Nestled in the Gunnison River valley along US 50 lies Curecanti National Recreation Area, a 40,000 acre playground in western Colorado. Curecanti National Recreation Area (CNRA) is under the management of the National Park Service and hosts over one million visitors a year. Activities such as, fishing, hiking, camping, boating, and sightseeing abound. There is so much to do in this area, we could camp here for a whole year and not exhaust all our outdoor options!
CNRA was created in 1963, when dams were constructed along the Gunnison River forming Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in Colorado. Before that time, the Gunnison River sporadically flooded the small communities along its banks then dried to a trickle in the heat of summer when water was needed most. The decision was made to harness and control the flow of the river to provide valuable water for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. Three dams were constructed along the 40-mile stretch of the Gunnison River to accomplish this goal. However, what is progress to one person is often a loss to another. As the reservoir filled, whole towns and communities along the river were buried beneath the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir. Reminders of the sacrifice of the local citizens are echoed in the park paper and in displays at the visitor center.
We chose to camp at CNRA not only because of the many hiking trails within the park, but also because of its close proximity to several area attractions, such as Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte, and the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway which took us over Kebler Pass, home to the largest aspen grove in the world. CNRA has many campgrounds, from primitive group sites to electric-only sites. We camped at Elk Creek Campground since the temperatures were going to dip a bit and we wanted the electric. Though it was nearing the end of the busy summer camping season and two of the four camping loops were closed, thankfully, the water fill and dump stations were still open. Rates were $14 per night (off-season price). Our campground loop had modern, clean restrooms with flush toilets, but no showers. There is a pay shower at the marina, but it was closed for the season. The campground was nearly empty during the week, but it did fill on the weekends. Sites were a mix of back-ins and pull-thrus and each had nice, level concrete pads. Each site also had a fire ring and picnic table. Elk Creek is all open, no real shade to speak of, and I would imagine in the summer months it could get quite hot. But the unobstructed views are fabulous!
The Elk Creek Visitor Center is small, but the staff was very helpful in answering our questions about the area and directing us to some challenging and rewarding hikes, which I’ll write about in my next post. If you are headed through this area of Colorado, I would highly recommend making CNRA your base camp as you explore the recreation area itself and the surrounding communities.