• Ankit Jain

Camping and Hiking Destinations from Gunnison Valley, Colorado

Hartman Rocks, Mount Crested Butte, Curecanti, Rainbow Lake, Carson National Forest, Great Sand Dunes, and More!


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fierce, intense red sunset through ominous clouds over Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado

Sunset over Hartman Rocks: Gunnison, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


 

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Trip Info:


Trip Type: Dispersed and Campground Camping, and Hiking (Multiple Trips)

Season: May to June 2021 (Spring)


Trip Highlights:


Overview:


From mid-May to late-June of 2021, I spent 6 weeks in the beautiful Gunnison Valley in Colorado. While I was mostly working throughout the week, I used the weekends to find escapes for hiking, camping and just spending time outside, as Gunnison has so much to offer in those capacities. In this trip guide, I share a few of my favorite places and activities during my time in the Valley in the format of Day Trips, Nearby Overnight Camping Trips and Weekend Camping Trips (100+ miles). My gear list is included at the end of the guide as well.


 

Day Trips


A beautiful view of the lush green Gunnison River Valley and surrounding whitecapped peaks from the summit of Mount Crested Butte in Colorado

Mount Crested Butte, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Mount Crested Butte Peak


Mount Crested Butte, CO

31 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Day Hike

Summit Elevation: 12,162 feet

Roundtrip Distance: 2 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet

Trailhead Location: Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Crested Butte, CO.

Trail Natural Features: Summit, High Altitude, Mountains



Summiting Crested Butte was one of my favorite day hikes during my stay in Colorado. Mount Crested Butte is a charming ski/mountain town, aptly named after one of the most dramatic peaks in the area. It’s only a 45 minute drive (31.2 miles) from Gunnison, and there was ample parking available at the ski resort when I visited. One can also opt to take the free shuttle from Gunnison to Mt. Crested Butte.


The views from the summit are spectacular, almost like a scene from a movie. The summit is at 12,162 feet, and there are snow-capped 14’ers surrounding the region. The summit offers a 360 degree aerial view of the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison Valley descending far towards the horizon. There’s a ski lift that takes you to 11,430 feet, just 1 mile from the summit, making it a short hike, but a steep and rewarding 1,250 ft elevation gain to the summit. One can also opt to start the hike from the ski resort at 9,350 ft, making it a 4.5 mile one-way hike with about 2,700 feet of elevation gain.

 

Crystal blue water of the Gunnison River stretches for miles through Curecanti National Recreational Area in COlorado

Gunnison River: Curecanti National Recreation Area, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Curecanti National Recreation Area


Gunnison, CO

16 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Boat Ride

Elevation: 8,000 feet

Marina Location: Elk Creek Marina, Gunnison, CO.

Natural Features: River, Canyons, Mountains



One of the more relaxing day activities for me was a group boat ride on the Gunnison River in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. The area is managed by the National Park Service, and there is a marina with restaurants and dock for boat rentals. It’s a short 16 mile drive from town along Highway 50.


One can rent Pontoons, Kayaks, Canoes or Paddle Boards on an hourly, half-day or full-day basis from Blue Mesa, an authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service. There are also many day-use picnic areas and campgrounds in this area, even offering some private RV parks nearby.


The river stretches far and wide, caressing Gunnison Valley and the surrounding canyons and mountains. The water offers a vibrant blue color, reminiscent of high-alpine rivers, and there are many coves to explore. We gently coasted along the river for a few hours in our rented pontoon, exploring the sights and taking in the vast scale of the valley and all that it has to offer.


 

Nearby Overnight Camping Trips


Clouds racing over a dispersed campsite in Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado

Hartman Rocks: Gunnison, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Hartman Rocks Recreation Area


Gunnison, CO

5 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Dispersed Camping

Campsite Elevation: 8,000 feet

Campsite Location: Hartman Rocks (BLM), Gunnison, CO.

Campsite Natural Features: High Desert, Mountains, Rock Formations



I went out to Hartman Rocks multiple times throughout my stay in the beautiful Gunnison Valley. Hartman Rocks is an 8,000 acre Bureau of Land Management area, popular for its unique rock formations and mountain biking trails. It offers spectacular views and is easily accessible from Gunnison - one of the primary trailhead parking lots is only 5 miles from town. There are 40+ miles of dirt roads and trails, great for exploring by offroading via car or bike.


