Wonders of the Western Slope: Lower Gunnison River

By: Dann Cianca, Weekday Morning Meteorologist Email
By: Dann Cianca, Weekday Morning Meteorologist Email

MESA COUNTY, Colo. - Join Dann Cianca as he travels by canoe through the twists and turns of the canyon carved by the lower Gunnison River... As the oar touches the water, we were off on an adventure on the Gunnison River. In the desert, water means life and we found plenty surrounding us on this summer day.

“It goes through a lot of red rock country, so you’re going to see a lot of red rock animals. The possibility of seeing deer and coyote are there. There are a lot of different kinds of birds. We’ve spotted a number of species today. Being close to the river, it’s got water, it’s got vegetation, things that birds and animals would look for," explained Bill Harris, former board member for COPMOBA, a local mountain biking organization.

I joined a group canoeing the Gunnison from Bridgeport to Whitewater.

Harris is a frequent user of the area. We talked about all of the amazing scenery along the river but also the wildlife and the area's incredible geology.

“We go through a variety of different formations," he said. "There’s the Wingate, the Kayenta… we’re in an area where we’re adjacent to some cliffs that are Entrada sandstone.”

Portions of the lower river are included in the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area (NCA) which, to many, has a lot of historical value.

Joe Neuhof, executive director of the Colorado Canyons Association explains.

“The Pre-historic history dates back to the native Americans and it’s coming to find points, stone tools, evidence of hunting and habitation in the Dominguez-Escalante NCA and the flip side of that is the historical resource.

He then focused on the more recent inhabitants.

“Some of the families ranching down here have been out here since the late 1800s, since just after the Ute Occupation. So, between the history of ranching, the railroad and a lot of the folks that have been down here trying to grow food, there’s orchards around the river, plenty of evidence of historical use and you can still get down the river and out in the NCA and appreciate and observe a lot of these historic resources.”

One of the only reminders of modern day man in the canyon is the railroad, which you'll hear or see a couple of times per day.

“A lot of the train activity we have nowadays is related to the coal industry," said Harris. "They haul coal out of the Bowie/Paonia area and you’ll see several trains a day come through here, either empty or full of coal.”

There is a lot to do on the river, including a nice float which we were enjoying.

“There’s a wide variety of recreational opportunities," said Neuhof. "You can go down the river and it’s a really fun float. There aren’t any really big rapids, so it’s fun for the family.”

“There’s also mountain biking opportunities in the NCA," he continued. "There’s motorized recreation, especially in the Cactus Park area and the Hunting Grounds. And there’s also, of course, equestrian use… horses and hikers.”

“It also has hunting," added Harris. "A lot of people enjoy hunting up this area for deer, elk in the upper ends and if you’re lucky, you get a big horn sheep permit.”

Several campsites exist along the stretch under the shade of old and towering cottonwoods.

“This stretch of river is getting more popular," said Neuhof. " You’re getting more and more pressure on the few camp sites that exist along the river. You also have active ranching and other recreational activities going on around the river corridor. So, I’d say at this point, we’ve been pretty lucky at the level of cooperation between the interests, but if we don’t plan for the future, the future will plan us.”

The river itself can be an incredible experience, but it also acts as a Gateway to the surrounding landscapes.

“If you haven’t been down the river or gone out on a horseback ride or a mountain bike ride or gotten out on your ATV, I’d recommend that you do that because there’s so much that this place offers, whether it’s the Desert Big Horn Sheep, where it’s a historical cabin or some traces of the native American out here, I guarantee you’re going to have a wonderful experience," Neuhof said.

Wildlife, recreation, scenery & more... and centuries of providing a way of life. That all makes the lower Gunnison one of the Wonders of the Western Slope!

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