“See! Look over there. That nearby ridge of mountains. That's where it is. Just on the other side.”
“Are you kidding? I don't see how there could be a river there.”
“Yeah, the Gunnison River flows through the Black Canyon just over and down, and I do mean way down, the other side of that ridge.”
Such might be the conversation with a newcomer to the Uncompahgre Valley, in trying to explain just how close to the valley floor that the Gunnison River really is yet how difficult it is to get to. We expect rivers to flow down the middle of the valley, often beside roads we regularly drive or along a hiking trail. The Gunnison Gorge northeast of Montrose and Olathe is none of these. Hidden in a canyon, you can't even see it until you drive then hike to a point where you are right on top of it.
The Gunnison River is very diverse. Starting north of the town of Gunnison and eventually emptying into the Colorado River at Grand Junction, this river has some very different kinds of access along the way. Popular with fishermen willing to hike, the 62,000 acre Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area is hidden behind that inconspicuous ridge, accessible only by foot or horse.
From decades of plying this canyon, I refer to the river downstream of the East Portal Road within the national park simply as “the Canyon”, followed by the “the Gorge”, then exiting to the “the Forks”.
To access the Gunnison Gorge, take US Highway 50 to Olathe. South of Olathe, turn east on Falcon Road. Falcon is paved for about four miles, then becomes a dirt road at the Y intersection with 6400 Rd and Peach Valley Road. In a mostly northern direction along the first ten miles of Peach Valley Road, four lesser access roads turn off to the east, leading up to the rim to trail heads that lead down to the river.
These roads are adobe clay roads, which are fine when dry, but are very messy when wet, even becoming impassable even with four wheel drive. The access road can be rocky rough. Each access road dead ends at trail heads for the Chukar, Bobcat, Duncan, and Ute trails, in that order going north. Once at the trail head, which is at the top of the rim, travel is by foot to the river below. I say below and I mean way below. These trails have an elevation drop of about 600 feet and more. Hikes take one-half hour to an hour or more, depending on the particular trail. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife publishes a simple map brochure.
Chukar road, about one and one-half miles north of the Y intersection, is the longest side road, winding about ten miles to the rim. Chukar trail is the least elevation drop, therefore is the easiest to hike, a relative statement. The trail to the river is about one mile long, and has an elevation drop of about 600 feet. (Compared to more difficult trails in the Black Canyon National Park with an elevation drop of 1800 to 2200 feet.) Horses can be used on Chukar and is the trail used by private boaters and commercial rafting outfitters as the put-in.
Bobcat road, about two miles further north from Chukar, is about one and one-half miles long, and the trail is about one mile long, with an elevation drop of about 800 feet. The last few hundred yards of the trail are steep and require climbing down some rock cliffs.
Duncan road, another mile and one-half north from Bobcat, is similar to Bobcat, with a road distance of about one mile, a trail distance of about two miles, and an elevation drop of about 900 feet.
Ute road is about two miles further and about two and one-half miles long. Ute trail is very different from the other trails. It is the greatest elevation drop at about 1,200 feet, but it is also the longest trail at about four and one-half miles. So it is a gentle grade to the river, and suitable for horses.
As to the river you'll find at the end of the trail, the Chukar, Bobcat, and Duncan are similar in that there will be a mixture of deep pools and riffles, with occasional white water between narrow canyon walls. Ute is different in that the canyon walls open up and the river is gentler with grassy banks. Called the Ute Park, this is excellent dry fly water.
Whichever trail you choose, be prepared with plenty of water. I carry a pump to replenish my supply from the river. Summer hikers should avoid the heat in the middle of the day. Hike out in the evening, and allow about half again longer to walk out than it took to walk in. Chukar is the best choice for the first time visitor since it is the easiest trail. It will give one a sense of what's involved in hiking into the canyon. The other trails will be a little tougher, but Chukar will better prepare you both with equipment and expectations, hopefully resulting in a pleasant experience. Boaters going down Chukar will take out a dozen miles later at the confluence of the North Fork.
Go prepared and enjoy the fishing, but do not take the canyon area lightly. It can be a tough hike for some, and the river is powerful. But then, that's just two reasons to go. Great fishing is another. This is Gold Medal designated water. Respect and hard work will be rewarded with fish and adventure.
As with any fly fishing adventure you choose in our area, feel free to stop by the shop at Montrose Anglers 309 E Main and we will get you set with flys and any other supplies you might need.