Gunnison - 03. Crystal Dam to Chukar Trail

Gunnison, Colorado, US


03. Crystal Dam to Chukar Trail (Black Canyon)

Usual Difficulty IV-V (for normal flows)
Length 16 Miles
Avg. Gradient 51 fpm
Max Gradient 210 fpm

Next Generation in morning light

Next Generation in morning light
Photo of Spencer Huff by Riley Adams taken 10/26/17 @ 650 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-09128000 600 - 3000 cfs IV-V 00h22m 324 cfs (too low)

River Description

The Black Canyon is a classic Colorado run through a spectacular chasm.
Although this is really a class IV run with some spice of V, it has a solid V adventure rating. The canyon is very deep and committing with strenuous portaging…and poison ivy; don’t forget about the poison ivy. For a place that gets about an hour of sunlight a day, it has produced some of the healthiest poison ivy on the planet. At any rate, if you like being in deep remote canyons and enjoy high adventure, then this run is for you. Most of the drops are boulder-style and of the highest quality, at least the ones that are runnable. Many rapids in the canyon completely sieve out and require strenuous portaging. In 1997, Chuck Kern, a world-class paddler, drowned in an unseen undercut while attempting to run part of the section that's commonly portaged. A short description of the accident can be read here. Luckily, most of the portages are no-brainers; it’s either a sweet drop or certain death. This run is usually done in two days but can easily be done in one long day if you know what you are doing, and if you are training for the Iron Man. A person spending the night in the canyon will be rewarded with a beautiful sandy beach and one of the best camping experiences ever.

Day 1

Shortly after the put-in, the river moves through class III boulder-slalom type rapids. Be on the lookout for the first major drop, which can sneak up on an unctuous paddler. This drop comes just after a sharp right-hand turn and is one of the few drops that will require careful consideration. The line is down a thin slot on the far left and into a powerful hole (this hole can’t be seen from the scout on the right bank). Next, whether you are still looking at the sky or not, you must go through door Number 1, 2, 3, or 4. Door Number 1 = sieve, Door Number 2 = sieve, Door Number 3 = freedom, Door Number 4 = piton, jacking, then freedom. The portage is on the right.

The river continues with a class III/IV nature and an occasional class V- drop or portage for several miles. As a general rule of thumb, if the river looks like it is dropping off the face of the earth, it probably is. Just paddle to the right bank, pick up your boat, and start walking. Almost all of the portages on day one are on the right.

Eventually the canyon will really start to close in. This is the Narrows, and this is where some of the best class V drops can be found. Be sure to note the 1500-foot vertical walls that extend out of the water on both sides. Don’t get hurt here! The last treat of the Narrows is the 18-footer. A totally calm pool spills through a perfect U-shaped spout. Boof left through the center spout with left angle, and keep your nose up. The landing is deeper than it appears, but no need to take a chance. Now for the mile-long portage over VW Beetles. This portage can either be 45-minute grunt if you take the right path or a 3-hour nightmare if you don’t, and totally avoiding the poison ivy is impossible-yes impossible!

The Portage

Pull over on the right bank about 100 yards past the 18-footer. Don’t bother trying to run some of the drops in the portage; the river is under boulders more than it is exposed to the air. Stay close to the right wall and high above the river. Continue on the right until the right wall angles down to the river, forcing a decent (don’t be surprised if this takes more than 30 minutes or so, and don’t descend prematurely). Descend down large boulders aiming for a large calm pool with a rope across it. This spot is a good alternate camp in rainy weather, because of a natural cave that exists there. Next, ferry across the pool to the river left bank. Climb directly up to the left wall and continue along it for 100 yards or so, until you are forced down to the river again. This time the descent is on steep loose dirt, so lowering boats with a rope may be a good idea. Run one small drop and then ferry to the right bank fast. Get out (it’s almost over) and carry 50 yards down the right bank past a cool looking waterfall, and put in when things look reasonable. At this point you are at the base of S.O.B. gully, which is a possible, yet grueling escape from the canyon. After one long rapid, beach camp is reached on the right.

Day 2

Immediately after beach camp things get interesting. Class III+ boulder slalom leads to a ledge-type drop. The best line seems to be down right of center and angling left. Scout river right. Closet Rapid comes soon after the ledge and is composed of a long tight boulder maze. Eddy hop, go slow, and choose your line carefully, because a wrong turn could lead to a dead end with a sieve. The general path starts left, works right, and then back left again. Be careful not to get lured right at the end, or you will loose the main current and will be forced to portage. Some more boogie water leads to a calm pool backed up by the end of the earth. There is no mistaking this thing – ever gotten vertigo in your boat before? There looks to be a possible line down the right, but this is usually a portage. If you are thinking of running this thing scout on river right, but first look up and try to figure out how your buddies are going to get your broken body out of there. The portage is on the left and getting out of your boat involves some creativity. Once at the base of this monster, the only thing left is a short, fun, class IV drop and a long paddle out. If you opted for the Chukar Trail take out, paddle for several miles while watching for an obvious beach and trail on the left. This is where you will burden your shoulder one last time for the uphill slog to the parking lot. For the Confluence takeout, continue paddling down the never-ending Gunny Gorge until the North Fork is reached.