Camping is allowed at any of the 50 designated dispersed campsites, some of which offer metal or rock fire rings. Since it falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, no permits are required, but one must practice fire safety due to the dangerous combination of high winds and often dry vegetation all around. Be sure to adhere to leave no trace principles as well! The campsites are popular among the locals, and most of them are occupied during the weekends. There is a map of the area on the information board showing all the designated campsites in Hartman Rocks. I managed to snag one of the more isolated campsites near a local high point, offering 360-degree views of the surrounding area sprinkled with rock formations, with 12,000+ ft snow-capped mountains in the distance as well.


The evening I camped here, the sky filled with dark clouds by sundown - offering one of the most intense and fierce sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. It felt like a scene from the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit - the way the light penetrated through the ominous clouds made one of the high mountains seem as if it was glowing lucid red. I had to ask myself if I was hallucinating or something, but realized that this was far too real. That scene set the bar, and will probably be what I compare other sunsets to for years to come. The lightning off in the distance only made the evening even more exhilarating. After some take-out dinner I had brought with me and some time by the fire, I snuggled into my tent for a surprisingly peaceful night of rest - I had imagined it would be a more wet, loud and windy night in light of the approaching storm. The next morning I woke up at dawn and packed up before heading back into town for a delicious breakfast.

 

Everything is so green in Colorado in May, evidenced by the view from atop Rainbow Lake Campground

View from Ankit's Favorite Campsite at Rainbow Lake, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Rainbow Lake


Gunnison National Forest, CO

28 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Dispersed Camping

Campsite Elevation: 11,000 feet

Campsite Location: Rainbow Lake, Gunnison National Forest, CO. Off Road 742B.

Campsite Type: Dispersed

Campsite Natural Features: High Alpine, Mountains, Forest, Lake



Rainbow Lake was one of my favorite camping locations near the Gunnison Valley, having camped there on two separate occasions and visited it many more times for day trips as well. It’s 28 miles from town, about an hour's drive through the mountains. The area is a part of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest system, and is accessed by Forest Road 724/Rainbow Lake Road. The turn for this road is easily accessible from Curecancti National Recreation Area, off Highway 50. It’s a bumpy and narrow 13-mile dirt road to Rainbow Lake from the Highway 50 turn. It gradually ascends from 7,600 feet on to almost 11,000 feet at Rainbow Lake, winding through canyons and aspen forests, eventually reaching the lake with open views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the valley below. It’s simply breathtaking, and is exactly what I think of when I picture the Colorado Rockies.


The lake itself is surrounded by dispersed campsites with rock fire rings - however, those campsites right next to the lake attract many flies. For a more peaceful experience, I often opted for the campsites further away from the lake. This is bear country and there are no facilities, so one must practice leaving no trace and storing their food properly. Near some of the sites, there are some beautiful meadows with springs flowing through them. One of my favorite campsites in the area offers no view of the lake, but its location on a precarious edge offers amazing views straight down into the Gunnison Valley.


There is a trailhead at the end of the forest service road that services a 4-mile trail into the West Elk Wilderness. It connects to the Coal Mesa Trail, offering access to the Baldys, a series of 12,000 foot peaks that run from Colorado down to northern New Mexico. Since this is Colorado high country, one must be cautious of afternoon thunderstorms, especially when hiking on exposed high ridges.

 

The clouds over Campground Ranch Campsite in Colorado are poofy, pebbly, pockmarked, and patchy

Clouds over Campfire Ranch Campgrounds: Almont, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Campfire Ranch on the Taylor


Almont, CO

13 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Developed Camping and Day Hiking

Campsite Elevation: 9,300 feet

Campsite Location: Campfire Ranch, Almont, CO. Off CO Road 742.

Campsite Natural Features: Canyons, River, Mountains



I vastly prefer dispersed to developed campgrounds, but Campfire Ranch is an exception. It’s relatively new, and it’s secluded location in a steep canyon right off the Taylor river offers a peaceful camping experience near Gunnison. It’s a short 20 minute drive (13 miles) from town on the road towards Cottonwood Pass and Crested Butte.


The private developed campground offers a more pampered camping experience - they even provided us with a welcome reception and gift bag during check-in. The site featured many other convenient amenities as well: the option of wood being provided at the campsite, on-site gear rental, wheel-barrows, and it’s own dedicated parking lot - and not to mention, one of the cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen at a campground. There are 10 walk-in tent sites available, each allowing up to 6 people and 2 cars; and they recently launched Micro Cabin rentals as well. All the campsites require reservations, and they tend to fill up during the summer season. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful in planning activities in the area. In fact, we as a group opted for some river rafting the following morning, which was a lot of fun!


