Scenes from Navajo Reservoir, 'Colorado's answer to Lake Powell'. (Video by Seth Boster)

ARBOLES • In the rural outskirts between Pagosa Springs and Durango, time seems to stand still.

The eye sees mostly untamed land, fields of sage and high cliffs where the Ancestral Puebloans made home and left their marks. Chimney Rock National Monument tells their story. Along Colorado 151, those twin spires rise and then recede in the rearview mirror en route to Navajo Reservoir.

However beautiful, the reservoir is a troubling symbol of time never standing still, a 15,600-surface-acre reminder of progress.

“Colorado’s answer to Lake Powell,” state park managers describe Navajo, its waters stretching 35 miles to the mesas and canyons shared with New Mexico, where the dam was built in 1962.

With Powell, Navajo shares the burden of drought — a fact made startlingly clear this year.

For the first time, Navajo is being drained to support the downstream reservoir that has reached historic lows. Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge reservoirs, fellow units of the Colorado River Storage Project, are being pulled as well for Powell.

After scheduled releases for November and December, Navajo is projected to drop 2 feet, said Brian Sandy, park manager. This comes amid a century that has seen the reservoir’s lowest levels ever.

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Visitors explore the old water tank for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad near the Navajo reservoir in Colorado Monday.

To Sandy, it appears levels won’t drop to the record plateaus of 2003. Amid climate change, though, the future outlook remains bleak.

“The realist in me knows that as long as we remain in this drought pattern, we will continue to see low water levels,” Sandy said.

That will mean continued strain for the Navajo Nation that largely depends on the namesake reservoir, along with other tribes and municipalities over the state line, including Gallup and Farmington.

As for Colorado boaters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts who have come to love the reservoir? The way the park’s boat ramp is situated, “even at exceptionally low water levels, as long as the river flows are adequate, (visitors) could still launch,” Sandy said.

Their numbers have been greater in recent years. In 2020, in line with increases seen across Colorado’s outdoors during the pandemic, Navajo State Park counted close to 390,775 visitors. That was up 36% from the prior year.

It underscored, as Sandy put it, “the difficult balancing act” he and rangers expect to wage for years to come — an act between rising demand and preservation.

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A railroad car from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad stands near the Navajo Reservoir in Colorado. The narrow gauge railroad was rerouted in 1962 because of the dam construction. The train ran into early 1970, when lack of revenue caused the railroad between Durango and Chama, N.M., to shut down.

Still, there’s plenty of room along the reservoir that is the largest in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s portfolio. No other affords quite this experience, where one seamlessly drifts between two states, between rugged narrows, wide-open mountain views and posh marinas. Fishing is highly regarded below the dam, where bass, northern pike and Kokanee salmon lurk.

“This is the lake that some of your friends forgot to tell you about,” reads a park brochure. “They want it all to themselves.”

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Dog prints press into the drying mud along the Navajo Reservoir early this month as the water levels are lowered to feed Lake Powell down river.

Said Sandy: “We often hear visitors say they never knew this was here.”

Look around, a sign implores them. Look “for evidence of times past.”

There is evidence of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which forged west in the 1880s, toward the rapidly expanding mines in the San Juan Mountains. By then, families had migrated north to carve a living, drawn to the river as Natives before them. They settled a town called Arboles, Spanish for trees.

The trees were uprooted, as were some 50 families, when the dam was built and the valley was flooded. Today, evidence of those people is hard to find.

Though, the ground they walked has reemerged. It was muddy this visit, as if the water had just retreated. Smoke clung in the air, fires burning around the West. A distant train could be heard.

But it was quiet at an overlook, a pavilion perched high and away from the reservoir. Look, a sign implored. Listen. Listen to the river.


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