Gunnison County’s sheer scope and scale set it apart from other parts of the state and country. At 3,260 square miles (8,400 km2), it’s one-and-a-half times the size of the state of Delaware, yet its population is only about 17,000. Public lands make up 82% of the county that stretches from west of Blue Mesa, the largest body of water in Colorado, all the way to Monarch Pass in the east. The eastern border follows the mighty Sawatch Mountains, traveling over some of the tallest peaks in the state, including several that tower above 14,000 feet. The southern border cuts through endless fields of sage, and the northern border stretches up into Marble and into the heart of the Elk Mountains. All this to say, Gunnison County is immense and contains landscapes ranging from desert sagebrush to high alpine tundra. And with 36% of the Forest Service roads in the state of Colorado and the mountain biking hotspot of Crested Butte contributing to the more than 750 miles of trails in the Gunnison Valley, it’s a bikepacker’s nirvana.
The Gunnison Bikepacking Route Network currently consists of over 580 miles of established, purposefully-planned routes, including the anchor Sage and Saddles loop. There are currently five cornerstone routes in the network and two additional routes that leave from Crested Butte, with more to come!
Visiting Gunnison County
Gunnison County provides year-round recreational opportunities, from world-class mountain and gravel biking in the summer to exceptional downhill and cross-country skiing with some of the best snow in the state during the winter months. The county’s lower elevations melt out relatively early in the spring and stay snow-free late into the fall and early winter, offering endless bike exploration options when the high mountains are covered with snow and inaccessible. Both winter and summer offer a multitude of other activities to partake in, including music, food, and more.
When to Visit Gunnison County
When to Bikepack in Gunnison County
Snowpack and heat are the two limiting factors when choosing a time to go bikepacking in Gunnison County. In the lower-elevation sage desert, the riding is ideal in the late spring, mainly in the second half of May and most of June, and then again after the heat of summer has passed in September and October. Much of the public land around Gunnison is closed from March 15 to May 15 to protect the habitat of the Gunnison sage-grouse during their breeding period. While daytime temperatures can be hot, the high-desert ecosystem of Gunnison County frequently results in chilly nights.
The mountains surrounding Gunnison can stay snow-covered for much of June. If you want to explore the high-elevation roads, July and August are the best opportunities for snow-free travel. With summer comes the monsoons, and it’s important to understand that these storms can form quickly and can be electrical. In most cases, monsoonal storms don’t arrive until the afternoon, but it’s always important to check the weather forecast before leaving and stay below treeline if there is thunder and lightning.
Fall in the mountains arrives in September, and the aspen leaves changing from green to gold is a sight to behold. While September is potentially the best month of the year in the mountains of Gunnison County, early snow storms have been known to shut high terrain down early in the month.
What to Pack for Bikepacking in Gunnison
For many of the gravel bikepacking routes around Gunnison, a bike and gear setup similar to one appropriate for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route would work. Many of the roads and routes are perfect for a hardtail mountain bike or an ATB. A relatively lightweight setup on a bike that has a minimum of 2.0-inch tires will get you around nearly any type of bikepacking route in the area. Find more details on this subject in the next section under Bike Choice in Gunnison County.
Extra Gear Considerations
The climate of Gunnison County requires that riders be ready to deal with anything from scorching heat to hail and potential snowstorms, even in the middle of summer. At the lower elevations, summer temperatures can creep into the high 80°F range with a high UV index. Wearing a hat under a helmet or a brim around a helmet can shield your face from the sun and keep you cooler. Sunscreen and eye protection from the sun are a must.
Bugs are prevalent at higher elevations throughout the summer months. While they probably aren’t bad enough to warrant a headnet, most people will probably enjoy an enclosed sleeping shelter rather than a tarp. Bug spray can go a long way during the mosquito hours at dawn and dusk.
Many of the roads throughout Gunnison County can get dusty during the summer, especially before the monsoons arrive in July. For areas that are trafficked by the motorized crowd, having a buff or bandana to pull over your nose and mouth when they pass can minimize the amount of dust you inhale. A buff or bandana can also keep the sun off of your neck or provide cooling on a hot day if you find some water to dip them into.