 

Weekend Camping Trips (100+ miles)


Pristine sand dunes stretch for miles until oh shit, a huge snow-capped mountain, at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park: Duncan, CO - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Great Sand Dunes National Park


Duncan, CO

130 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Dispersed Camping

Campsite Elevation: 9,000 feet

Campsite Location: Lake Como Road (BLM Road 5410).

Campsite Natural Features: High Desert, Mountains, Sand Dunes



When I was making my way over from Boulder to Gunnison, I decided to make a weekend trip out of it and took a detour through Southern Colorado to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, a Park that’s been on my bucket list for quite a while. Great Sand Dunes is one of the more unique National Parks I’ve visited due to its unique ecology and large sand dunes being surrounded by snow-capped mountains. At the visitor center, the elevation is 8,170 feet, but the elevation ranges in the Park from 7,500 to 13,600 feet. There are many activities available including camping, hiking, off-roading trails and more. It’s located 130 miles from Gunnison (2.5 hours).


We opted to camp outside of the Park, to find dispersed campsites in Bureau of Land Management Areas surrounding the Park boundary. We found a campsite on Lake Como Road (BLM Road 5410), probably the most popular area for dispersed camping in the region - we saw tents and cars spattered up and down the dirt road. The road does get quite rough the further up you go up towards Mt. Blanca, another 14’er. The evening we were there, it was extremely windy and we even got thunderstorms into the night.


The next morning, we headed out to the Park for some day hiking on the dunes. We crossed Medano Creek shortly after leaving the Visitor Center, and headed towards High Dune sitting at 8,727 ft. It’s a short 3 mile roundtrip hike from the visitor center, but because of the high winds, wearing shorts and sandals resulted in some painful sandblasting - a first-of-a-kind experience for me! Once back at the parking lot, we made some food, and I drove down Medano Pass Primitive Road for a mile or so, before turning back due to road conditions unsuitable for my vehicle.

 

A serene, vibrant dispersed campsite in Carson NAtional Forest in New Mexico, with the setting sun splashing through healthy looking scrubby trees and bathing a tent in light

Dispersed Camping at Carson National Forest, NM - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Carson National Forest via Prosser Rock


Carson National Forest, NM

195 miles from Downtown Gunnison, CO


Details:

Dispersed Camping

Campsite Elevation: 10,000 feet

Campsite Location: Near Cruces Basin Campground, Carson National Forest, NM.

Campsite Natural Features: High Alpine, Mountains, Forest, Meadow



One of the longer trips I took from Gunnison was to Carson National Forest and Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. This was my first time actually exploring the outdoors in New Mexico, so I was very excited - and it didn’t disappoint! It’s about a 4 hour drive (195 miles) from Gunnison to Carson National Forest via Prosser Rock.


I drove out at dawn to Prosser Rock from Gunnison via backroads, primarily made up of gravel and dirt. The area had a creek, and the rock formation itself was spectacular to look at. Once in New Mexico, I met up with my friends in the late morning right outside Carson National Forest, and we started off-roading from Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in search of an epic campsite. We initially drove to Laguna Larga, the roads were quite rough. There are primitive campsites all around the laguna; however, there were many cows grazing in the area and the campsites were covered with cow dung - not exactly ideal.


We decided to head out further into the forest on Road 87 towards Cruces Basin Campground area. After driving around and exploring for an additional hour or so, we found a gem of a campsite - flat, in front of a meadow, and offering large open space for our furry friends to roam around without intruding upon other nearby campsites. We set up camp, and settled in for the evening. We strolled around the meadow and had an epic campfire session that lasted late into the night.

 

I have not met Tracker the golden retriever personally, but I can tell from his puppy dog eyes and poofy dog jowls that he is an extremely good boy, and would make a fine addition to any camping adventure. Go get us some kindling, buddy.

Tracker and his Magnificent Dog Jowls - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Gear List


When car camping, I typically bring a lot of gear that I don’t end up using, but it gives me a peace of mind to have redundancies for safety while I’m in the backcountry. Hence, the list below covers all the primary gear that I use in my car camping trips.


Hiking:


Shelter:


Sleep System:


Camp Kitchen:


Food & Hydration:


Clothing:


Tools, Electronics and Miscellaneous:


Hygiene:


Safety/First Aid:


 

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