Perfect for the adventurous class III/IV paddler, the Gunnison Gorge features a 1 mile hike down the steep and dusty Chukar Trail, 10 miles of paddling within a deep, beautiful gorge with scattered class III and IV rapids, and a 4 mile flatwater paddle out, the Gunnison Gorge can be a long day trip, but is best done as an overnighter. Within the canyon, boaters will find great camping, excellent scenery, fun, easy whitewater, and world class fishing. However, when it comes to the Gorge, getting there is half the fun. Sort of.
Logistically, the Gorge can be tough. Besides the hike to the put in, the shuttle is very long and the last 7 miles to the put in are on the Chukar Road. Four wheel drive/high clearance is highly recommended, however, it is not impossible to get a low clearance car or SUV in. The road becomes impassable if even slightly wet, so keep an eye on the weather before attempting to drive in. A shuttle service is offered out of the Gunnison River Pleasure Park (the Takeout) and they can be reached at (970) 872-2525.
Once at the put in, the real work begins. Kayakers can shoulder their boats for the 45 minute hike down to the put in, while rafters generally opt to use the mule service (970.323.0115 ). Because this is a wilderness area, there are user fees, which can be paid at the top of the trail. At the put in, register for your campsite (if applicable) and put on.
The whitewater starts right off the bat with Chukar Rapid, which is fairly straight forward and can be scouted from the put in. One miler is the next major rapid and involves avoiding a rock or hole, depending on flow. Improvise is next and can be recognized by a large rock slide on the left and a cliff wall on the right. Scout left. After a few miles of flat and mild whitewater, comes Buttermilk, which is a wave train that is easily read and ran. Here, the Gorge opens up into Ute Park and the river flattens out. Lots of good camping options exist in this section.
After 2 miles, the technical Red Canyon rapid comes next. The prominent Crystal Creek drainage will be noticeable on the river right. You can eddy out here and scout. Boulder Garden comes about a mile downstream. This rapid used to be the crux of the Gorge, but a 2010 flood changed the rapid dramatically. Scout left. Immediately downstream is Paddle Keeper. Ambitious kayakers can drive up on the large pyramid rock, just right of the main flow for a massive boof around 1000 CFS. T-Dyke is next and is a great surf wave around 900-1300 CFS. About 1.5 miles downstream, the Gorge narrows and the rapids become more technical.
The Squeeze can be tough for rafts, thanks to a jumble of boulders. It can be scouted on the right. The Drops is a series of waves and holes that can be scouted on the right. Cable is next and is a very long, technical rapid that is split into 2 channels at the end. Most run right to avoid the hole, however the left line remains an option depending on flows. Scout right. A few more smaller, technical rapids lead you to the end of the gorge. Don’t forget to check out the Smith Fork on the river right for great swimming!
With warm water, a few class II rapids, good camping, and excellent side hikes, the Lower Gunnison is a great family friendly float. Boaters can put in at the town of Delta (adding an additional 11 miles to the trip) or opt for the more common put in at Escalante Canyon. Don’t forget to follow the trail up across the tracks to the petroglyphs! Lower Gunnison boaters are rewarded with great desert scenery, wildlife, and petroglyphs. Hail Mary, the lone rapid on the section, is a splashy wave train that is easily ran down the middle.
There is great camping, hiking and swimming opportunities at Dominguez Canyon, about 14 miles down stream from Escalante. Take out just downstream, river left, a 1/2 or so below the footbridge. Paddlers who choose to continue to Whitewater are treated to great camping options and even more desert scenery.
Make sure to lock shuttle vehicles while boating this stretch, as Whitewater is notorious for break ins.