Getting to and from Gunnison
Centrally located in the state, Gunnison is about a 3.5-hour drive from Denver from the east or a 2.5-hour drive from Grand Junction from the west. Regardless of which direction you come in from, you won’t be driving on Interstates. Both routes take smaller highways that wind through mountains and high deserts.
The Bustang provides daily bus service from Denver. The buses are equipped with two bike racks that are first come, first served.
The Gunnison Airport is located just south of town and provides direct flights to and from a handful of cities. The airlines serving the Gunnison airport are United, American, and JSX. There are non-stop flights from Denver and Texas, but the schedule changes depending on the season.
Where to Bikepack in Gunnison
To the north and east, the ground quickly pitches upward into the Elk and the Sawatch Mountains. The Sawatch Range is home to some of the highest peaks and roads in Colorado. Many of the roads are leftover from the mining boom of the 1880s and provide bike access to remote corners of the mountains. Some of these roads are rugged and accessible only to well-equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles—and bikes, of course.
For those looking to bikepack on singletrack, there are endless possibilities. Just up the road from Gunnison lies Crested Butte, one of the birthplaces of mountain biking. Countless trails sprawl out in all directions that can be linked up into multi-day loops. Several bikepacking routes exist in the area, and Gunnison local and bikepacking legend Jefe Branham puts on the Gunnison Loopy Loop, a singletrack-heavy bikepacking race.
Places to Stay
There are many options for dispersed camping in Gunnison County, including in Hartman Rocks south of Gunnison. These are 50 designated sites nestled among the unique rock formations that give the area its name. Several outhouses are located throughout the area for camper use. Find a map and details here.
There are several BLM and Forest Service campgrounds throughout the county. For shaded riverside camping, there are many options along the Taylor River north of Gunnison and Almont, including Rosy Lane, Lodgepole, and Cold Springs Campgrounds. Blue Mesa, west of Gunnison, also has several campgrounds, including Stevens Creek and East Elk Creek campgrounds. These are operated by the National Park Service and can be reserved at Recreation.gov.
If you’re looking for a shower, the Gunnison Recreation Center offers them for a small fee of $5.
Hotels and Hostels
There are indoor lodging options in Gunnison to fit any budget, and various hotels provide different amenities. For higher-end hotels, the Holiday Inn Express and Suites and Wyngate by Windham offer everything needed to relax and unwind before or after a long day.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Wanderlust Hostel, the perfect lodging option for budget travelers looking for a unique experience. The hostel setup encourages interactions between groups, and you’re sure to meet other interesting travelers during your stay. With dorm, private, and family rooms available at a range of prices, there’s something for any traveler.
In between the high-end hotel and hostel ends of the lodging spectrum are several mid-range hotels to choose from, including the Econolodge, The Gunnison Inn at Dos Rios, and the Rodeway Inn. A search on Google Maps will turn up quite a few options.
Cycling in Gunnison County
Gunnison County was arguably the birthplace of mountain biking in the 1970s and has always had a rich heritage of people riding all sorts of bikes. Crested Butte is a well-known destination for mountain bikers searching for high-altitude singletrack, and Gunnison also has an extensive trail network both at Hartman Rocks and Signal Peak. Gunnison County is home to seemingly endless dirt and gravel roads that connect many of the unique communities in the area. Gunnison, with a population of only 6,500 people, can support four bike shops, and the streets are often filled with people riding. Bike racks abound throughout town, a testament to the cycling-friendly vibe, and the variety of landscapes and riding options offers something for everyone.
Sharing the Road and Land with Other Users
There is a long history of cattle ranching in Gunnison County, and one of the most important parts in maintaining harmonious relationships between ranchers and recreational users is keeping gates as you found them. If you arrive at a gate that’s closed, close it behind you. If it’s open, leave it that way. It’s also important to never harass livestock. Cattle are generally harmless and uninterested in cyclists, but it’s always a good idea to give them a wide berth. If a herd of cattle is blocking the road, a few yells will generally get them to move. Treat livestock with respect. Cows are bigger than you are.
