Downstream of the famous Black Canyon, the Gunnison River continues to carve through the landscape of an area known as the Gunnison Gorge. It's all part of a diverse area of landforms now encompassed by a national conservation area.
“The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation area is about sixty two thousand acres in size. It was the first of western Colorado’s National Conservation Areas to be established," said Edd Franz, the area's recreation planner.
The NCA was created along with Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in 1999.
“The national park was established. It expanded a little bit. It did gain some of the BLM lands. But then the Gunnison Gorge became a National Conservation area with recreation a big focus of one of its main purposes,” explained Franz.
The river attracts boaters and fishermen. But there's more to the "Gorge" than just the river itself.
“Once you get outside of the canyon of the Gunnison River, you get into these open slopes of Piñon and Juniper, kind of rocky landscape. You’ve got a lot of Dakota Sandstone in here. And then below those, we drop into kind of the badlands, the moonscape of the Mancos Shale.”
I met Franz at the Peach Valley Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) Area, nestled in the colorful bluffs of the Mancos Shale.
“We’ve got a rec site built here, we’ve got toilets. We’ve got a loading ramp. We have cabanas, picnic tables, training areas.”
This area is most popular with dirt bike, ATV and other OHV users.
“Most of the other places on the BLM, motorized vehicles are limited to staying on designated routes, whether it’s a trail or a road. In this area, they’re free to ride wherever they want. It’s a nine hundred and thirty three acre open area accessed very close to the town of Olathe.”
In the winter, the gorge feels isolated. Snow can make the roads muddy and impassible-- a lesson we learned on our tour of the area.
“When it’s dry, people come out and ride quite a bit. In the summer, it’s pretty hot, so most of the OHV enthusiasts are heading up onto the forest to get into cooler areas, but during spring and fall, we get a lot of use in this area.”
This area is such a stunning example of the diversity of landforms that we have here on the Western Slope. From the Mancos Shale badlands to the Piñon-Juniper forest, the deep canyons of the gorge to river bottoms like the confluence of the Gunnison and North Fork Rivers, it's easy to see that the Gunnison Gorge area is one of the Wonders of the Western Slope.
The Gunnison Gorge NCA can be accessed by several routes in the Montrose, Olathe, Delta, Orchard City and Fruitland Mesa areas. There are fees in place for day use and camping. For more information, check out its website: