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Curecanti National Recreational Area, Colorado

Crystal Reservoir - September 2002

  • location: near Gunnison, SW Colorado
  • size: Blue Mesa 9,000 acres, 96 miles of shoreline, Morrow Point - 820 acres, 11 miles long, Crystal - 6 miles long
  • elevation: 7,519 feet
  • controling agency: National Park Service
  • fee: no entrance fee, camping fee during summer, boat permits only for motorized and/or state-registered vessels, no PWCs !
  • MAP
  • water level data: Blue Mesa | Crystal

Three lakes, named for corresponding dams on the Gunnison River, form the heart of Curecanti National Recreation Area. Panoramic mesas, fjord-like lakes, and deep, steep and narrow canyons abound. Blue Mesa Lake is Colorado's largest body of water, and is the largest Kokanee Salmon fishery in the United States. Morrow Point Lake is the beginning of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. East Portal below Crystal Lake is the site of the Gunnison Diversion Tunnel, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Recently discovered dinosaur fossils, a 5,000 acre archeological district, a narrow gauge train, and traces of 6000 year old dwellings further enhance the offerings of Curecanti.

National Park Service site provides a lot information about this area.

Blue Mesa Reservoir as seen from a roadside stop just west of the Middle Bridge. The water level is still very low, although a little bit higher than last year. The left and middle pictures show approximately the same view towards east shot in September of 2002 and October 2003. Right: Dillon Pinnacles (October 2003).
Blue Mesa 2003 Blue Mesa 2002 Dillon Pinnacles

Morrow Point Reservoir

The access to the Morrow Point reservoir is from highway 50 below Blue Mesa Dam via the Pine Creek Trail. This trail consists of approximately 232 steps leading to the canyon just below the dam. From the bottom of the stairs, the trail follows the river for about a mile using an old railroad grade. NPS runs a boat tour starting from a dock about half mile below the stairs.

Morrow Point trail Morrow Point trail
Paddling conditions in the river depend on the dam release and reservoir water level. If the dam is releasing the current is pretty strong with some white water until the river reaches the boat dock where it slows down and converts into a narrow reservoir. It may be difficult to paddle upstream much further than the boat dock. Without dam release the water is very slow and shallow but, usually, it is possible to start and finish paddling at a gravel bar a little bit downstream of the stairs.
Morrow Point Reservoir Morrow Point Reservoir However, this situation changes if the water in reservoir drops much below normal level as it was in 2002. During my visit (Septemeber 15) the lake with standing water started about 2 miles below the stairs and it was possible to walk for the next couple of miles along the old railroad grade (see pictures on right). There were no boat tours. Without the dam release the were some pools of standing water separated by huge boulders.
Probably, it would be easier to portage these two miles along the trail than trying to go over these rocks. Unfortunately, there is no more data for Morrow Point Reservoir available on-line.

You can check Jerry Nolan's website to see how the river looked later at the same day when the Blue Mesa Dam was releasing water. It was swift whitewater with at least one drop of class 3. No chances to paddle upstream: 2 miles portage upstream and then the stairs ....

October 24, 2003. I started my paddling trip with a short scouting hike on Friday evening down the Pine Creek Trail. The dam was releasing water, so I could photograph and plan my run for the next day morning. The last picture with pink reflections (far right) was shot just after sunset looking downriver from the boat dock. Morrow Point Morrow Point
Morrow Point Morrow Point

Morrow Point
Since the weather forecast was not very promising for that weekend (cold and windy with some chances for snow) I decided to stay in a motel at Montrose instead of camping.

October 25, 2003. To my surprize the Pine Creek Trail parking was packed with cars when I arrived there just after the sunrise. Very little water in the river (no dam release), a lot of kokanee salmon trying to swim upstream and a lot of fishermen trying to snag salmon.

My Sea Wind was quite comfortable to carry down the steep and twisty trail despite of her 60+ lb. I started to paddle from a gravel bar below the stairs at 8:30 leaving soon all fishermen behind me. The morning was chilly: 28F (-2C). It was getting warmer but I had a pretty strong head wind, especialy, in the lower and wider part of the reservoir close to the dam. I paddled the entire length of the reservoir to the dam and then stopped at Hermit Rests just before the noon.

salmon fishing
The return way was much more relaxed with many stops for photography. I reached my starting point about 5:00 pm without any problems since the dam was still not releasing water. It took me about 1 hour to carry the boat and other stuff in two trips to the car.

Morrow Point - Chipeta Falls Morrow Point

Morrow Point - Myers Gulch
Morrow Point - dam Morrow Point - Blue Creek Morrow Point - Blue Creek

Morrow Point paddling approximate milage:
  • 0.00 trail head parking
  • 0.25 canyon bottom after the stairs of the Pine Creek Trail
  • 0.75 left: NPS boat dock
  • 3:00 right: Chipeta Falls
  • 4:00 right: Curecanti Creek - campground (I didn't stop there). It can be reached by 2 mile trail from highway 92.
  • 4:00 left: Blue Creek - a nice landing, possible camping
  • 6.80 right: Myers Gulch - a nice landing
  • 8.50 right: a lovely camping spot under big fir trees
  • 10:00 right: Hermit Rest - official campground with a restroom and picnic tables. It can be reached by 6 mile trail from highway 92.
  • 11:00 dam

Crystal Reservoir

October 26, 2003.. The only way to access the Crystal Reservoir is by the Mesa Creek Trail near Cimarron. The trail goes down to the river below the Morrow Point Dam, crosses the river, and continues downriver along the right shore. It is much shorter and easier access than in the case of Morrow Point assuming that the river can be paddled ...

Morrow Point Dam Gunnison River
The river looked almost dry with very little water flowing and I was prepared for dragging my boat over shallows. The morning was not chilly, it was really cold: 16F (-9C). Nobody was at the parking lot or in the canyon. I launched the boat about 9:00 below the trail bridge at the mouth of Cimarron River (just a creek at that time). Somehow, I managed to paddle the shallow river without even scratching the bottom of my boat. I could hear how the wake behind my boat is cracking the thin ice along the shores. Within a half mile (at the end of the trail) the river changed into a very narrow lake with calm water.

I don't remember to see any wildlife except salmon in Morrow Point. I Crystal Lake Canyon I was seeing eagles almost all time and later in the day also other birds. I paddled 6 miles to the dam and stopped in a little cove on the left to photograph a partially frozen creek.

Crystal Reservoir Crystal Reservoir Crystal Reservoir
Crystal Reservoir Crystal Reservoir - Crystal Creek Crystal Reservoir - Crystal Dam
In my return way I visited Crystal Creek Campground (about 4 miles from the start) located in a nice bay with an almost sandy beach. It seems to be the only comfortable landing and camping spot in Crystal. I paddled all the way upstream to my starting point. I had to drag the boat only through one shallow spot with a stronger current.

Cimarron Canyon. Denver & Rio Grande train is crossing the Cimarron River.

Narrow Gauge Railroad Through the Black Canyon

Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit

Cimarron Cimarron

East Portal. September, 2002.

A 1.5 miles stretch of slow flowing river between Crystal Dam and Gunnison Diversion Dam can be reached by East Portal Road. Ranger Station and a nice campground.

Gunnison River Gunnison River East Portal Dam

It would be difficult for me to describe the atmosphere and spirit of paddling these deep canyons in words. Hopefully, my pictures can do a better job. The pictures presented here have different aspect ratio since they were shot with two digital cameras: Canon PowerShot S40 (12:8) - my on board camera, and Canon D10 (12:9) used mostly on a tripod.

gift ideas for paddlers, racers, and photographers ...

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