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Adventure

First-Timer’s Guide: Curecanti National Recreation Area

This paradise in southwest Colorado brims with unworldly rock formations, hundreds of incredible campsites, and the state’s largest shoreline—and there are opportunities for adventure year-round.

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Even as snow dusts nearby mountaintops, Colorado’s high-elevation deserts still provide idyllic late-autumn recreation for those looking to escape. There may be no better place to experience this dichotomy than Curecanti National Recreation Area in Gunnison. Each year, an average of 900,000 adventurers visit Curecanti’s solitary sagebrush steppe and the ultramarine waters of Crystal, Morrow Point, and Blue Mesa Reservoirs—the latter of which is the state’s largest body of water. The area is an outdoor recreation paradise with magnificent boating, paddling, and windsurfing, as well as hiking and a plethora of camping opportunities—but that’s not all you’ll find here.

Besides the pristine waters, Curecanti is home to the longest stretch of the Black Canyon—19 miles—five more than the chasm’s designated national park area. Here, you can spot artifacts from the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s Scenic Line of the World, which was completed in 1882. The extraordinary track hauled passengers, minerals, and livestock through a dangerously thrilling 15-mile segment next to rushing whitewater at the bottom of 2,000-foot vertical walls.

From water adventures to hiking and history, here’s why you should put Curecanti on your travel radar for late 2020 and beyond.

The Odometer: 216 miles from Denver, about four hours, one-way

(MORE: A First-Timer’s Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park)

Get Outside

Curecanti National Recreation Area
The Dillon Pinnacles are seen above Blue Mesa Reservoir. Photo by Lisa Lynch, courtesy of the National Parks Service

Top off your thermos and head out at daybreak to bird watch along the 1.5-mile Neversink trail. This mellow, wheelchair-accessible route is the perfect place for hikers (and their dogs) to enjoy the trill of American dippers, which sing all through the winter, as they plunge for morsels in the Gunnison River.

For sweeping views of Blue Mesa and a jaw-dropping flight of 600-foot rock spires called hoodoos, head to Dillon Pinnacles, a four-mile path between the volcanic rock citadel and crisp cobalt water. As you meander through rolling, aromatic sagebrush and ponderosa pine, keep your eyes peeled for Gunnison sage-grouse and bighorn sheep, as well as blossoms of scarlet paintbrush, bright yellow arnica, and lupine. With ample sunlight, this hike can be enjoyed in both late autumn and early spring, when other trails may still have a winter coat. From June to September, join the ranger-led hikes Friday through Sunday to deep-dive into the area’s geology (9 a.m. to noon; call ahead to the Elk Creek Visitor Center, 970-641-2337).

If you delight in a challenge, descend 900 feet from Black Canyon’s north rim through Douglas fir and spruce to the flowing edge of Morrow Point Reservoir on the four-mile Curecanti Creek Trail. The plunge is shadowed by the Curecanti Needle, a 700-foot granite spire. Alternatively, the canyon’s six-mile Hermit’s Rest single-track is bathed by sunlight, making it accessible during late fall months. After you explore on foot, head to Blue Mesa’s Dry Creek, a wide cove with a crescent of golden sand, to picnic or stand-up paddleboard.

In mid-summer, two other sandy shorefronts are ideal for a cool-down: Bay of Chickens—a premier spot for windsurfing—or the Old Highway 50 Beach, .25-mile west of the Elk Creek Visitor Center. Alternatively, indulge in the bird’s-eye views along the gorge’s north side via State Highway 92. Pull over at Pioneer Point for an awe-inspiring angle of the Curecanti Needle.

Water Play

Curecanti National Recreation Area
Pitch a tent alongside the water’s edge in Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo by Eric Phillips

Unsurprisingly, recreationists are drawn to Blue Mesa, the Centennial State’s largest body of water. Sailboats, cabin cruisers, and pontoons often ornament the 20-mile reservoir through December. Here, you can water ski (wetsuit recommended year-round) through a handful of remote winding canyons, such as Lake Fork Arm, which can be accessed near the western marina. As you boat, watch for sandpipers wading near shore and sandhill cranes as they migrate each spring and early winter.

