Curecanti National Recreation Area


Few clues remain of the Ute Indians who lived here when pioneers and settlers arrived in the 1800s. Human occupation dates back to at least 8000 B.C. Archaeologists here have uncovered the remains of ancient structures, wicki-ups, that date back 4,500 years. These are some of the oldest dwellings to have been uncovered here. Utes of the historic era summered in the mountains and wintered near today's Montrose and Grand Junction. Like many of the area's earlier inhabitants, they were attracted here by the abundance of game in the dry hills and river valleys and by the vegetation in the canyons and on the mesas.

Fur traders and miners blazed the northern branch of the Spanish Trail from Sante Fe to Los Angeles. This trail first linked Ute country to Anglo and Spanish commerce. Despite negative reports by Capt. John Gunnison and his 1854 Pacific Railroad survey party, a narrow gauge railroad transported ore, coal, cattle, and other goods in this area by 1882. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, bearing Curecanti Needle on its logo, spurred development of small towns such as Cimarron. The railroad operated from 1882 to 1949. The region's farmers and ranchers soon coveted the Gunnison River's waters for their crops and livestock. The six-mile Gunnison Diversion Tunnel was cut through a mesa to deliver the water to the Uncompahgre Valley for agricultural uses. The tunnel was opened in 1909. Today it is recognized as a National Civil Engineering Landmark.

Curecanti National Recreation Area's stark landscape bears the imprint of attempts to alter these rugged mesas and canyons for other shortsighted human purposes. The most recent major alteration was the construction of three dams on the Gunnison River to provide irrigation and hydroelectric power. These Wayne N. Aspinall Unit dams of the Bureau of Reclamation's Upper Colorado River Storage Project have transformed the area. The high, dry, eroded vistas are now interrupted not only by the Gunnison River's narrow thread, but also by three lakes: Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal. Blue Mesa serves as the main storage reservoir. Morrow Point Dam generates most of the power and Crystal Dam maintains an even flow through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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