Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Why Gunnison?: The Gunnison Gorge is a dam-controlled section of river that offers runnable flows throughout most of the year as well as intermediate whitewater, excellent fishing, and high desert scenery. If you want a little bit more than the standard trip, the “Gunny Plus” packrafting route offers some added whitewater and Black Canyon scenery by starting upstream in Black Canyon National Park.
Why Packraft?: These days packrafting on the Gunnison is becoming more common. Those seeking a scenic class III who don’t mind sharing the river with lots of other parties can do a short hike in from the Chukar Trail (also used by mule trains to bring in rafting gear). For class V paddlers, packrafts are making shorter work of the challenging portages and steep hike out in the Black Canyon section upstream. Packrafts open up the possibility of many alternative ways to access the river within Black Canyon National park including via the Warner Trail as described below in a route I'm calling the "Gunny Plus".
This is a route that accesses the river upstream of the standard Chukar Trail option with these upsides:
An additional 5 miles of whitewater in and a quieter, less frequented section of the river.
Outstanding scenery within Black Canyon National Park.
Paved access that does not require a 4WD vehicle.
There is one primary downside of this route:
The Warner Route is a knee crushing 3000-foot descent which is lost in a mile-and-a-half on a trail that is pretty much an eroded gully devoid of switchbacks. The standard put-in on the Chukar trail descends only 667 feet on a relatively well-built trail. While the upsides of this route are good, this is important information to consider. Bring trekking poles!
Check out the map below to see both the traditional access and our addition using the Warner Route:
This is a great trip for intermediate paddlers and at our flows of around 850 cfs, the standard Gunnison Gorge section is primarily class III with a couple of rapids that are III+ in nature. The upstream put-in we used from the Warner route increases the difficulty by half a class and adds a few longer boulder gardens that are IV- at low flows. All of the rapids are scoutable and easily portageable at river level. Lots of water in the spring could dramatically change these assessments.
Park at the Gunnison Forks Recreation take-out to set your shuttle and drive 1 hour and 20 minutes to the put-in. If you have only one vehicle, hire a shuttle from the Gunnison Pleasure Park. They frequently drive shuttles for Gunnison Gorge trips and would likely be able to shuttle your vehicle for a Gunny Plus trip. Stop at the National Park ranger station during operating hours to pay a fee and get a permit for hiking the Warner Route. Given it is a more difficult trail by the park’s standards, prepare for a thorough briefing. If you plan to camp in Black Canyon National Park there is an additional fee. Once you leave the Black Canyon and enter the Gunnison Gorge National Recreation Area, campsites and permits are on a self-registration system at the launch site, so bring cash or a blank check. Check out the BLM pamphlet for all you need to know about fees, campsite, and rapids for this section.