Detour: Curecanti National Recreation Area

Although the two rims of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison are at times a literal stone’s throw apart, traveling from rim to rim takes a couple hours. There are two routes: west down into the Uncompahgre Valley and around the Gunnison uplift into the foothills of the West Elk Mountains, or east through Cimarron and along the Gunnison Gorge through Curecanti National Recreation Area. Mid-morning of Monday, August 30, we opted for the more scenic eastern route through another National Park unit.

We would not make it to the north rim that day.

We drove out of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s south rim area and down off the Gunnison uplift. Then we turned left on US-50, rising up onto Blue Mesa before dropping again to the Gunnison River at Blue Mesa Dam.

Blue Mesa Dam

Curecanti National Recreation Area was established in 1965 in anticipation of a series of three dams being opened along the Gunnison River upstream of what was then Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. The dams were part of the massive Colorado River Storage Project, which impounded water from the Colorado River watershed four the four upstream states relying on it for water, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah. The Gunnison is a major tributary of the Colorado. The Curecanti project—named for a nineteenth century Ute leader—created three reservoirs: Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal.

Like other National Recreation Areas (Lake Mead, Glen Canyon), Curecanti National Recreation Area preserves, provides recreation on, and offers interpretation of a dramatically altered landscape. Applying the National Park Service’s mandate to provide enjoyment and pleasure for the people to reservoirs in the West—while simultaneously drowning natural areas and cultural sites—is a way to dull the kinds of public outcries that halted planned dams in Grand Canyon National Park and Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s and 1960s.

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Our route to Black Canyon’s north rim took us across Blue Mesa Dam, which was nerve-wracking since the downstream side just had posts and steel cord as a guard against its 340-foot drop off. On the other side, we began climbing highway 92, a two-lane road heading west along the northern side of Morrow Point Reservoir and the canyon. I made it about 3.5 miles along the 24 miles that the road clings to the side of the canyon before stopping, carefully executing a u-turn, and heading back the way we’d come. The road was only going to get higher and more winding, and I could already feel my hands getting clammy on the steering wheel.

Not worth it. We’d just have to go the other way around to the north rim.

Rubber Rabbitbrush

We recrossed the dam and pulled over at an overlook above Pine Creek to at least take in the views before heading back the way we’d come.

Soap Mesa

Since it was already 12:15, we decided that instead of driving all the way around to the north rim, we’d save it for the following day. Instead we’d find a visitor center and picnic area in Curecanti, get our passport stamps, have lunch, and return to Black Canyon for more exploring.

We drove down to the Cimarron Visitor Center, but it was closed. So no stamps for us.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Next to the visitor center was an elaborate restoration of a stock corral and loading platform for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

We both like trains, so this was a fun little side adventure.

We like trains, so at least we had that going for us.

The Denver and Rio Grande once took passengers and cattle through the upper reaches of the Black Canyon, along the Gunnison River below the town of Gunnison. The railway exited the main canyon at Cimarron Creek, continuing on into the Uncompahgre Valley by skirting the south side of the Gunnison uplift. It did not venture through the steepest, most dramatic part of the canyon (now preserved in the Park).

Image: Sean M. Santos

After checking out the stock loading area, we drove past a campground and down a road along Cimarron Creek to its confluence with the Gunnison, just below Morrow Point Dam.

In the shadow of its looming 468 feet of concrete, we had a picnic lunch, which we shared with a swarm of yellow jackets.

Gunnison River below Morrow Point Dam

Confluence of Cimarron Creek and the Gunnison River

After we battled the yellow jackets for our hummus, Sean didn’t mince words, “I don’t like it here.” The looming dam made him uneasy. The yellow jackets were extremely irritating. So we left, but not before I snapped a few railroad photos.

At the entrance to the picnic parking area, a restored engine, boxcar, and caboose from the Denver and Rio Grande are proudly on display on a trestle above Cimarron Creek. I still have my model Lionel train of the Denver and Rio Grande. It has encircled many Christmas trees over the decades. So it was pretty neat to see part of its history and the real engine and caboose that look exactly like the models I grew up with.

On the way back to the south rim, we stopped in the hamlet of Cimarron to buy some postcard stamps. But the post office didn’t have any. The woman at the counter suggested we try the general store connected to the gas station next door.

The self-proclaimed “old dog” behind the counter of the general store was able to find two postcard stamps, which were what we needed.

And with that, we waved goodbye to Curecanti National Recreation Area, likely the strangest time we’ve yet had in a National Park unit.

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