Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado

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Curecanti National Recreation Area

With three major reservoirs and a plethora of recreational activities, Curecanti National Recreation Area is a great spot to spend a night, weekend or entire week playing in and around the water.

  • Curecanti National Recreation Area has three major reservoirs, including Colorado’s largest body of water – Blue Mesa Reservoir. 
  • A variety of boating can be done on the three reservoirs, from motorized boats and waterskiing to hand-paddle canoes and kayaks. 
  • Nine different campgrounds include less-developed sites, like Ponderosa, and fully-developed sites with RV hookups, like Elk Creek, as well as boat-in campsites for overnight water adventures. 
  • This part of the Gunnison River has been recognized as Gold Medal & Wild Trout Waters for the outstanding large trout fishing; Blue Mesa Reservoir is also the largest Kokanee Salmon fishery in the U.S. 
  • Other activities include hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding and hunting.
  • Located along US-50, between Gunnison and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. 
  • For more information, contact the Fall Creek Visitor Center at 970-641-2337.

Overview

Curecanti National Recreation Area is centered around three major reservoirs on the Gunnison River – Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs. While these three reservoirs (highlighted in more detail below) provide much of the recreational opportunities in this area, as well as creating a stunning contrast to the dry mesa that surrounds them, don’t let the water soak up all your time here – there’s plenty of fun to had on dry land, as well.

Blue Mesa Reservoir

The largest body of water in Colorado, Blue Mesa is the most popular of the three reservoirs in Curecanti as well as the only one that permits anything besides handcrafts on the water. Here, you’ll find motorboats exploring the side canyons of the reservoir and pulling water skiers, wind surfers enjoying the waves and water in the Bay of Chickens and paddlers making their way along the shore. If you can’t bring your own craft, rentals are available at Blue Mesa Reservoir.

There are two marinas at Blue Mesa – Elk Creek and Lake Fork. Elk Creek, located at the northeast end of the reservoir, is a larger, full-service marina with restaurants. Lake Fork Marina is at the far southwest edge of Blue Mesa, has more limited services and is only open seasonally.

Morrow Point Reservoir

Without any drive-to put-ins, Morrow Point Reservoir boating is limited to crafts that can be carried in along the Pine Creek Trail (a long stairway down and then a short walk to the edge of the reservoir), and is most often used by kayakers and canoers. The reservoir itself is smaller than Blue Mesa, and the first half-mile from the put-in has a faster moving current, making the return trip harder (some boaters choose to carry their boats up Pine Creek Trail for this section instead of fighting the current). Once you make it down to the reservoir, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a beautiful 12-mile long canyon with few other boaters and lots to explore. Backcountry camp sites are available along the canyon, making this an idyllic place for an overnight trip.

If huffing a boat up and down 230 stairs is a bit too much for you, there is a motorized boat tour that explores Morrow Point. For more information, contact stop in the Elk Creek Marina.

Crystal Reservoir

Crystal Reservoir is the least recreational of the three reservoirs in Curecanti National Recreation Area. Like Morrow Point, there is no drive-up put-in (access is along the Mesa Creek Trail), water levels are less predictable and the river itself is more technical.

Fishing

Blue Mesa Reservoir isn’t just the largest body of water in Colorado, it’s also the largest Kokanee salmon fishery in the entire U.S., so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the reservoir has world-class fishing. In addition to Kokanee, anglers can find Lake, Rainbow, Brown and Brook Trout; perch and white suckers. While local guide shops or marinas can provide the best information on where fish have been biting, Middle Bridge and Soup Creek are two good places to start casting. Summer months, May through July, tend to see the best fishing, with trout peaking in May and Kokanee peaking in June and July. Professional guides are available for fishing and boating trips.

Blue Mesa, along with Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs, is designated Gold Medal & Wild Trout Waters for the exceptional large trout fishing found throughout all these waterways. The fishing at Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs requires more effort to access.

In the winter, Blue Mesa is a popular ice fishing destination.

Anglers should be aware that fishing is not permitted directly below any of the dams and all anglers must possess a Colorado fishing license. No baiting is allowed on Gold Medal & Wild Trout Waters.

Scenic Drives

There are a number of ways to tour Curecanti National Recreation Area from the convenience of your car. US-50, which runs the entire east-west length of Curecanti before entering Black Canyon National Park, is a popular route, with any number of picnicking spots, viewpoints, short hikes and spots to stop by the water. Highlights along the way include the Elk Creek Visitor Center, the Dillon Pinnacles and the Cimarron Visitor Center.