Coexistence with Motorized Users
While most cyclists dream of car-free roads, the reality of the situation is that from pavement to gravel to singletrack that’s open to motorized users, we’re all going to have to get along. Gunnison County,—and much of central Colorado—is a sought-after destination for the Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) crowd, with much of their use being concentrated in the Taylor Park area. OHV users are sometimes oblivious to the discomfort they cause to cyclists when they pass too close or fast or while kicking up a lot of dust. The best solution we can offer is to kill them with kindness and try to remind drivers that cyclists are also humans. Wave when possible, smile, and get involved in a conversation if the opportunity presents itself. The best way for different groups to get along is to engage with each other. And for the times when you’re riding along a dirt road and get dusted by a motorized user, having a buff to pull up over your mouth and nose goes a long way.
Riding on Highways
While it’s possible to do large loops in Gunnison County mostly on gravel, many routes inevitably have some amount of highway riding in them. Highway 50 is the busiest of the paved roads in the area, providing one of the bigger east-to-west connections through the mountains of Colorado. Highway 135 between Gunnison and Crested Butte has become busier over the years but generally has a good shoulder on it. If you’re looking for good road riding during the summer months, mornings are recommended before people start to get going.
Riding at Altitude
Altitude-Related Health Problems
When the body doesn’t get enough oxygen to its vital organs, significant health issues can arise. The most common problem is acute mountain sickness (AMS), which has symptoms including headache, nausea, and shortness of breath. Many people experience mild AMS when they first reach high elevations, and acclimating properly can keep it from turning into anything more serious. The best way to resolve AMS symptoms is to return to as low of an elevation as possible. If left untreated, AMS can develop into high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which has symptoms of fatigue, dyspnea, and dry cough. This can become fatal as leaking lung capillaries result in fluid buildup in the lungs. If you start to experience these symptoms, you’ll want to reach lower elevations quickly and seek medical attention. High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is the most serious of the high-elevation sicknesses. The swelling of the brain tends to only occur at very high altitudes and is very unlikely in Gunnison or surrounding area elevations. It’s important to understand the symptoms of altitude-related sickness and to go lower if you’re experiencing any of them. Staying well hydrated can help with riding at high altitudes.
Acclimation to High Altitude
The main cause of high-altitude health issues is gaining elevation too fast. Genetics and overall fitness also play into a person’s ability to tolerate high elevations. But nearly anyone will get sick if they try to move from sea level to over 10,000 feet without a few days at a moderate elevation to allow their body to adjust. Most people can acclimate to the elevations found in and around Gunnison in just a few days. It’s best to gain elevation slowly over the course of a couple of days and to not push the body too hard early on. Using Gunnison as a launching point for bikepacking routes in the area allows riders to spend a few days at lower altitudes before heading up into elevations that have a higher chance of causing sickness. As always, if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of AMS, HAPE, or HACE, it’s important to dial back the effort level immediately and try to get to lower elevations as soon as possible.
Advice for Riding at High Elevations
There is simply less oxygen available for your muscles when riding at high elevations, no matter how fit or acclimated you are. This means your muscles will have less energy to work with and won’t be able to produce the same amount of power that they could at sea level. In a nutshell, you’re going to ride slower and it’s going to feel harder, and that’s okay. You’re probably going to have to push your bike more often than you think you should. Dialing back your effort level, especially during your first few days at elevation, can make a big difference in your ability to keep riding sustainably. Keeping your riding aerobic and avoiding anaerobic efforts is also important as it takes significantly more time to recover from anaerobic bursts at elevation than it would at sea level.
Bike Choice in Gunnison County
For many of the area bikepacking loops, an ATB or hardtail mountain bike with at least 2.0-inch durable tires is highly advisable. While there are plenty of smooth roads on all these routes, they all inevitably hit some rocky areas where bigger and more aggressive tires are beneficial. An ATB provides a good balance between fast-rolling speed for the smoother roads while still being plenty capable when things get rougher. They will also make the steeper and more difficult descents much more fun. While any type of suspension isn’t a requirement for riding in the area, most people would probably enjoy a little bit of cushion in the fork on some of the rougher roads.
