On a recent trip to Colorado we took our packrafts and had the opportunity to do a few whitewater runs. Two of them – Green Mountain Canyon on the Blue River, and Byers Canyon on the Colorado River – have easy road access and are covered in Colorado Rivers & Creeks II, so I won’t include them here.
We also did a walk/paddle loop on the Gunnison River that makes for a fun one-day packraft trip. Basically, it’s the lower half of Gunnison Gorge, which is also covered in Colorado Rivers & Creeks II, but we put-in on the river at Ute Trail instead of Chukar Trail. There are alternative put-ins further upstream from Ute Trail. The limiting factor is how far you want to walk with the water that you’re carrying.
III > 700 cfs
IV > 3500 cfs
(Banks,G. & Eckardt, D.; Colorado Rivers & Creeks II)
~10 miles walking, 7 miles floating.
USGS 7.5 minute Quads:
Lazear, Black Ridge.
http://nwis.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?09128000 This is a dam-release river with a long season.
No water sources on the walk, so you have to carry. There’s a user fee. Details and other information can be found at: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/ggnca.html
The trip starts at the BLM recreation site at Pleasure Park, located at the confluence of the North and Main Forks of the Gunnison River. Cross the N.F. Gunnison, walk a short way up river-right of the Main Fork Gunnison on a trail and then ferry to the west side of the Gunnison. We were able to ford the N.F. and ferry the Main, but this was done in late August. If done earlier in the year the N.F. might require a ferry also.
One needs to move upstream before ferrying to the west side of the river to avoid trespassing on private land. Everything is well signed and fenced, so it’s obvious once you get there what needs to be done.
There are two alternatives to the above method. At Pleasure Park there is a private concessionaire who does shuttles, rents boats, etc. They also own the private land that you’re trying to avoid, and they will, for a fee, ferry you across the river in a power boat and drop you off on their land, which allows easy access to the public land that you’ll be hiking on. The other alternative is to drive the 4WD roads from the west and park at a BLM parking area on river-left of the Gunnison at the conflence.
Once on the BLM land at the northern end of Black Ridge, follow ORV trails south for about 8 miles until you reach Ute trailhead, where you’ll drop a couple miles down a well-maintained trail to Gunnison Gorge. Put-in wherever looks good. Watch out for poison oak once you’re in the riparian zone. While this put-in cuts the standard Gunny Gorge run in half, it is still above the majority of the whitewater.
We did the run at 1100 cfs, which is on the low end for this canyon, but still provided plenty of fun hydraulics for a packraft. Most of the rapids are really fun with a couple route choices, so it’s worth it to bank-scout just to get the sweetest line. Because it’s gorge-y in nature there are few true sneak routes, but at 1100 there was always a drier line available if one could do the precise maneuvering. Pools downstream of the rapids provide a place for swimmers to recover.
The only reason in my mind why this could never be a “Classic” packraft trip is that the majority of the walking is done on ORV trails. The river canyon is a designated wilderness area, but not the surrounding land where the walking is done. However, it’s definitely beautiful country – juniper/sage woodland where the Colorado Plateau bumps up against the Rockies – with good whitewater. It’s a fun trip worth doing if you’re in the area.