Following the north rim of Curecanti, CO-92 is a stunning drive, with less traffic than US-50, countless vistas overlooking the Gunnison River below, wildlife and aspens. CO-92 splits off of US-50 at the Lake Fork Visitor Center and runs west to Crystal Creek before heading north to Hotchkiss.

There are a few other side roads that split off of the main roads running through Curecanti National Recreation Area that are worth exploring. Red Creek Road splits off of US-50 between the Elk Creek Visitor Center and Sapinero and heads north past numerous beaver ponds before entering the Sapinero Wildlife Area. Rainbow Lake Road also heads north, just east of the Elk Creek Visitor Center, winding up to Rainbow Lake and the West Elk Wilderness.

Camping

There are nine campgrounds throughout Curecanti National Recreation Area, many of which are conveniently located right off of US-50 (the drawback being that they can be noisy with passing traffic). While all of the campsites have their own unique appeal, two of note are the Elk Creek and Ponderosa Campgrounds.

Elk Creek Campground: This campground is located next to the Elk Creek Visitor Center, at the head of Iola Basin among the sagebrush mesa the runs along Blue Mesa. Elk Creek is one of the more developed campsites, with year-round running water and electrical hookups and, in the summer, showers, flushing toilets (vault toilets year-round), a restaurant and ranger-led evening programs. Elk Creek also has access to a boat ramp and marina. Campsites are $12/night, $18/night for sites with hookups. Reservations are available.

Ponderosa Campground: If you don’t mind roughing it a bit more, the Ponderosa site, seven miles down Soap Creek Road on the northwest end of Blue Mesa, is a phenomenal campground with beautiful views of the reservoir and sites that are nestled among pine trees. Its distance from US-50 makes this site quieter and less busy than some of the other, large campgrounds, and the Soap Creek Arm of Blue Mesa has good fishing. Ponderosa has running water from mid-May to mid-September, vault toilets and a boat ramp (boat ramp closes September 6). Campsites are $12/night, reservations not available.

In addition to the many drive-in campsites, each reservoir has at least one designated boat-in campsite for overnight boating trips. These campsites are smaller (with between one and three sites per area) and are free; check in at one of the Visitor Centers for more information.

Hiking

Just because the majority of visitors spend their time on the water in Curecanti doesn’t mean you should pass through without sampling at least some of the hikes. Here are a few favorites. 

  • Dillon Pinnacles – The Dillon Pinnacles Trailhead is found near the West Elk Arm of Blue Mesa Reservoir, just before reaching the Middle Bridge. This four-mile lollypop trail is a gradual climb through sagebrush mesa and pine forest up to the Dillon Pinnacles, remnants of the volcanic activity that once took place here. Viewpoints along the way showcase Blue Mesa and the surrounding terrain, and interpretive signs share the geologic history of the Dillon Pinnacles. 
  • Hermit’s Rest – The Hermit’s Rest trail leads from CO-92 down to the bank of Morrow Point Reservoir, passing through mixed forests before reaching the Hermit’s Rest campground. Hermit’s Rest Trail is a strenuous six-mile hike. 
  • Neversink – The Neversink Trail winds 1.5 miles (round trip) through a riparian area at the far east edge of Curecanti, off of US-50. The trail runs past a Great Blue Heron rookery, and the surrounding riparian zone makes it an excellent spot for birding.

Other Activities

Curecanti National Recreation Area is also a beautiful spot for horseback riding (Dry Gulch and Ponderosa Campgrounds both have corrals), swimming, wildlife and bird watching (golden eagles can often be seen, while spotting lekking Gunnison Sage Grouse is a rarer treat) and hunting. In addition to these activities, rangers lead interpretational day and night hikes through the park; check in at a Visitor Center for information on current and upcoming ranger programs.

Location and Contact Info

Curecanti National Recreation Area is located just west of Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park, along US-50 and CO-92. From Crested Butte, take CO-135 south to Gunnison and head west on US-50.

For more information about Curecanti Recreation Area, call the Fall Creek Visitor Center (970-641-2337) or the Cimarron Visitor Center (970-249-4074) or visit www.nps.gov/cure.

Fees and Permits

There is no entrance fee for Curecanti, although there is an entrance fee for Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park ($15/vehicle) if you approach or leave the park from East Portal.

Blue Mesa boating permits (required for motorized crafts) are $30/annual permit, $10/two-week permit and $4/2-day permit.

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