The combination of high elevation, the subsequent lack of oxygen, and the steep roads in the area encourage lower gearing for a loaded bike than for many other areas. Being able to sit and spin at a lower effort level on many of the climbs will make them more rideable and save you from gasping from air at 12,000 feet up.
History of Bikes in Gunnison County
Perhaps the most famous historical bike ride in the West, the Pearl Pass Tour of September 17, 1976, saw 15 riders take off from Crested Butte to ride to Aspen over the 12,723-foot Pearl Pass on their clunker bikes. Now in its 47th year, the ride is one of the iconic events in the valley. Back in 1976, the intrepid riders took their singlespeed, fat-tire bikes over the rocky pass. Two of them made it to Aspen that year, and the tradition was born.
Many world-class mountain bikers have come out of Gunnison County, including Olympian Susan Demattei, who won the bronze medal in the 1996 Olympic Games, the first year mountain biking was included. Dave Weins, a member of the International Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and six-time Leadville 100 winner, also hails from Gunnison. In addition to his exploits on the bike, Weins also started Gunnison Trails, the local trail advocacy group. Gunnison Trails, now under the direction of Colorado Trail Race finisher Tim Kugler, organizes huge trail work and clean up days in the valley, advocates for new trails, and helps get more people on bikes.
Bikepacking also has strong roots in the valley. With riders such as Ethan Passant, Jefe Branham, Neil Beltchenko, and many others riding well in high-altitude bikepacking events such as the Colorado Trail Race, there has always been a quiet pride about the Valley sending a strong contingent of riders to these events.
Aside from the bikepackers in the spotlight, bike culture in Gunnison has always promoted the sharing of information among riders and a strong level of inter-rider support. Because Gunnison and Crested Butte communities are so tight-knit, even the stars of the sport are just next door neighbors. This makes them, their knowledge, and the sport of bikepacking accessible to people looking to get into the sport.
Bike Shops in Gunnison
Other Bike Industry Players
- Goodday Bikeworks – Known for their custom, handmade, and highly artistic bikes and bike bags with a retro style, Goodday Bikes and Curiosity Bags is a local company that makes some truly unique products. Chris Besnia, master bike builder, encourages customers to dream big and think outside the box when designing a custom bike, and Arly Landry outfits the curvy-tubed bikes that harken back to the era of 19th-century European randonneuring with bags that are personalized to their rider.
Other Established Routes and Events
With a strong bike culture throughout Gunnison County, especially within Gunnison and Crested Butte, there are endless single-day mountain bike and gravel bike events throughout the summer.
- The Original Growler – One of the classic mountain bike races in the area, the Original Growler highlights the trails throughout Hartman Rocks. Put on by Gunnison Trails, the local race organization, it’s a huge community event that sees what seems like every mountain biker in the area come out and race.
- Gunni Grinder – A new gravel race in the area with a variety of distances to choose from, this event showcases some of the spectacular gravel roads in the Gunnison area. A portion of all entry fees go to support Gunnison Trails.
- Pearl Pass Tour – A throwback to the original Pearl Pass Klunker tour of 1976, this event celebrates the mountain bike heritage of the area. Ride whatever bike you want, but vintage klunkers are highly recommended for the traverse between Crested Butte and Aspen.
With a strong local community of bikepackers, including Colorado Trail Race dis-organizer Jefe Branham, it’s not a surprise that Gunnison is the home to its own bikepacking events. Seeing the need for events that can prepare a rider for the Colorado Trail Race, Jefe has put together routes that will challenge any level of bikepacker and showcase some of the best singletrack in the Gunnison Valley area.
- Gunny Loopy Loop – The original Jefe event, the Gunny Loopy Loop, is known for being harder, mile-for-mile, than the Colorado Trail Race. Heading straight out of Gunnison, this loop includes the rarely visited Fossil Ridge trail and traverses many out-of-the-way areas that don’t see a lot of use.
