Canoeing Colorado's Lower Gunnison River: The Perfect Beginner Trip

A canoe trip along the Lower Gunnison River in Colorado is a magical escape.
A canoe trip along the Lower Gunnison River in Colorado is a magical escape. Avery Stonich
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In late summer and early fall, the Lower Gunnison River between Delta and Whitewater flows at a lazy pace—perfect for a beginner canoe trip. A mellow two- to three-day float passes through stunning red rock country in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, with easy campsites along the way. At times, the river ruffles up into Class I or II rapids—enough to put you on alert but still pretty straightforward paddling. But for the most part, the muddy water, tinted red with desert dirt, takes its sweet time, as if it wants to admire the views.

The landscape builds to a crescendo, starting with fruit orchards and rounded hills near Delta and eventually rising to sheer 800-foot sandstone canyon walls. You’re sure to spot great blue herons hunting along the shore and desert bighorn sheep scampering among the rocks. Paddle by day, sleep under the stars at night, and feel what it’s like to be truly immersed in Colorado's incredible wilderness.

And—a bonus for newbie paddlers—the Lower Gunnison River is a great place to embark on an overnight excursion, even if you've never done a self-supported river trip before. Here, our tips to help you take the plunge.

The Big Picture

Towering sandstone walls along the Lower Gunnison River make a stunning backdrop.
Towering sandstone walls along the Lower Gunnison River make a stunning backdrop. Avery Stonich

The Lower Gunnison flows 39 miles from Delta to Whitewater (south of Grand Junction). Put in at Confluence Park in Delta. Or to shorten the trip, start downstream at Escalante Canyon (28.7 miles to Whitewater) or Bridgeport at Dominguez Canyon (14 miles). The Delta put-in is the easiest, with plenty of room to sort and organize gear. The take-out at Whitewater is small, so you might want to stagger boat arrivals if you’re traveling in a group.

Allow at least two nights for the full trip. Tack on an extra day if you want to hike up Dominguez Canyon and admire the petroglyphs. It’s 12 miles to the top, but you only have to go a couple of mile to see a lot of rock art.  

You’ll need to shuttle cars, or—better yet—hire someone to do it for you, since break-ins are a concern at the Whitewater parking lot. Gunnison River Expeditions and Centennial Canoe Outfitters will park your car in a safe spot and drop it off for you the day you come off the river.

When to Go

There’s no shortage of killer camping spots along the Lower Gunnison River.
There’s no shortage of killer camping spots along the Lower Gunnison River. Avery Stonich

The boating season on the Lower Gunnison starts as early as late April, depending on runoff, and extends until October. Early season flows are colder and faster, better suited for rafts and more advanced river runners. The river tapers to canoe-friendly levels in mid-July or early August. Dam-controlled flow ensures fairly predictable water levels into October.

Where to Camp

Legit camping areas are clearly marked with blue posts that are visible from the river.
Legit camping areas are clearly marked with blue posts that are visible from the river. Avery Stonich

The riverbanks are a patchwork of public and private land. Private landowners don’t take kindly to you landing on their property, so steer clear. Twelve public camping areas dot the banks, clearly marked with blue-painted 4x4-inch posts. (Note that they’re not all shown on maps.) No permits are necessary, and it’s usually fairly easy to find a spot. The exception is at the mouth of Dominguez Canyon, which has a cluster of four sites and is a popular place for a layover day. On a busy weekend, it’s not uncommon for 70 campers to stay here to do the hike. If you’re after solitude, seek it elsewhere.

Renting a Canoe (and More Key Beta)

If you need to rent a canoe, an outfitter can give you a good briefing. Canyon Passages, based in Boulder, or Centennial Canoe Outfitters in Clifton can rent you what you need, including a canoe, paddles, life jackets, straps, dry bags, a bilge pump or bailer, and the dreaded groover (more on that later). They’ll drop off the canoe, give you a map, and go over the route, hazards, and where to camp. Both companies also offer guided trips in case do-it-yourself isn’t your thing.

Pop into a Bureau of Land Management visitor center in Montrose or Grand Junction to get the lowdown on campsites that aren’t on the map, where to look out for hazards on the river, and other tips.

What to Pack

You can fit everything including the kitchen sink in a canoe.
You can fit everything including the kitchen sink in a canoe. Avery Stonich

The beauty of a river trip is that you can camp in remote areas and bring just about anything, even the kitchen sink. Since canoes can carry quite a bit of gear, there's no need to skimp (or stress about what to bring). Pack the camp chairs and table, tuck in a tablecloth, and pile up pots, pans, plates, paper towels, and plenty of other creature comforts.

But don’t forget essentials like the first aid kit and water—lots of it. The river is laden with sediment and not a good source. Pack several giant jugs, allocating at least a gallon of water per person per day. Sunscreen and bug repellant are also key.

And then there’s the groover, which is an endearing name for something that’s sort of gross: a portable toilet. Yep, you need to pack out all human waste. Groovers range from a simple seat on top of a five-gallon bucket to fancier commodes on folding set-ups. Deposit all solid human waste into landfill-approved bags, like Restop 2 or WAG bags. Roshambo for who has to carry the goods in their canoe.

You’ll also need a fire pan if you plan to make flames. Do this for warmth and ambiance (provided there’s no fire ban), and pack out the ashes. And keep in mind that the BLM prefers that you cook on a stove.

Chances are it will be hot, so pack strategically to ensure you have cold beverages (adult and otherwise) on day three. Load meals sequentially into different coolers and open only one each day. Use a separate cooler for drinks, and consider bringing one cooler dedicated to ice that you keep on lockdown until it’s needed. Pre-make and freeze whatever you can (pre-made meals, juice, meat, even margaritas). Use block ice rather than cubes, or freeze water in collapsible bladders to prevent ice from melting into your food.

River Tips

Make sure everything is lashed tightly to the canoe so it stays with you if you flip. For added fun, bring a SUP.
Make sure everything is lashed tightly to the canoe so it stays with you if you flip. For added fun, bring a SUP. Avery Stonich

Rig your canoe as if you will flip. Do this by packing critical items in dry bags and lashing everything to the boat. Use a small dry bag to keep handy what you’ll need on the river during the day, and secure your water with a carabiner for easy access. If you don’t have a bilge pump, cut the bottom off a gallon milk jug to create a handled bailer.

Brush up on river safety before your trip and wear a PFD out on the water. Keep an eye downstream and plan your moves in advance. If you flip, your safety is more important than your gear. If necessary, ditch the boat and let your friends retrieve it. (River trips are best done with two or more boats so you have backup support.) If you can hold on to the canoe, stay upriver of it to avoid getting wedged between it and a rock or other obstacle.

Wind frequently kicks up the afternoon, so plan early starts on the river to avoid having to paddle hard late in the day.

For more details on the Lower Gunnison and tips for your trip, check out the Bureau of Land Management website.

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