The Gunnison River was once one of the wildest in the West, draining a huge swath of central Colorado’s high country and carving deep gorges, including Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Dams and water diversions have tamed the Gunnison, but luckily visitors can explore her massive basin in this namesake National Forest.
On its west side, the forest begins high on the craggy peaks of the Continental Divide and slopes downhill into the Gunnison Basin. West of the Divide is Taylor Park Reservoir, constructed in 1936. This popular recreation area offers 2,000 acres of boating, fishing and other water sports, in a large valley that can only be described as stunning. In summer, this area can be reached from the east via Cottonwood Pass, a drive worth it for the views alone.
Farther west, the forest stretches into the beautiful Elk Mountains around the ski town of Crested Butte. These are the ancestral Rockies, ancient and crumbling one stone at a time. Hikers can embark on innumerable day trips in this area, as well as longer adventures into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. You can even hike to Aspen in a day, though most who do so arrange a shuttle car or pay for one. Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts and mountain bikers can reach Aspen via Pearl Pass. In the 1970s, riders on this trek helped invent the sport of mountain biking.
Heading west even further, the forest spreads into the massive West Elk Wilderness, home of The Castles, a collection of spires that looks like a fortress on a hill. This is untamed country. The forest ends where the hills give way to the town of Paonia.
Once winter sets in, Kebler Pass closes and most of these mountains become inaccessible but for lengthy ski or snowshoe trips. Two exceptions: Mount Crested Butte, known for some of the scariest and steepest in-bounds terrain in Colorado; and Irwin Guides, a snow cat, backcountry ski operation.
To the south, the National Forest forms a crescent from the rustic town of Lake City northeast to Monarch Pass, through the La Garitas, a sub-range of the San Juan Mountains. The mountains give way to the Cochetopa Hills, one of the lowest stretches of the Divide in Colorado. Hikers on the Colorado Trail often describe this as one of the most boring stretches of the trail.
Our Favorite Trails
- The Ruby Range Traverse: The mountains above Lake Irwin, just west of Crested Butte, form a giant cirque. This hike takes you to 13,058-foot Mount Owen and Purple Mountain. Walk or drive 2 miles up the four-wheel-drive road from the Lake Irwin Campground. This campground is one of the prettiest in the area (camp at site no. 12 if you can. You’re welcome.) Above timberline the trail heads off to the left and up a scree field to Mount Owen’s shoulder. Follow the good trail to the top and enjoy the views. Far to the south the rock structure The Castles can be seen. Hikers can continue north to Purple Mountain, though trying to make a loop back down into the valley from here is inadvisable.
- Lamphier Lake: The Fossil Ridge Wilderness east of Gunnison is a unique place, where seabed fossils can be found at 13,000 feet above sea level. Lamphier Lake is just a two-mile hike from the Gold Creek Campground on Trail No. 428. Great camping can be found at this pretty lake, making this an excellent beginners’ backpacking trip. Hikers can continue on to Gunsight Pass at 12,167 feet.
- Trail No. 401: This trail is legendary among mountain bikers. Pedal 4.5 miles up the road from the old mining town of Gothic to the trailhead on the right. From there, it’s the kind of descent mountain bikers dream of—a singletrack through fields of wildflowers and amazing mountain views.
- Kebler Pass Road: This good dirt road between Crested Butte and Paonia can’t be rivaled in autumn, with abundant aspens and peaks white with a fresh dusting of snow. The road closes once the snow begins.
Recommended season(s): Year-round (Kebler and Cottonwood passes close for the winter, so Crested Butte can only be reached from the south).
—R. Scott Rappold