Other Bikepacking Routes in the Area
- Gentle Climbs, Big Rewards (Waunita Overnighter) – Developed by Taf McMurray, this route is a great introduction to bikepacking. Covering many of the classic dirt roads in the area with a resupply in Pitkin, it’s an ideal option for those looking for a small taste of bikepacking in the area.
- Hartman Rocks Overnighter – A Neil Beltchenko classic, this route heads straight south out of Gunnison and into Hartman Rocks. With both singletrack and dirt road options available, this beginner-friendly overnight is a great introduction to bikepacking.
- Colorado Trail – A section of the Colorado Trail comes through Gunnison County, and the La Garita Wilderness detour of the CT uses the same dirt roads as several bikepacking routes in the area. This is one of the oldest established bikepacking routes, and the Colorado Trail Association actively encourages bikes on the trail.
- Great Divide Mountain Bike Route – One of the quintessential bikepacking routes, GDMBR cuts through the southeastern corner of Gunnison County and follows empty dirt roads through seas of sage. Many of these roads serve as a backbone to other bikepacking routes in the area.
Local Trail Networks
The Hartman Rocks Recreation Area is a hotbed for mountain bikes. It’s fair to say that if it were located anywhere beyond in the shadow of the world-famous Crested Butte trails, it would also be a sought-after mountain biking destination. With more than 45 miles of singletrack trails and endless dirt roads criss-crossing the 14,000-acre sagebrush landscape, there are endless miles to explore. The 160-acre base area is managed by the City and County of Gunnison and provides a playground for mountain bikers, trail runners, climbers, and other recreationalists. Maintained by Gunnison Trails, the trail network has everything from beginner-friendly cruises through sage oceans to highly technical downhill trails with relatively easy shuttle access. Several events are run out at Hartman Rocks each year, including the long-standing Gunnison Growler, which is held at the end of May.
Signal Peak rises to the northeast over Gunnison and is a local’s playground. This non-motorized trail system crosses a 14,000-acre section of land and highlights the successful relationship between the local trail group, Gunnison Trails, and the area BLM. Since submitting a trails proposal in 2017, Gunnison Trails has had more than 20 miles of trail approved for building and rerouting. As of 2023, the trails group has completed nearly all of the trails they’ve been approved for.
Ever since the 1970s, when the “Grubstake Gang” started riding klunker bikes on the dirt roads around Crested Butte, and most famously over Pearl Pass to Aspen, the area has been a nexus for mountain bike culture. With hundreds of miles of singletrack trails in the area, there is something for everyone. The beginner-friendly Lower Loop and Lupine trails are great for families and those new to the sport. For more advanced riders, there are endless rides of various lengths and difficulties. Perhaps the most famous trail in the area is 401, a ribbon of singletrack that cuts from the top of Schofield Pass through endless meadows of lush handlebar-high wildflowers and skunk cabbage with giant views of Mount Crested Butte and the Gothic Valley. Mount Crested Butte also operates lift-access downhill mountain biking throughout the summer months with more than 30 miles of trails on the mountain.
Gunnison County Landscape and History
Gunnison County has a rich history of mining, agriculture, recreation, and education. It is also the ancestral land of the Indigenous Ute people, who were forcibly removed from the area in the 1880s. It’s the combination of the various histories of land use in Gunnison County that makes it so unique. Never did a single user group gain a major control of the direction the county took. Mining and ranching still exist in the area, and recreation has grown from a single ski resort made of old mining equipment to infrastructure that supports huge numbers of skiers, mountain bikers, fly fishers, paddlers, and more. Western State University has also grown from one of the original small teacher-training schools in the state to a much larger institution, constantly bringing new people and ideas to the county.
As minerals were discovered in the area, the Indigenous people of the area were first moved onto a reservation occupying most of the land in Colorado west of the continental divide during the Treaty of 1868. As part of a plan to increase Ute reliance on the US government and to attempt to strip them of their culture, the Office of Indian Affairs set up the Los Pinos Ute Indian Agency, a distribution center for goods and products to sustain the Ute people as their traditional way of life was disrupted. As pressure for access to the area increased from mining, they were eventually all moved to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah in the early 1880s.
