Shedding light on Black Canyon
National park features steep hikes, spectacular views and great fishing
The Rocky Mountains give birth to many creeks, streams, and rivers, but few of them are legendary.
Legendary rivers earn their reputation, and the Gunnison River has a reputation that is unquestionably deserved. For decades, the Gunnison River in western Colorado has consistently produced wild trout that will curl a rod and churn a reel.
Born out of the high country snowpack of the Colorado peaks, the Gunnison grows from a trickle to a roar by the time it pounds its way through a canyon that is more than 2,700 feet deep within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Most park visitors only drive the safe and scenic rim road, exiting their cars at designated overlooks to peer over a railing into the depths. But few experience the river and its trout fishing firsthand.
Fishing the Gunnison River within the park is not for those of faint heart or weak legs. Steep canyon trails require a significant physical effort just to get to the river. But oh, is it worth it!
Assuming the lung-numbing climb back out doesn’t dissuade you, the scenery alone will convince you to return again and again. Throw in a mix of wildlife such as peregrine falcon, otter, beaver, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and then add the trout, and you have a drink of life that quenches the soul’s thirst.
Located near Montrose, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of our nation’s newest national parks. The area’s rich history, however, dates back much further.
Ute Indians lived throughout the Gunnison River basin. Fur trappers discovered the canyon in the early 1800s, leading to government exploration. The river bears the name of U.S. Army Captain Gunnison who explored the area but avoided the canyon, describing it as inaccessible.
During the mining boom days of the late 1800’s, expanding railroads wanted to run a train through the canyon, but gave up on the idea. Remaining unexplored until 1901, William Torrence and Lincoln Fellows bravely entered the inner-canyon to locate a site for a diversion tunnel through solid rock to carry river water to the thirsty Uncompahgre Valley for crop irrigation.
Designated as a national monument in 1933, it became the nation’s 55th national park in 1999. Downstream and adjoining the park is the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, another spectacular area with excellent fishing.
Access to the 12 miles of river within the park is primarily by foot down steep, rocky trails, and a back-country permit is required. The only drive-to access is down the East Portal road. Narrow, steep, winding curves put you on the river just below Crystal Dam.
Deep pools and fast riffles are equally suited for the spin or fly fisherman. Here, anglers have a chance to land a tail-wagging rainbow exceeding 20 inches and hook feisty browns commonly in the 10- to 15-inch range.
Spin fishermen have success with most any bladed spinner or wobbling spoon. Popular hardware includes a yellow/black spotted Panther Martin, a silver Aglia Mepps, or a large diving trout Rapala.
Fly fishermen do well primarily on nymphs. Using a weighted fly or a weighted leader, a tandem of flies fished with a floating line and a strike indicator must be intently watched for a down-under strike.
Dry flies do well at certain times of day or seasons of the year. Late evening brings hatches of mayflies and caddis, but the hatches are usually not intense with one notable exception.
Mention “the stonefly hatch,” and everyone will instantly know what you are talking about. You may even have to issue them a sedative in order to engage in a sane conversation.
River access at the East Portal is short. One can only walk downstream about one-quarter of a mile before “cliffing-out.” Towering, impassable cliff walls hundreds of feet high suddenly appear around the corner. Adventuresome anglers will cross in portable boats.
The best fishing is to hike one of the inner-canyon trails, from either side. On top, the south side out of Montrose is more developed with a paved road, and it includes a visitors center and a designated campground. The north side, accessed out of Hotchkiss, is more primitive. Either way, the trails are a difficult hike with elevation drops of 1,500 feet or more to the canyon floor and the river.
The Gunnison has one of the highest streambed drops per mile of any river in the United States, dropping over 1,000 feet in elevation within the 12 miles of the park. In it’s full length of 48 miles, the Gunnison drops more in elevation than does the entire Mississippi River. Considered non-raftable, only expert kayakers boat the river with multiple portages.
Few people have walked the entire distance of the river, but I’ve done it twice.
“Walking” is a relative term to describe my journeys through the inner canyon. Traversing those 12 miles not only requires rocky streamside hiking, but also swimming to cross the river, floating through rocky pools, climbing over rocks as big as a house, and negotiating poison ivy bushes taller than your head.
Whether you make your plans to coincide with the stonefly hatch or just come on a glorious Colorado summer day, you can bet the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River will leave you shaking your head and asking yourself why you didn’t come here sooner.