The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River starts high in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado. It flows east to fill Lake San Cristobal then turns north through Lake City and ends in Blue Mesa Reservoir. Along the way it flows through mostly private land with some interspersed patches of BLM land. It is a small river with flows ranging from about 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the fall & winter to over 1000 cfs during spring runoff. The river is free flowing with no dams to hold or regulate its waters.
For boaters this means that you usually have a short season of boatable water during spring runoff usually starting in late May and hopefully continuing to the end of June. In some years good flow levels can continue into July but this is the exception rather than the rule. Minimum boatable flows for the river are around 300 cfs and even that will be a bumpy ride. You can check the river flow levels before you put-in on the Internet at Colorado Real Time River Flow Information .
Since the river is small it doesn't take much of an obstruction to block your way. A single tree falling across the river is all it takes. If that tree falls on a private stretch of the river you would have to illegally trespass on private property to get out and portage around the obstacle. Several boatable stretches of the river are now closed because of fences or natural barriers on private land. For this reason, the only reliable section of the Lake Fork open to boaters at this time is the lowest stretch from the Red Bridge Campground to the Gateview Campground. Fortunately, it is also the most exciting and challenging section for boaters with technical Class III waters that sometimes approach Class IV during high runoff.
The Put-In - Red Bridge Campground is a BLM facility located about 2 miles south of Highway 149 along County Road 25. The turnoff from Hwy 149 is about 29 miles southwest from Gunnison and 17 miles north of Lake City. The put-in is on the river side of the campground loop. It is a narrow zone so we ask that you unload your equipment quickly then move your vehicle out of the road so you don't block traffic. Do not park your vehicles in the few campsites there - leave those for visitors who are camping. You can park your vehicle in the large day-use parking lot on the other side of the county road. There is a restroom here and we suggest you use it before starting your trip.
The Shuttle - There is a narrow but well maintained dirt road all along the river for the 5 miles down to the take out. This makes for an easy shuttle and a number of pull outs give you a chance to take a look at the river as you go. This entire stretch is public land so you don't have to worry about trespassing as you scout the river. Stay on your side of the road and keep your speed down to avoid problems on blind curves. Also keep an eye out for rocks in the road that have fallen off the cliffs above. Park your vehicle at the Park Service's Gateview Campground at the end of the road.
The Experience - once you are on the river you will have an easy time of it for the first mile or so to give you a chance to get warmed up. It is mostly Class II water with a few drops that approach Class III. After that first mile things will get more exciting. The rapids come more frequently and get bigger. The numerous rocks in the tight river will require considerable maneuvering. At higher water levels the river is pushy. In lower water it is mellower but rockier and requires more careful navigation. The biggest challenge will be Rattlesnake Rapid - a long rocky maze with a large rock at the bottom (the Rattle) that has wrapped a few boats. The nearby road makes it easy to scout anything you are uncertain about. At the end of the run there is a sizeable drop at the bottom end of the Gateview campground. It is recommended that rafts take out before this drop. Skilled kayakers may want to try it if the water level is right. The road ends at the campground so everyone takes out there. There is also a restroom if you need it. If you continued on you would soon hit Blue Mesa Reservoir, possibly some driftwood barriers and have a 5 mile flatwater row to get out to Highway 50.
The Rest of the Lake Fork
At this time (1/30/06), natural barriers or fences block all but the lowest stretch of the Lake Fork. The only section that is legal to float with raft or kayak starts with the put-in at the Red Bridge Campground and goes about 5 miles downstream to take out at the end of the road at the Gateview Campground. The rest of the river north of Lake City is mostly Class II water with little excitement for the whitewater boater. It is best to check with the BLM office in Gunnison for current conditions to see if anything has changed or if any of these stretches are clear for boaters. We have had some conflicts between boaters and private landowners in this stretch that has encouraged some of the owners to look for ways to exclude boaters. We don't want to see that happen any more than you do. So if a stretch is clear and you want to float it we ask that you educate yourself about the access issues and please respect nearby private property.
The rivers of Colorado are used by many people. When these rivers cross public land, managed by the BLM or Forest Service, they are generally open for a wide variety of recreational uses.