Currently, the Ute tribe is the largest landowner in Gunnison County, having several large tracts of land on Pine Creek Mesa.
History of Gunnison County
While Gunnison was first established in 1874 as part of explorations for a cross-country railroad route, it was mining that really brought people to the area. Unlike many settlements that only had gold and silver mines, Gunnison County also had coal mines. Many of these were discovered and developed in the 1880s. The silver in the area, first discovered in 1872, brought a large wave of miners to the area, as did the gold mining, which started to take off around 1979. When the silver panic hit mines throughout the region and caused the closure of many of them, Gunnison was able to remain a viable mining town through its coal mines. Gunnison County still has an operating coal mine in Somerset.
While gold and silver mining is long in the past, Mount Emmons, overlooking Crested Butte, has been at the center of a mining debate stretching back to 1977. The mountain, commonly called Red Lady, overlooks the town of Crested Butte and is a popular recreation area both in the summer and winter. It also lies at the headwaters of the Gunnison River. But with the third largest discovered molybdenum deposit in the world, several mining companies have tried to develop the area. But pushback from the community, combined with constantly fluctuating prices for the element, which is used to strengthen steel, has stalled all efforts thus far to establish a mine. Negotiations are currently underway to permanently protect the area from mining.
The high altitude and long and cold winters of Gunnison County make many types of agriculture infeasible. After the last Utes were removed from the area in 1879, many settlers moved in and found that cattle ranching was the best option for survival, seeing that only potatoes and hay that grew well. With the success of hay and good summer grazing options, the cows took over. Cattle ranching is ongoing in the county today, both on public and private land. Gunnison’s Cattlemen’s Days is a celebration of the continued influence of ranching in the area.
Skiing has always been a popular pastime in the Gunnison Valley. What started as a form of transportation quickly turned into a type of recreation in the 1890s. The Pioneer Ski Area in Cement Creek was established using an old tramway from a mine to carry skiers up the mountain. The lift had 80 chairs, which were also built from old mining materials.
In 1961, Crested Butte Mountain Resort opened with a single T-bar. While early years saw the ski area struggle to stay open, most likely due to its remote location, it eventually turned into the world-class ski resort that it is today. It maintains a reputation for steep terrain and lots of snow, and its geographical isolation from the other ski resorts in the state helps it keep its quirky character.
Western Colorado University
Chartered in 1901 and opened as a teacher-training school in 1911, the modern-day Western Colorado University is one of the oldest schools in the state. While it’s a smaller school with only about 3,000 students, it offers a wide array of majors and has a large influence on the community. Many of the mountain bikers who’ve been movers and shakers in the bike culture in Gunnison County came for school. Dave Weins, former professional mountain biker and founder of Gunnison Trails, came to the school as a kayaker and found mountain biking. Dave Mo, owner of Rock ‘n’ Roll sports and local bike legend, came to Western to study as a motorcycle rider who eventually found bikes. Both stayed and have had a heavy influence on the bike world both in Gunnison County and beyond. The presence of Western Colorado University, with a strong mountain bike program and outdoor focus, keeps young riders arriving in the area, and many of them never leave. Those who do take a little bit of the Gunnison Valley bike culture with them.
The northern half of Gunnison County is dominated by mountain ranges, including the Elks and the Sawatch. These mountain ranges have peaks reaching well over 13,000 feet, and the Sawatch have several peaks over the 14,000-foot mark. In most of Colorado, treeline hovers around 11,500 feet, meaning there’s plenty of alpine in these mountains. The flowers in the area tend to be low to the ground and incredibly hearty.
The wooded areas of Gunnison County are generally a mix between aspen and pine forests, the ratio depending on both aspect and elevation. The aspens turn a stunning yellow in the fall and provide ample photographic opportunities for visitors. At lower elevations, mostly in the southern half of the county, the trees fall away again and are replaced by sage. This habitat is home to the threatened Gunnison sage-grouse that lives in nine fragmented areas throughout Colorado and Utah.
