If I asked you to name all four National Parks located in Colorado, could you do it? The first one is easy and by far the most popular. Rocky Mountain National Park. And then there’s the Great Sand Dunes. Again, pretty well known. But the third and fourth are a little more obscure. In the southwest corner of the state, Mesa Verde contains some of the country’s most magnificent archeological preserves. Don’t beat yourself up if you couldn’t list this one. Even some Coloradans forget its status. And the fourth? Well, if you’re an ambitious angler reading this blog right now, you’ll want to know about this one. Located northeast of Montrose, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National park is a true, albeit virtually unknown, Colorado gem. And here’s why…
About the Park
Out of 60 National Parks, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the 10th least visited. Although I’m a little perplexed as to how this is possible, there are a few factors which drastically reduce the amount of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts that travel to the area each year. For one, the entire park has minimal vehicle and pedestrian access. On the south rim of the canyon, there is the main visitor’s center. And then, there is a ranger station and campground located on the north rim. Driving access to the Gunnison River is limited to the precipitous and windy East Portal Road.
Depending on where you’re coming from, getting to the park itself can be quite time consuming. With the closest major airport being Denver, travelers from non-neighboring states will have almost a 5 hour drive after landing at DIA. And for those of you living in the Vail Valley, it’s 3 hours to get to the north rim and an extra 30 minutes if you opt for the south rim. But I will say, both routes take you through some beautiful Colorado countryside.
Yes, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison may be hard to get to. And it may have limited access. But it is a National Park for a reason. With millions of years of unhurried labor under its’ belt, the Gunnison River carved one of the most spectacular canyons in the world. It’s sheer, ornately decorated walls drop roughly 2000’ from rim to river. There are places within the canyon that see less than 35 minutes of sunlight a day and other areas which are barely 40’ wide at the valley floor. And the river itself cascades so abruptly (averaging 34’/mile) that it is listed as the 5th steepest mountain decent in North America.
Access for Fishing
As mentioned above, the only drive-up access to the Gunnison River within the park is via East Portal Road. From the entrance station on the south rim, it runs about 7 miles to its terminus at the Crystal Dam. Roughly 2 miles of the road are directly alongside the river and provide easy access to some amazing runs, pools and long, deep stretches of water. There is also a campground immediately to the left (north) once you reach the valley floor. Considering its proximity, you may want to take the opportunity to spend a night or two down there as the fishing is top notch. But don’t plan to make the trip during the winter. East Portal Road is closed from November to April.
Beyond that solitary drive-up option, the only other way to gain access to the river is by hiking down from the rim. Both the north and south rims have a handful of routes leading to the water. And all of the hikes present significant challenges. None of them are maintained or well-marked (cairns help with navigation). And the NPS website stresses the rigors of all the hikes stating that “only individuals in excellent physical condition should attempt” them. Their warning is totally justified. No matter which route you choose, the descents are treacherous and riddled with poison ivy. One hike, for example, drops over 2700 vertical feet in less than 3 miles. Class 3 scrambling and competent route-finding is required. But don’t let these obstacles stop you. The payoff is huge. Unparalleled solitude, surreal scenery and some of the best fishing in the state are all at the finish line.
Whether you drive to the river or hike your way down to it, you will quickly realize the value in making the journey. Every bend, run, pool and cascade looks fishy. In fact, the entire stretch of river within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is designated as Gold Medal Waters. And if you’re a angling purist, you’ll appreciate the fact that this area is also appointed as Wild Trout Waters. This classification essentially means that the trout populations within the river are self-sustaining. You won’t find any pale, sickly looking stockers in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
As for trout species, you will find both rainbows and browns chasing your flies. According to some local estimates, browns account for about 80% of the trout population, while rainbows round-off the remaining 20%. In hopes of balancing that disparity out, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department requires all rainbows to be released back into the river immediately. If you plan to fish below Crystal Dam via the East Portal Road access, the brown/rainbow ratio may seem miscalculated. For many anglers here, the common catch leans towards rainbows over browns. Further down the canyon though, the opposite is true.
Speaking of the Crystal Dam, the section of the Gunnison River within the National Park is considered a tailwater fishery. And you know what that means. The trout found here can grow very large, enormous in fact. And their numbers skyrocket the closer you get towards the spillway. But please note that fishing is prohibited within 200 yards downstream of the dam. The rest is fair game.
Tips & Tactics
Before I went on my trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I researched various fishing techniques for the river as well as what patterns might work best. After a few calls, I found out that, according to the local anglers, nymphing would be the most productive approach. But since I was making this a short excursion, I didn’t want to take any chances. I packed all of my fly tackle as to be ready for anything. After three full days of hardcore guerilla fishing, here’s what I learned.
Nymphing with Weight: Much of the Gunnison River in this area is fast and deep. Adding extra weight to your nymph rig is a must. Typically, I tie on a heavy bead-head attractor pattern (like a #8 tungsten 20 Incher) instead of using split shot. With the additional weight, you’ll get your flies down quickly and may even get a hit on the attractor. As far as I know, I’ve never got a strike on my split shot.
Emergers for the Bottom Fly: Match the hatch as much as possible. But time and time again, tying on small emerger patterns as my last fly has proven to be a great trouble-shooting tactic. Barr’s, RS2’s and Serendipity’s are all good options.
Pocket Water Paradise: It’s easy to get stuck fishing those iconic pools and runs and find yourself planted in the same spot for hours. But this area is loaded with amazing pocket water. I would suggest fishing every nook and cranny of this cascading river. Large trout are known to hangout in some tight spots.
Toss those Streamers: Aggressive browns holding in deep pools. Long runs with rocky banks. There’s no better scenario to start hucking your favorite articulated streamers. Hunt for those river pigs.
Before You Go
Since this stretch of the Gunnison is regulated by the Crystal Dam, the flows don’t typically fluctuate much during any given day. But before you make your journey there, take the two minutes to check the current water levels online. The USGS website provides updates every hour. I’d also suggest looking at the Bureau of Reclamation website as it sometimes provides information on upcoming water releases from the Crystal Reservoir.
Along those lines, hopping on to the National Parks Service website before your trip is not a bad idea. You’ll be able to check for any park alerts like closures or bear activity. Their website also lists information such as entrance fees, hours of operation and directions to various amenities. And be sure to stop into Vail Valley Anglers before heading out. You can stock up on last minute flies or purchase any piece of gear you may need while visiting the park.
Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers Content Writer, @sticks2snow