For an unforgettable summertime experience in the canyon, ramble down 232 stairs along .9-mile Pine Creek trail to reach the floor of the Black Canyon and hop aboard a pontoon manned by Morrow Point Boat Tours (the tours were canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, but usually run from June to mid-September; $13 to $25). The company’s two-hour cruises take visitors past the cascading Chipeta Falls and the foot of the Curecanti Needle. Near the end of the route, history buffs can explore the remnants of the old narrow gauge railroad bed, which runs alongside the water. Adventure-seekers can also haul their own human-powered vessel to the water’s edge for a multi-day flatwater paddle through the 12-mile Morrow Point Reservoir (permit required, free).

At Curecanti’s western edge sits the restored Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit. The outdoor display features Locomotive 278—the 1882 engine that ran on this railroad for more than 70 years—as well as a coal tender from 1935, a 1904 boxcar, and an 1886 caboose. Stretched across Cimarron Creek stands the trestle, a 288-foot steel-deck bridge that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the last remaining structure of the Black’s narrow gauge railroad.

Anglers can also get in on the fun at Blue Mesa, which is the nation’s largest fishery for Kokanee Salmon. Cast a line during the year’s near-end spawning session through October. The adventures don’t stop in the winter months, though. As the ice thickens, skaters and fishermen can be found dotting Iola Basin.

Eat & Drink

The sole eatery within Curecanti is Pappy’s Restaurant and Pub, which serves up classic American fare like pizza and burgers and includes an expansive deck at the easterly Elk Creek Marina. However, the restaurant is closed from mid-September to Memorial Day weekend, so off-season adventurers should head to Gunnison, just six miles east of Curecanti’s edge to find plenty of options—including farm-to-table Asian-inspired plates at Twisted Fork and wood-fired pizza at High Alpine Brewing.

Stay

Curecanti National Recreation Area
Camping above Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo by Eric Phillips

Altogether, 10 campgrounds are scattered across Curecanti, boasting 385 total sites that accommodate a range of campers—from tents to pop-up trailers to large RVs that need electric hookups. Eight locations host road-trippers through mid-October, but we recommend Elk Creek Campground, which is open year-round and overlooks Blue Mesa. You’ll find fewer crowds during the off-season, so reservations aren’t needed, and overnight rates are halved to $8 per night starting in October.

During the warmer months, paddlers can make camp at six backcountry campsites tucked into the base of the Black, in alcoves along Morrow Point Reservoir. On higher ground, Blue Mesa’s 96-mile coast offers nine complimentary boat-in campsites (designated sites only reachable by boat)—each outfitted with picnic tables, metal fire rings, and vault toilets. Boaters can also establish camp along the southern and western shores or atop Red Creek Island, east of Dillon Pinnacles. For tree coverage, steer your ship north up Soap Creek Arm to the Ponderosa campground or settle along the coastline.

Not digging a traditional tent or overnight van-life? Near the water, Ferro’s Blue Mesa Ranch offers cabin rentals, as does Blue Mesa Recreational Ranch, Gunnison Lakeside RV Park & Cabins, and Blue Mesa Outpost. For a plush campout, you can also opt for Adventure Camping Pods, a honeycomb-inspired ultra-mini-house. Each unit has a single room with one or two beds, plus stand-up paddleboards and a wood bundle for the metal fire ring.

If You Do One Thing

While Curecanti holds a grand blue basin, do not miss an opportunity to simply walk along Neversink trail while listening to sounds from the Gunnison’s flowing current and the Great Blue Heron rookery. Surrounded by heavy grasses and willows, the area plays host to vibrant-feathered robins, red-winged black birds, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. And come winter, keep your eyes open for bald eagles.

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