In addition to the land-based areas, Gunnison County is home to the headwaters of the Gunnison River. The second-largest tributary to the Colorado River, the Gunnison is a critical water source for all of the West. It’s the only watershed that butts up against the western edge of the continental divide that doesn’t pump water over to the more populous eastern side. While attempts were made in the 1980s and ‘90s to dam the Taylor River to create a cross-divide water system, the project was eventually abandoned after local protest. A dam on the Gunnison River, just west of Gunnison, creates Blue Mesa, the largest body of water in Colorado. In addition to being the home of rainbow, brown, and Lake trout, the reservoir also has kokanee salmon that migrate upstream into the Taylor and Slate Rivers in the fall. Many of the waterways in Gunnison County provide world-class fishing opportunities.
Flora and Fauna
While Crested Butte is the self-proclaimed Wildflower Capital of Colorado, spring and summer blooms are abundant throughout the entirety of Gunnison County. The wildflowers generally start at lower altitudes in June and slowly work their way up in elevation through the end of the summer. Different times of the year can bring entirely distinct sets of flowers.
Starting early in the summer, a whole host of wildflowers dot the lower sagelands surrounding Gunnison, including Indian paintbrush, larkspur, yarrow, and sunflowers. As the summer progresses, at higher elevations, the quintessential bright yellow mule’s ears start to dominate the landscape. Intricate elephant head flowers grow near high-elevation water sources, and giant green gentians start to sprout out higher than everything else. The bright purple fireweed also makes an appearance in mid-July as the “summer countdown plant.” As the summer progresses, the purple blooms move gradually up the stem of the plant, and when the highest of the flowers have bloomed, summer is officially over.
In the alpine, where summer comes the latest and ends the earliest, you’ll find the purple sky pilot, Armeria, and Hall’s penstemon dotting these wide open areas starting late June and into July and August. These plants live close to the ground to help them survive the incredibly harsh environments.
Gunnison County is home to a large number of land-, water-, and air-based animals, and the various elevations play host to many ecosystems. Some animals, like the Gunnison sage-grouse, spend all of their time in one specific location, while others, like elk, will exist in a variety of habitats depending on the time of year. Gunnison hosts a vibrant fishing and hunting culture with its variety of game, and some areas, such as the Almont Triangle, are closed during periods of the year to protect the animals.
Above treeline, you’ll find both megafauna and smaller animals. Elk often spend their days near or above treeline in the summer before moving back into the shelter of the trees in the evening. Squeaky marmots, otherwise known as “whistle pigs,” will pose on rocks in the sun, while the tiny pika also makes its home up high. In the sky, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks can be spotted, while in the bushes, it’s common to see white-crowned sparrows and juncos.
In the forested regions, mule deer are abundant, and a variety of chipmunks and ground squirrels scamper throughout the trees. In marshy areas, moose munch on willows. It’s not unusual to see mountain bluebirds, robins, and northern flickers flying around.
The sage also has its own ecosystem of animals. The largest of the animals in the sage is the pronghorn. The fastest land animal in North America, they evolved to outrun the prehistoric cheetah that used to roam the plains. Now, their biggest threat is human encroachment on their habitat, as they tend to struggle with getting over fences. As mentioned, the sage is also home to the threatened Gunnison sage-grouse, and extensive efforts have been taken to help the survival of the species.
Gunnison Sage-Grouse Conservation
To help protect the breeding grounds of the Gunnison sage-grouse, much of the public lands around Gunnison are closed to all motorized use from March 15 to May 15, and non-motorized users are encouraged to avoid any area that has sage before 9 a.m. in order to not disturb the mating ritual of the birds. The Signal Peak Trails outside of Gunnison are closed to all users between March 15 and May 15.