When rivers flow through private land, though, the situation changes dramatically. Under Colorado law landowners own the bed and banks of any non-navigable river or stream flowing through their property. The State retains control of the water in the river. For many years this has been interpreted to mean that boaters can float on the river, even through private property, as long as they do not touch the bed or the banks of the stream (which would be criminal trespassing).
Unfortunately, inconsiderate boaters and fishermen have abused this privilege and created conflicts with landowners along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The landowners along this stretch have had numerous problems with boaters and fishermen blatantly trespassing, leaving trash, destroying property and verbally abusing them, their employees and their guests. That is causing landowners to consider ways to keep boaters from floating on the river. Whether they can do this or not is an uncertain aspect of State law and may have to be settled in court or clarified by the legislature.
We in the BLM and many boaters that use this river would hate to see such avoidable conflicts lead to costly court battles and the possible loss of boating privileges. To try to keep this from happening, we offer some tips to reduce the conflicts between boaters, private landowners and other recreationists. Please follow them when you are on the river to help ensure that you and the rest of the recreating public can continue to use this area in the future.
When You Float Through Private Land, Treat It With Respect
- Stay in your boat and do not touch the bed or the banks of the river or you will likely be cited for trespassing. There is a large irrigation diversion structure about two-thirds of the way down the section between The Gate and Red Bridge that creates about a 4 foot drop. Do not get out to scout this obstacle or you will be trespassing. It is a bit tricky but it is not dangerous so stay in your boat. Catarafters - it is illegal to put your feet down to stop the progress of your boat so you can fish. Keep moving as you pass through the stretches of private land.
- Pass through private land quietly and quickly, especially when you are near houses or people to avoid disturbing their peace and quiet and privacy.
- If you do encounter landowners, employees or guests be cordial, respectful and considerate.
- Do not leave any trash, don’t disturb or damage any structures.
- We encourage catch and release fishing to avoid depleting the fishery resource. There are special fishing regulations for the stretch from The Gate down to Red Bridge:
- Artificial flies or lures only.
- The bag and possession limit for Brown Trout is 2 fish - 16 inches or longer.
- No Rainbow Trout can be kept - they must be returned to the water immediately.
Other Steps You Can Take To Protect The Resources
- Choose your put-in and take-out to the river carefully to avoid breaking down the bank or denuding streamside vegetation.
- Use available restrooms before you put on to reduce the need to relieve yourself along the way.
- Pack out all your trash and all that you find.
- River corridors are important for wildlife as a place to get water, food, rest and shelter. They are also very important for nesting birds from April through July. Travel quietly to avoid disturbing wildlife. If you see animals along the shore, don’t approach too closely as you pass. Keep pets under control so they don’t disturb wildlife or other users.
On Public and Private Land, Be Considerate of Other Users Along the River
- Try to maneuver the boat away from any fishermen along the bank to avoid disturbing them.
- If there are campers or picnickers along the shore pass quietly to avoid disturbing their experience.
- At public put-in and take-out points park your vehicles and manage your equipment so you aren’t blocking other users. At the Red Bridge Campground put-in/take-out, boaters can unload their vehicles in the campground but must park across the road at the graveled day use parking area.
The boating on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison becomes nearly impossible at flows below 300 cubic feet per second (cfs). At that low level, cattle from the local ranches can walk in the river around the fences on the shore. To avoid this, at least one private landowner just below The Gate Campground has erected fences all the way across the river to prevent livestock trespass. These fences will completely block boaters from going down the river and you would have to trespass on the private property to get over them. We strongly suggest that you not run in this stretch unless you check with the local BLM office to see if the fences have been removed or raised.
By showing a little courtesy and respect toward private landowners and other recreationists and by taking care of the streamside resources we can go a long way toward ensuring that we can enjoy these special places for many years to come.
Any questions on these issues can be directed to Arden Anderson , BLM Recreation Specialist Gunnison Field Office, 650 South 11th Street, Gunnison, CO 81230 (970-642-4940).
Lake Fork Boating Map