Take-out: To get out of the canyon, one must either paddle the never-ending Gunny Gorge to the confluence with the North Fork, or carry up the mile long Chukar Trail (think about how sore your shoulder will be by the time you get there). The road to Chukar Trail will require a vehicle with good ground clearance. The confluence take-out is located at Forks of the Gunnison, which is 1 mile south down a dirt road located 6.2 miles west of Hotchkiss and 14 miles east of Delta on Rout 92. To get to Chukar Trail, head east on Falcon Rd., which is located just south of Olathe on Hwy. 50. Follow the signs to Chukar Trail.

Put-in: Take Hwy. 50 east out of Montrose. Turn left (north) on to Rout 347 following the signs to the national park. Just after the entrance station (and a fee) turn right following signs to East Portal. Once at the bottom of the canyon, turn left into the campground and park by the river. Before launching, a permit must be obtained from the visitors’ center. Permits are available upon request and should be obtained before descending to East Portal.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2017-10-26 18:35:45


Stream team editor

Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
0.0Still in ProgressN/A
1.0Day Wrecker5.2Portage Hazard Photo
2.0On Ramp w/ S-TurnIVPhoto
3.0Upper Intestine IV+Photo
4.0Lower IntestineVPhoto
5.0Tripple DropVIPortage Photo
6.0Principal's OfficeVPhoto
7.0Corner PocketIVPhoto
8.0Pillow MoveIVPhoto
9.0Ball Crusher5.2Portage Hazard Photo
10.0Lost Boy SlotsIV+Photo
11.018 FooterVWaterfall Photo
12.0Hell PortageVIPortage Hazard
13.0Beach CampN/AAccess
13.5Next Generation VWaterfall Photo
14.0Life in the Fast LaneIV+Photo
15.0Sieve City/ClosetIV+Hazard
16.0Great FallsVIPortage Hazard

Rapid Descriptions

Day Wrecker (Class 5.2, Mile 1.0)

Entrance to Daywrecker

Entrance to Daywrecker
Photo of Kyle McCutchen by Jake Zywicke taken 08/25/07 @ ~850

On Ramp w/ S-Turn (Class IV, Mile 2.0)

Matt in On Ramp w/S-Turn

Matt in On Ramp w/S-Turn
Photo of On Ramp by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Upper Intestine (Class IV+, Mile 3.0)

Double Drop

Double Drop
Photo of Matt Hopkins by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Lower Intestine (Class V, Mile 4.0)

Lower Intestine

Lower Intestine
Photo of Fremont Shields by Matt Hopkins taken 09/05/09

Tripple Drop (Class VI, Mile 5.0)

Triple Drop

Triple Drop
Photo of One Ugly Drop by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Principal's Office (Class V, Mile 6.0)

Principal's Office

Principal's Office
Photo by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Corner Pocket (Class IV, Mile 7.0)

Corner Pocket

Corner Pocket
Photo of Fremont Shields by Matt Hopkins taken 09/05/09

Pillow Move (Class IV, Mile 8.0)

Pillow Move (or boof move)

Pillow Move (or boof move)
Photo of Matt Hopkins by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Ball Crusher (Class 5.2, Mile 9.0)

Ball Crusher

Ball Crusher
Photo of No One I Know by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Lost Boy Slots (Class IV+, Mile 10.0)

Lost Boy Slots

Lost Boy Slots
Photo of Matt Hopkins by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

18 Footer (Class V, Mile 11.0)

18 Footer

18 Footer
Photo of Matt Hopkins by Fremont Shields taken 09/05/09

Next Generation (Class V, Mile 13.5)

Next Generation

Next Generation
Photo by Spencer Huff taken 07/29/17

Life in the Fast Lane (Class IV+, Mile 14.0)

Life in the Fast Lane

Life in the Fast Lane
Photo of Fremont Shields by Matt Hopkins taken 09/05/09

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
March 26 2018 (302 days ago)
flippinthompson (159118)
Best video of this run I've been able to find:
May 31 2008 (3888 days ago)
Nick DavidDetails
The description posted here is deceptive to say the least. I ran the Black Canyon last year at a
medium/low level, and nothing about this run is Class IV in nature. Until the relative flatwater
near the end, there are numerous class V rapids, and the portage is very strenuous, it took our
group quite a bit longer than what the description indicates. In addition these rapids are some of
the most most sieved out pieces of shit I have ever seen. This is a true multi-day class V run, and
while not as difficult as the stuff in the high sierra, it definitely deserves a V+ rating when
taking the remote nature into account.

Associated Projects

  • Gunnison Basin (Colorado) Stewardship Program
    Our new Gunnison River Basin program will define and protect recreational flow needs as part of regional and broader Upper Colorado River Basin stewardship strategies. By quantifying flow needs in the