Things to See and Do
For being a relatively small city, Gunnison is filled with attractions ranging from exceptional music to food to art. Just a quick walk around town will be filled with countless murals, sculptures, and more. What on the surface may seem like a quiet ranching community is actually filled with endless possibilities for fun and plenty of culture.
Places to Eat and Drink
- High Alpine Brewing Company / Delicious pub fare / Recommended: Pizza
- Tributary Coffee Roasters / Amazing coffee shop / Recommended: Egg and cheese biscuits
- The Dive Pub / Great pub food and good music / Recommended: Buttermilk Chicken Sandwich
- 1880 / Tapas + Spirits / Has both tapas and regular plates / Recommended: Drunken Pork, Grilled Sweet Corn, Bacon-wrapped Dates
- Blackstock Bistro / Delicious new-American fare with both small and large dishes / Recommended: The small plates or burger
- Firebrand Delicatessen / Amazing sandwiches / Recommended: The Surefire
- Gunnison Pizza Company / Pizza and calzones / Recommended: Large Calzone or the Greek
- Pie-Zans / Pizza / Recommended: Cheese and pepperoni Pizza!!!
- Mario’s Pizza and Pasta / Great Italian food / Recommended: Strombolis!
- Pitas In Paradise / American- and Mediterranean-inspired flavors / Recommended: The OG
- Sherpa Cafe / Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian cuisine / Recommended: Chicken Tikka Masala and Jal Frezi
- Spenny’s Ice Cream Cart / Third Bowl Ice Cream in Gunnison / Recommended: All the ice cream!
Gunnison Cattlemen’s Days – Started in 1900, the Gunnison Cattlemen’s Days is one of the oldest rodeos in the country. Held in mid-July every year, the “Granddaddy of Colorado Rodeos” is a three-day celebration of ranching and the Western way of life. Competitions, livestock, and music make up an unforgettable weekend for anyone.
Crested Butte Wildflower Festival – Crested Butte is known as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado for good reason. The 10-day festival in July hosts more than 200 workshops centered around the abundant wildflowers in the area. Whether you’re looking for painting or cooking classes or for a group to go on a hike with, you’re sure to find it. Registration can be found here.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – The least visited national park in Colorado, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has dramatic and steep cliffs carved by the Gunnison River over the past two million years. There are countless hiking options and many overlooks to see some of the oldest exposed rocks around. There are also fishing opportunities, and some even kayak the river deep in the depths of the canyon. More here
Waunita Hot Springs – While Waunita Hot Springs is closed to the public during the summer months to cater to weddings and other group events, it opens back up at the start of October. The 35 x 90-foot pool is fed by a natural hot spring and hovers in the upper 90°F range. If you’re in the area during a time when they are open to the public, it’s well worth a visit.
Mountain biking Crested Butte – Whether you want to ride the lift and hit up the downhill trails at Crested Butte Mountain Resort or go on an epic, all-day ride in the surrounding Elk Mountains, you won’t be disappointed. Arguably the birthplace of mountain biking (depending on who you ask), the trails in the area are world-class. Ranging from the beginner-friendly Lower Loop to the well-known 401, there’s a trail for any skill or fitness level. More here
I Bar Ranch – If you’re looking for music and fun in Gunnison, the I Bar Ranch always delivers. Booked out solid with a summer full of artists, it’s the hub of the Gunnison music scene. Located on Tomichi Creek at the base of “W” Mountain, it’s an idyllic setting for an evening of revelry and fun.
Gunnison Pioneer Museum – Whether you’re a hardcore history buff or looking to learn more about the history of the people who’ve moved through Gunnison County in the past, the Gunnison Pioneer Museum is a must-stop. Housing a huge collection of artifacts ranging from toy dolls of the past to farm equipment to railroad items, there are endless things to see on the 14-acre property.
Fishing and Rafting
Rafting – Summers in the Gunnison Valley can get hot, and there’s no better way to cool down than going on a rafting trip. Three Rivers Resort on the banks of the Taylor River in Almont offers trips of all different levels and durations, including family-friendly and more advanced options. A family–run resort since 1983, it provides lodging, rafting, and fishing opportunities. More here