Inner-Canyon Exploration at Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness

Date hiked: 04/22/16

Mileage: 9.7 miles from the 2WD trailhead; 3 hr 45 min

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 3 fisherman on the Gunnison River. No other hikers.


Gunnison Gorge boasts a diverse variety of landscapes, from the sinuous Mancos Shale Adobe Badlands, to the woody slopes leading right into to the Gunnison River itself. A number of trails, both motorized and non-motorized, criss-cross this unique 63,000 acre geological site, while four main access points (the Ute, Duncan, Bobcat and Chukar trails) garner entry to the riverbank, where social trails along the water’s edge pave the way for exploration.

Perhaps one of the most strenuous loops in the area combines the Upper Duncan and Bighorn trails with the quick rise and fall along the Lower Duncan and Bobcat trails.

Hiking up from Peach Valley Road in the lower half of Gunnison Gorge, the 4WD route up Bobcat Road threads a loose double track through piñon and juniper hillsides. The views are all-encompassing, from the jagged peaks of the San Juans in the south, wrapping north across the vast flattops of the Uncompahgre Plateau and Grand Mesa.

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At the brink, looking back towards the farmland hewn Grand Valley and the Uncompahgre Plateau.

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The Gorge at first site. Who knew this is what beauty layed beyond the harsh Badlands?

Topping out at the Bobcat Trailhead, head northeast on the Bobcat Trail towards the Bighorn-Bobcat split. From here, the Bighorn trail will traverse the loop clockwise, while the Bobcat trail will throw it in reverse. The biggest deciding point is which of the two entry points you’d rather descend vs. ascent. The Duncan Trail loses more elevation, but the Bobcat Trail has a sharper drop at the end which requires some basic (un-roped) rock climbing techniques. In the end, neither are too tough with a little climbing experience.

Too eager to get to the fun part, I chose to head in a counterclockwise direction, as the Bobcat descent is only one mile from the trailhead.

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The drop looks a lot worse than it is. Handy foot holds and hand holds assist with the descent.

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A quick breather tracks the loose dirt across this hillside.

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A look at the final pitch into a ragged scree field. The cliffside is a make-your-own-adventure, but again, good handholds and footholds make it an easy climb.

Easy travel awaits at the Gunnison River, where camping and fishing are popular.

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The exit route is unmarked, but where the Gunnison River starts to bend back to the right, the cliffside pulls away from the water, and a steep gully houses the lower reaches of the Duncan Trail. It’s best if you have a GPS or at the very least, Google Maps.

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Standing on the Duncan Trail, this is the general area of where you’re going to want to take  your exit.

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The way out.

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The trail enters this black band of ancient granite before finding the easier terrain to the left of it.

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The final hump. Any way around this outcrop will get you up to the Duncan Trail, it’s just a matter of how challenging you want to make it on yourself.

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Exploring the high cliffs for a better viewpoint.

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The remaining route follows the Duncan Trail until the turnoff for the Duncan Trailhead. Heading straight at this intersection, continue onto the Bighorn trail, where the dirt traces the cliffs above the Gunnison River back to the Bobcat Trailhead. For an alternate loop, hike up to the Duncan Trailhead, then turn left and follow the Red Rocks-Nighthorse Trail along the upper rim of the canyon.

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Edging in on Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

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Trail Map

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(From Montrose): From Highway 50, head north on 6450 Road. In 3.9 miles, continue straight onto 6400 Road. Another 3.9 miles beyond that, turn right onto Falcon Road, and in .2 miles, veer left onto Peach Valley Road. Follow this 3.4 miles and turn right onto Babcat Road. At this point, there is a good sized pullout for 2WD vehicles, but with 4WD, continue to the parking lot 1.5 miles up the road.

12.7 miles; 24 min

Fees: $3/person to enter Gunnison Gorge. Payable at self-serve kiosks at each trailhead.

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