Hidden Gems in the Gunnison Gorge

Last week we described one of our more recent adventures down in Cataract Canyon in southern Utah.  While floating that particular section of the Colorado River, we were afforded an amazing opportunity to explore numerous side canyons and ancient dwellings that are rarely accessed by the public.  If only we could appreciate that kind of experience closer to home!

As it turns out, that opportunity to explore rare cultural sites and weave through a series of Paleolithic outcroppings is a bit closer to home than we thought.   A team of RRAFT volunteers recently went down to the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area to float the lower section of the Gunnison River below Pleasure Park.  The mission was to scout the various cottonwood planting sites ahead of the two-day volunteer project later in May.  We thought it was going to be a lazy float down a short section of flat water – we were pleasantly mistaken!

While meandering our way through a mix of orchards and desert sandstone, we appreciated the diversity of wildlife along the banks and enjoyed catching the occasional rapid along the way (well, maybe they were more like big riffles).  While this particular section may not be high on the list for you whitewater kayakers, it serves very important archeological and ecological purposes.  As the buffer between the urban center of Delta below and the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area just above, this seven mile section of river plays host to the flora and fauna that will eventually make its way upstream.  For this reason, the BLM and groups like the Colorado Canyons Association have put a great focus on maintaining a healthy riparian zone free of invasive plant species.  RRAFT is proud to help support this effort by helping plant and maintain over 200 Fremont Cottonwood trees, as well as targeting noxious plant species like Tamarisk and Russian Olive.

This section of river is also home to one of the oldest Clovis occupation sites in the nation! For those of us who are not up on our archeological terms, the Clovis people were a prehistoric Native American Culture that first appears in archeological records some 13,5oo years ago, just after the last ice age. While floating the river, we stopped and hiked up to an active dig site, where numerous generations of Clovis, Ute, and other indigenous groups made their nomadic homes.  It was truly amazing to see the different petroglyphs left by the various cultures and how each group seemed to build on the others’ unique knowledge of the area!

In the end, what began as a basic scout trip on a short section of desert river quickly turned into an inspiring journey through time.  The entire experience goes to show how easy it is to sometimes overlook those amazing gems in your own back yard.  For those of you who are interested, I would certainly recommend poking around in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area!

- Dan Omasta