Dams on the Gunnison River, just below Gunnison, have created a series of three very different reservoirs, extending 35 miles to the mouth of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Blue Mesa Lake (elevation 7,519 ft.), the easternmost (beginning 9 miles west of Gunnison), is the largest lake in Colorado when filled to capacity, and a watersports paradise popular for fishing, motorboating, sailboating, board sailing, and other activities. Fjordlike Morrow Point Lake (elevation 7,160 ft.) and Crystal Lake (elevation 6,755 ft.) fill long, serpentine canyons accessible only by precipitous trails and thus are limited to use by hand-carried boats. These lakes offer some of Colorado's best boating. (Permits cost $4 for 2 days, $10 for 14.)
There are two full-service marinas, both under the same management, offering fuel, supplies, boat rentals, and guided fishing trips. Elk Creek Marina is on Blue Mesa Lake, 16 miles west of Gunnison off U.S. 50 (tel. 970/641-0707); and Lake Fork Marina (tel. 970/641-3048) is 25 miles west of Gunnison, at the reservoir's west end. Contact either marina for current boat rental and guide rates. There's also a restaurant, Pappy's, at Elk Creek Marina, serving three meals daily.
A boat tour, offered by the park service, leaves the Pine Creek Trail boat dock on Morrow Point Lake at 10am and 12:30pm daily except Tuesday, Memorial Day through mid-September, to explore the Upper Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Warning: There is a .8-mile hike followed by 232 steps down to get to the dock, all of which has to be repeated in reverse after the boat ride. Rates are $15 adults, $7.50 children under 13. Reservations are required; stop at the Elk Creek Visitor Center or call (tel. 970/641-2337, ext. 205).
Hikers will find a variety of trails, often with splendid views of the lakes. Those who want to see birds can't go wrong with the Neversink Trail, a mile-long round-trip hike on the north shore of the Gunnison River, near a great blue heron rookery. Also watch for warblers, redwing blackbirds, and great horned owls, plus an occasional mule deer among the cottonwoods and willows that shade the river. The trail is flat and relatively easy, and also provides fishing access. A moderately strenuous hike where you might see a golden eagle or two, and possibly some bighorn sheep, is the 4-mile round-trip Dillon Pinnacles Trail, which is open to horseback riders as well as hikers. It provides spectacular views of the strangely eroded volcanic formations called the Dillon Pinnacles. The visitor center has a free brochure that describes these and several other hikes.
Anglers visit Curecanti year-round -- there's ice fishing in winter -- but the main season is May to October, when rainbow, brown, and Mackinaw trout and kokanee salmon are caught in large numbers. Hunting, especially for elk and deer, is popular in the adjacent West Elk Mountains.
The recreation area has 10 developed campgrounds, with about 350 sites. Showers are available for a small fee at Elk Creek (160 campsites) and Lake Fork (90 campsites). Elk Creek is open year-round, but water is turned off in winter. The other campgrounds are open spring through fall. Camping costs $12 per night, $18 with electric. Reservations are available from late May through early September through the recreation area's website or www.recreation.gov, or by phone (tel. 877/444-6777). Several campgrounds have marinas, boat ramps, and RV dump stations; Loop D at Elk Creek has electric hookups. Backcountry and boat-in camping is also permitted, at no charge; check with rangers.
The Elk Creek Visitor Center, 16 miles west of Gunnison off U.S. 50, has exhibits and audiovisual programs, as well as maps and publications. It's open daily 8am to 6pm in summer, and Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4pm the rest of the year, except for federal holidays in winter. Nature hikes and evening campground programs are presented throughout the summer. At Cimarron, 35 miles west of Gunnison, there's a visitor center open intermittently from mid-May through September, with a historic train exhibit, book sales, and a road to Morrow Point Dam power plant. The Lake Fork Visitor Center, 25 miles west of Gunnison off U.S. 50, near Blue Mesa Dam, is open daily from mid-May through September.
Admission to the recreation area is free except for those entering via the East Portal, where a $15 fee is charged. For a brochure and other information before your trip, contact Curecanti National Recreation Area, 102 Elk Creek, Gunnison, CO 81230 (tel. 970/641-2337; www.nps.gov/cure).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.