west of the national park boundary, which is spectacular, nonetheless.
East of the park, the Gunnison River has been impounded and tamed behind three dams, Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal. Below Crystal, all the way to its confluence with the North Fork, 26 miles west, the Gunnison River remains one of the few unspoiled wild rivers in the country.
So wild, in fact, that an amazing flash flood created major changes within the canyon only six weeks ago.
This spectacular landscape was formed by erosion — two million years worth of water and rock scouring down through hard Proterozoic crystalline rock. Lots of rain storms, mudslides and flash floods in that amount of time, I’m sure.
Normally I hike into the canyon from one of four trails: Chukar, Bobcat, Duncan or Ute. They’re all situated on the south side of the gorge below the National Park Boundary, in the Bureau of Land Management’s Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness. They’re accessible from Montrose, Olathe and Delta via the Peach Valley Road. After that bizarre flash flood on August 19, however, portions of these trails have been damaged.
For that reason, and because of Ed’s gimpy knees, we opted to meet in the lower end of the canyon. (There are at least two other trails into the Black Canyon from within the National Park — S.O.B. and Warner Point — which drop from the south rim of the Canyon in the middle of the national park near Montrose. Very steep. Very deep. Check with the national park before attempting these trails.)
The boys arrived at the Pleasure Park the night before I got there, rented a one-room cabin from Leroy, then took the jet boat up early the next day.
Leroy’s permit dictates that his jet boat is off the river by 8 a.m., which means you’ve got to be there around 6 a.m. to catch a ride upriver. Too early for me! I hiked in a few hours later.
The 3.5-mile hike took about 1 hour and 45 minutes, but that’s because I wore my wading boots and carried extra gear for the two-night stay.
This place is home to a variety of wildlife, from deer and river otters to chipmunks, marmots and black bear. Coyotes are frequently heard at night, and often times, you can hear the sound of chukars chucking as they eat their way up the sides of the canyons on both sides of the river.
Even in the lower reaches of the canyon where we camped, these cliffs provide homes to white-throated swifts and violet-green swallows, although we noted an extreme lack of these birds on this trip. We spied an osprey hunting its way up-river the other day, and watched as dozens of Red-headed ducks quacked up and down the river.
To reach the Gunnison River Pleasure Park and the BLM parking area adjacent to it, travel south from Grand Junction on Highway 50 to Delta. Turn left just past the railroad tracks at Highway 92 and travel 14 miles east toward Hotchkiss.
A few miles before you reach Hotchkiss, turn right on Pleasure Park Road. There’s a large BLM sign pointing the way to the Gunnison River access.
You’ll hit the river in a few hundred yards and there, you can turn right into Leroy’s Gunnison River Pleasure Park, or left into the BLM parking/camping fee area.
Leroy can take you up the river in his jet boat if you call him in advance and line it up. His number is 970-872-2525. Or, you can wade across the North Fork of the Gunnison and hike along the north side of the river all the way to the Smith Fork, four miles upstream.
Fishing was good last week, by the way, although we didn’t really find them “stacked in there like cord wood,” as Leroy professes.