Gunnison National Forest Overview

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At the forest's southern border, the Gunnison River continues to rip an abysmal chasm into black schist and gneiss, exposing the earth's geologic viscera in the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison. To give you an idea how deep the canyon is, it could easily swallow two Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of the other at the sheer cliff wall face known as Painted Rock.

Pinyon pine and gnarled juniper clings to the semi-arid landscape at the edge of the canyon as raptors soar on thermals overhead. Elsewhere in central Colorado's Gunnison, it is height rather than depth that impresses: The craggy summits of Colorado's famed Rockies scrape an azure sky as magnificent stands of blue spruce, Douglas fir, and Engleman spruce hug the lower slopes.

Hikers, climbers, kayakers, and skiers find a veritable recreational gold mine in the Gunnison, as well as a region rich in mining history in towns like Crested Butte. These are real mountains for real people, far removed from the celebrity jet set crowd in nearby Aspen and Vail.

Gunnison's airport allows a soft landing at the southern edge of the forest. Otherwise, as the crow flies, the town of Gunnison is about 150 miles southwest of Denver and 100 miles southeast of Grand Junction.

Hike to the Alpine Tunnel
Two miles west of the town of Hancock, you can hike up to the east portal of the Alpine Tunnel. Completed in 1881, the tunnel was the first to cut through the Continental Divide and was used to usher mail and supplies to the towns of Tin Cup and Gunnison. The 1,845-foot-long tunnel allowed mail carriers and suppliers to avoid treacherous mountain passes such as Tin Cup Pass, Taylor Pass, and Altman Pass. Just 12 feet wide and 17 feet high, the tunnel was supported by California redwood and reached an altitude of 11,608 feet. Because of rotting timber, both portals of the mine were closed.

Explore the Raggeds
The jagged Raggeds tower 13,000 feet above deep canyons, glacial valleys, and lush groves of aspen. The Raggeds Wilderness is rugged terrain with 90 miles of trails traversing nearly 60,000 acres of beguiling landscape. The Gunnison offers access to six other wilderness areas including La Garita, Collegiate Peaks, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Fossil Ridge, Powderhorn, and West Elk.

Ski Crested Butte
You'll find kick-butt skiing and snowboarding at Crusted Butte. The ski area boasts a summit elevation of 12,162 feet and a 2,775-foot vertical drop. Extreme skiers can plummet down the notorious North Face; the terrain is so steep that the double black diamond designation is simply an understatement. At the resort's snowboard park, you'll find an awesome terrain garden with dizzying half-pipes where you can bust some phat air. First-timers can take a lesson at the resort's ski school, as can anyone for that matter—there's always something new to learn.

Weave the Silver Thread Highway
The Silver Thread Highway threads its way for 75 miles through the mining towns of Lake City, Creede, and South Fork. During the winter, the drive is particularly stunning as you pass through the enchanting snowcapped crags of the San Juan Mountains. At Slumgullion Pass, you'll cross the Continental Divide at an elevation of 11,000 feet. You'll also cross the Slumgullion Earthflow—a 700-year-old mudflow that continues to ooze at 28 feet per year. The earthflow is 4 miles long and 2,000 feet wide; decades ago, it dammed a section of the Gunnsion River thereby creating Lake San Cristobal Lake—Colorado's second largest natural lake.

Fish the Gunnison Gorge
Reel in 20-inch rainbows and 15-inch browns from the Gunnison Gorge. There are several trails that will get you to there. You can gain access to the gorge at two points—near the delta off Peach Valley Road, and by Falcon Road one mile south of Olathe. And there's also the North Fork of the Gunnison River for cutthroat action.

Mountain Bike Poverty Gulch
Once crawling with miners, Poverty Gulch now lures another type of hardscrabble crowd: mountain bikers in search of the perfect ride. Rocky terrain leads through angel feather waterfalls and requires the fording of several streams. Coal was mined at the Peanut and Smith Hill mine, while a vein of gold, silver, and lead fueled the Augusta Mine. If you start your ride at Crested Butte, you can pedal for almost 20 miles at elevations approaching 10,000 feet. Bring big lungs.


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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