Visting Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Take the boat tour with a ranger

GUNNISON, Colo. - One of the best ways to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is to take a boat tour. Tours, given by National Park Service rangers, are offered from June through Labor Day on Morrow Point Reservoir.

Morrow Point Reservoir is technically not in the National Park, but it is in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. "Huh," you ask? The Black Canyon stretches 48 miles between Gunnison and Montrose. Part of the canyon is protected as a National Park, part of it as a National Recreation Area. The National Recreation Area has three reservoirs -- Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal. The boat tours are on Morrow Point Reservoir.

To take the boat tour, you have to be able to handle stairs and a hike. The adventure starts at Pine Creek (directions below). The hike starts with a walk down 232 steps. Some of the steps are made of stone, some are dirt and some are made of wood.There are two landings with benches along the way in case you need a break. While you may not need it on the way down, you may need it on the way up.

At the bottom of the stairs, you'll hike a wide, mostly flat, dirt path. This is a nice area to walk, because the trail is right along the Gunnison River. There are three signs along the way that explain some of the history of the area and give you an excuse to stop and catch your breath if you need to.

The path is mostly flat because it was the railroad bed for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Crews started building the narrow guard railroad bed in 1881 and the trains started running a year later, in 1882. The trains originally hauled cargo, but eventually began hauling passengers wanting to see the Black Canyon. The trains ran for 67 years, until 1949.

The hike ends 0.9 miles from the parking lot at the boat dock. There a ranger will talk about what to expect on the 90 minute boat tour and pass out life jackets. Then it's time to board the boat.

The boat tour cruises several miles of the Black Canyon while the ranger talks about the history of the canyon, how it was formed, the old railroad, the geology of the canyon and how important water is to Colorado and the western United States. On the tour you'll marvel at the steep, rock walls along the canyon and get to see Chipeta Falls and the Curecanti Needle.

Chipeta Falls is a tall waterfall. The Curecanti Needle is a rock formation that the Denver & Rio Grande used on its logo to advertise the scenic train rides. See a photo of the falls and the railroad bed from the 1880s:

Note: the railroad tracks are gone and much of the railroad bed is covered with water about a half mile post the dock.

As you pass Curecanti Needle, look for climbers on the rock formation. In a bay across from Curecanti Needle, you may see hikers. There is a two mile trail from the rim to the river that ends in a cove near the main river channel.

The boat travels seven miles in about 45 minutes to Kokanee Bay, where it turns around. On the way back, visitors can walk around the boat and ask questions as they enjoy the scenery.

Cost: Boat tours cost $16 for adults, $8 for kids and seniors with passes. You will need a reservation.

Details: The hike to the boat dock is 0.9 miles each way with 232 steps. The National Park Service recommends visitors leave the parking lot one hour before their tour to enjoy the walk and arrive at the boat dock early.

Directions: The boat tour is about 25 miles west of Gunnison and 35 east of Montrose, according to the National Park Service. Look for the turnoff for Pine Creek near mile marker 130 on U.S. 50. Turn north and drive less than a mile to the parking lot. There is an upper parking lot near U.S. 50 for RVs and large vehicles, but do not park there. Drive down the dirt road to the main parking lot.

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