A Local’s Guide to Gunnison’s Magical Summers Part I
posted by: Mile High Mamas
Most people know Gunnison as the town they pass through on their way to its more well-known and more expensive neighbor, Crested Butte. As a resident of Gunnison, I am proud to say that summers in Gunnison are just as magical as summers in Crested Butte, but with a more down-home, more affordable feel. There is a reason many families choose to live in Gunnison and to raise their kids as outdoor rippers. The sense of community is strong here- your neighbor may also be your doctor as well as your ski buddy. The guy down the street teaches your kids and schools you on the mountain bike trails.
Gunnison is one of the few mountain towns left without astronomical prices (though the rental market is still extremely tight) or the entitled locals. Living here means enduring below freezing temps during the winter but reveling in summers devoid of big crowds or hellacious drives to packed trailheads. We have it all- water, mountains, desert, live music and friendly locals who are happy to show you around.
For families, I would argue that Gunnison is an ideal summer vacation spot. Parents can ride with or without kids. Camping is abundant. The river and the lake provide days of entertainment and the evenings are packed full of outdoor concerts. And it’s all affordable. No need to rent a $500 per night AirBnB or spend $10 on expensive ice cream. Camp for free (or close to it), play for free (or close to it) and enjoy a Colorado small town experience free of pretense and full of authentic love for the outdoors.
Gunnison is home to the high quality trails of Hartman Rocks which offer over 40 miles of singletrack, ranging from easy to difficult or any combination of the two. At Hartman, you’re either ascending or descending, though some trails offer more gradual grades, and you will never go up or down for too long.
Evan’s Loop (Sea of Sage-Lost Dog-Broken Shovel) is the training ground for many kids and beginning riders in the Valley. You can drive to the beginning of the loop inside Hartman. The loop has small elevation gain and loss and minimal technical challenges on its approximately 3 miles of buffed singletrack.
More advanced riders can check out trails such as Rattlesnake, Rocky Ridge, Outback and for the more adventurous, the Aberdeen Loop. One of my favorite loops climbs Jack’s from the main parking, heads to Tailpipe, Top of the World, Graceland, Gateway, Josie’s, Buddy Bear, Rocky Ridge and then screams down Beck’s and Collarbone. You can find a map of the Hartman Trails on the Mountain Bike Home website. You can also follow me on Strava (as well as other, more fit local riders *ahem*) for examples of rides.
Other, more mellow (or not) mountain biking options in Gunnison include the Contour Trail (zoom in to find the Contour Trail just east of town), approximately 6 miles of singletrack that follow a contour line, perfect for a quick spin or a trip with the kids. From Contour, riders can follow the Chicken Scratch trail up to Signal Peak and the singletrack beyond. Miles of BLM and National Forest trails and roads await.
The Van Tuyl Loop is a perfect place for a family ride. It’s flat, dirt paths provide enough space for that beginning bike rider and the rest spot on the Gunnison River has an endless supply of rocks that make really spectacular *PLUNK* noises when they land. The sheep, goats, horses and cows that live next to the trail are an added bonus for kids and their grownups.
The Gunnison Valley may be best known for mountain biking but its road biking can be just as good, if not better. We are blessedly free of lines of traffic and enjoy minimal, if any, stoplights. For the most part, roads are smooth and drivers are friendly. Just make sure to bring your own supplies- convenience stores just aren’t a thing out here in the Gunnison Valley.
One of my favorite road rides heads east of out of Gunnison on Highway 50. After about 7 miles, it turns south on Highway 114 towards Saguache. From there, you can follow the winding road as far as you like through the Cochetopa, surrounded by cliff walls, a creek and ranches. It is rare to see another rider on this stretch of road which climbs gradually to Cochetopa Pass at 10,067 feet.
A more popular ride in the Valley heads north from Gunnison on Highway 135. After about 3 miles, turn left onto Ohio Pass Road which turns to dirt after 12 miles. You can continue on the dirt road (definitely doable with a road bike) all the way to Crested Butte and then return to your starting point in Gunnison via Highway 135 (approximately 56 miles) or turn around at any point. The views of the Anthracites only get better the farther you ride.
If you feel like tackling 9 mile hill, head west out of town on Highway 50. Turn left at the Gunnison River bridge onto HIghway 149 and point your tires south towards Lake City. Yes, the hill is 9 miles long. No, it won’t kill you. And depending on the wind direction, the descent will be worth it.
I’ve got lots more rides to tell you about so if you need more info, just email me.
