Gunnison Gorge, CO

An aerial view of Ute Park shows the majesty of the Gunnison Gorge. Wikipedia photo.

By Caitlin Switzer

MONTROSE—(March 16)  Al DeGrange of Delta has been guiding backcountry expeditions for more than 30 years. Since 2003, he has owned and operated Gunnison River Expeditions-Gunnison River Outfitters. Ask him about the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, however, and a note of awe still creeps into his voice.

“We’re talking Class II-IV whitewater, so remote that we have to load our rafts on horses and head in on horseback,” DeGrange said. “The Black Canyon of the Gunnison speaks for itself—it’s a national park up above. It is one of the narrowest and deepest rivers in North America, with gold medal fishing and the flora and fauna you expect—such a beautiful and scenic experience, and it’s right here.”

DeGrange is one of a handful of river outfitters legally permitted to operate in the Gunnison Gorge NCA, and is allotted 115 launch days for up to 12 people, including guides. With 30 employees on his payroll it is obvious he is running a successful business—but don’t call it “work.”

“It’s not work at all,” DeGrange laughed. “People who live around here travel all over the world, but we have some places right here that are pretty unique. With this type of wilderness experience…you just can’t believe such a beautiful place could be so close.”

Located just seven miles northeast of Montrose, the landscape within the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area is diverse, encompassing 62,844 acres of public land in Montrose and Delta counties perfect for outdoor recreation and cultural exploration. The 20-mile Sidewinder single track trail, completed in 2010, offers a moderately difficult course for hikers and equestrians, and a highly challenging and technical route for bikers and motorcyclists. The Area also includes historic sites and pre-historic rock art, rolling adobe badlands and piñon juniper covered hills, and at its heart a double canyon of black granite and red sandstone formed by the Gunnison River, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) web site, which also states that the NCA was initially established through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area Act of 1999, and expanded in 2003.

Within the National Conservation Area–one of just 13 NCA’s nationwide–is a specially designated 17,784-acre wilderness area. Fourteen miles of the Gunnison River wind through the wilderness area, allowing rafters, kayakers and whitewater canoeists to experience the thrill of their sport in a remote, unspoiled river canyon as water flows allow. The wilderness area is reserved for non-motorized recreational uses such as hiking, horseback riding, hunting and fishing. The BLM charges a fee for day use and camping within the wilderness area, with revenues largely put toward Tamarisk eradication, according to the web site. For those who prefer their recreation on four wheels, OHV’s are allowed on designated routes and open areas in the NCA’s Flat Top-Peach Valley Recreation Area, which has 9,700 acres and more than 75 miles of trail for riders.

“The Gunnison Gorge is definitely one of the top attractions in our area,” Montrose Chamber of Commerce Director Jenni Sopsic said. “The fact that 73 percent of the land around Montrose is public land is a huge draw—our number one market (for visitors) is Colorado, and our number two market is Texas, where they have just a fraction of the public lands that we do. It’s the great outdoor Colorado experience; there are activities that appeal to all kinds of people, especially with the Sidewinder Trail.”

The appeal of the region to off-road vehicle users is phenomenal, and continues to grow, she added.

“People spend thousands of dollars fixing up their rigs,” Sopsic said. “And some incredible trails have just recently been opened here.

“The Gunnison Gorge is amazing.”