More than Just Another Pretty Lake - Curecanti National Recreation Area

Curecanti National Recreation Area, East Portal.

The East Portal at Curecanti National Recreation Area. NPS photo by Lisa Lynch.

Curecanti National Recreation Area includes not one, but three mountain lakes, and can claim bragging rights in several categories. It also offers some surprising attractions not found in most reservoir-based recreation areas, including a "fluffy muffin" and a treat for railroad history buffs.

The park's three reservoirs—Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal—extend for 40 miles along the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon in central Colorado, and they offer a surprising variety of recreational opportunities.

Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest body of water in Colorado, and provides a good spot for both boating and windsurfing. The nearly 12-mile-long Morrow Point Reservoir offers a very different kind of experience in a spectacular canyon setting. The park suggests that for the "more adventurous and very hearty,"

Morrow Point Reservoir can provide a fabulous canoeing or sea kayaking trip. The adventure begins with hauling your boat and gear into the canyon. The easiest access to the reservoir is via the Pine Creek Trail. This trail consists of approximately 232 steps into the canyon. From the bottom of the stairs, the trail follows the reservoir for about a mile. You can put your boat in a short distance past the end of the stairs.

The first half-mile of water is swift, but then becomes calm and still... Some whitewater kayakers will haul their boats into Morrow Point Reservoir just to hit the "fluffy muffin." The whitewater is minimal, but at the right water flow in the first mile of the reservoir, a perfect wave known as a fluffy muffin forms, great for surfing, kart-wheeling, and having fun. The fluffy muffin forms about half a mile past the base of the steps. Be prepared for water around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and fluctuating water levels.

Like Morrow Point Reservoir, boating on Crystal Reservoir is limited to hand-carried craft. This is not a spot for novice boaters:

Fluctuating water levels and releases from Morrow Point Dam can create navigational problems. Tricky currents, protruding rocks, and backwashes caused by water rushing over submerged rocks can overturn the inattentive boater. In addition, conditions along the river section on Crystal can change drastically during the course of a day
.

If you're planning a boating trip at the park, be sure to read these additional important details.

You don't need your own boat to enjoy some time on the water—if you're also willing to take a bit of a hike.

The Morrow Point Boat Tour, a one and one-half hour trip through the upper Black Canyon within Curecanti. Passengers ride through the canyon on a 42-passenger pontoon boat, accompanied by a National Park Ranger or volunteer to tell the story behind the scenery. Tours run twice a day at 10:00 am and 12:30 pm everyday except Tuesday from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

The round-trip hike from the road to the dock for the boat tour is a mile and a half and includes a stairway of 232 steps. Total time required, including the walk to and from the dock, is about a half-day.

Reservations are required for this tour—walk-ons will not be permitted. Call (970) 641-2337, ext. 205 or stop by the Elk Creek Visitor Center (15 miles west of Gunnison off of Highway 50). Be sure to check the park website for other important information about these tours.

Fishing—including fly fishing—is another obvious draw to the area, but for perhaps more reasons than you'd expect. The Gunnison River from 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam all the way through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to the North Fork is designated Gold Medal & Wild Trout Water. This designation is given to the lakes and streams of Colorado that offer the greatest potential for trophy trout fishing.

Blue Mesa is also the largest Kokanee salmon fishery in the United States, and the largest recorded lake trout in Colorado was caught at Blue Mesa in 2007. This lunker weighed in at 50.35 pounds and measured 44.25 inches—bigger than pan-sized even in the West.

There's plenty to see and do in the area, even if you never get near the water.

The park offers camping, hiking and a nice piece of railroad history at the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit. Locomotive #278, built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1882, stands atop the last remaining railroad trestle along the Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad's Black Canyon of the Gunnison route. The locomotive's coal tender, a boxcar, and caboose are also on display. There are plans for restoration of the railroad exhibit, so check ahead with the park before making a trip to see those features.

The area offers some fine opportunities for scenic drives, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park adjoins Curecanti to the west. That's a must-see stop if you're in the area. For helpful trip planning information for both parks, you can download a combined visitors guide from a link on the park website's home page.

The area celebrates an anniversary of sorts today: The park has never been established by congressional action, but has been administered by the NPS under a cooperative agreement with Bureau of Reclamation since February 11, 1965.

Curecanti National Recreation Area is located approximately 200 miles southwest of Denver and is open all year, although some roads and facilities maintain seasonal schedules. Check the park website for directions and maps, and for details on operating hours.

This area is worth a look, but if you like to start your day early, don't count on a fluffy muffin for breakfast.

Comments

In June 2007, my wife and I hiked the Curecanti Creek trail at Curecanti National Recreation Area. Although listed as a strenuous trail, we didn't have much difficulty doing the hike. We are both retired, do some short 3-5 mile hikes, but we are not in "extreme" health condition by any stretch. My wife was pleasantly surprised to find restroom facilities at the end of the trail on the Gunnison River. This was really a nice hike, but go with plenty of water and snacks as you are on your own. At least you can soak your tired feet in the cold Gunnison River when you get to it!