Gunnison is home to the largest body of water in Colorado- Blue Mesa Reservoir. The lake lies within the Curecanti National Recreation Area and I absolutely, positively guarantee you will find a place to park on any given summer day. In fact, you can drive your car right to the shore, a blessing for those of us with children who must haul blankets, beach toys, coolers and everything else to the beach for our kids.
There is a marina on the lake which offers boat rentals, camping and even a restaurant. You are free to visit and I recommend that you do. However, my kids and I can most likely be found parked on the beach, blanket on the sand, beach toys strewn all about and paddleboards on the water. We spend days at the lake and by days, I mean DAYS. It is one of our all-time favorite summer activities in the Valley. We are active stand up paddleboarders, an activity that can-and should-be tried by everyone, including kids. If you don’t have your own, you can rent at The Hammer or Scenic River Tours in town.
Best places to hang out at the lake? Just past the Gunnison River bridge, on Highway 149, you can turn right and voila! You have just driven on to the beach. Another local favorite is Bay of Chickens, 15 minutes out of town on Highway 50. Pick a spot, lay out your blanket. We’ll see you in a few days.
Speaking of paddleboarding, more experienced and adventurous paddleboarders (note: please be experienced. Cool? Ok. Good talk.) can float the Lower Gunnison River from the McCabe’s put in all the way to the lake. There are indeed a few rapids between the put in and the take out so be prepared. Additionally, check water levels and river flow before you attempt the trip. Scenic River Tours will have the latest information. Floating the river, then enjoying a bonfire and dinner (and wine) on the beach with your family? That’s called GUNNISON LIVING.
We do love our water in the Gunnison Valley and our abundant winter snow falls bless us with a lake as well as a river. In Gunnison, the locals frequently like to embark on the “Dinner Float”. Throw your raft (or kayak or ducky or paddleboard- but please, please…know what you’re doing!) in the river at the put in across the street from Garlic Mike’s on Highway 135 and float yourself all the way to the whitewater park, just south of Highway 50. In the approximate hour it takes to make the trip, you can have a cocktail or two and your kids can scout for birds, fish and drink their own juice box. Young kids can make the trip in a raft. Kids as young as 4 (depending on river flows) can ride in a double ducky with an adult.
While we’re talking about Garlic Mike’s…check out their Float and Dine trip. Ride down the river the best way I know how- in an oar boat while someone else does the work- then have a killer Italian dinner on their patio. Expensive, yes. Worth it, absolutely. This trip is completely appropriate for kids though last year, I did this with my boyfriend and we “happened” into a boat full of ladies on a girls’ trip. They had stocked the boat with drinks of every type and were all too happy to share. It was a good trip.
You read the part about mountain biking at Hartman, right? Well, everything that makes Hartman perfect for mountain biking makes it just as perfect for hiking. What makes it even better? The area is interspersed with dirt roads, making it incredibly accessible for families. Barring torrential rain storms and their accompanying mud, most regular vehicles can drive on Hartman’s roads. The majority of the trails at Hartman are 1-3 miles long and offer expansive views of the Gunnison Valley, making them perfect for families (and trail runners and dog walkers and everyone else. We like to share in Gunnison.)
Just outside of town up Ohio Creek Road, Mill Creek is another family favorite. Hike for as long or as little as you like, with views of the Castles at almost every turn. A little further up the road, the Beaver Ponds Trail leads families to a pond and aspen stands with minimal elevation gain.
Remember when I said Gunnison was affordable? You can camp for free at Hartman Rocks, where many campers pull their trailers up the road and find their oh-so-perfect camping spot. They can wake up in the morning and be on the trail immediately because it is.right.there. Conveniently, the town of Gunnison is only a few miles away. Need a coffee fix? No problem. Be back in 10 minutes. Bonus: Hartman also offers a variety of rock climbing routes, from kid-friendly to advanced. Camp there and you can bike, hike and climb, all straight out of your tent.
More civilized options include the KOA, just south of the whitewater park. It has a pond for fishing and pedal boating and a petting zoo. It is even closer to town than Hartman. You can-and should-camp at Curecanti Recreation Area, which offers 10 campgrounds across their expansive area. Elk Creek and Stevens Creek campgrounds are the closest to Gunnison and right on the lake. When I want to escape town for a few days, I head to Ponderosa on the northern end of the lake. I have never had a problem finding a campsite…and you’ll fall in love with the area as we have.
Read Part II where Eryn shares other great family activities like the rodeo, history museum, and where to find the best restaurants and drinks in Gunnison.