Kayaking on the Gunnison River

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in an area of Colorado with a plethora of kayaking and white water rafting opportunities. The first thing to know is that there is not any kayaking or white water rafting opportunities inside Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. There are VERY limited permits for expert rafters who want to attempt the Gunnison River section that runs through the park. These are Class V rapids with A LOT of Class VI sections that force portages along rocky, Poison Ivy infested river banks. Most of the time, though, the river is too low or violent for anyone to even attempt a run on this river.


The second thing to know is, there are PLENTY of kayaking and rafting options around Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The third thing to know is this will mostly be a review on RIGS Adventure Co: Fly Shop and Guided Tours. And let me tell you: They did an amazing job! They are located out of Ridgeway, Colorado, about a 35 minute drive from Montrose (the gateway town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park). They have rafting and kayaking trips for all levels, on the Gunnison River, the San Miguel River, and the Uncompahgre River. The RIGS shuttle will even pick you up in Montrose so you do not have to drive all the way to Ridgway.


However, you might want to drive all the way to Ridgway if you are a “True Grit” fan. The Duke was introduced in the movie in a scene shot in Ridgway and the hanging scene at the end was shot in the park in the center of town. The town itself is absolutely gorgeous and there are a bunch of fun dining options.

This is not an affiliate review. We just enjoyed our trip with RIGS so much. It is a great option if you want to get started with kayaking or rafting, have many ability levels in your group, or are even a seasoned white water connoisseur that wants to get to know the area.

Alright, back to kayaking. We had a bunch of newbies on our trip. We all love to be on the water but have very little experience with white water. When Dave, my father-in-law, called RIGS they did a phenomenal job of explaining their options and comparing those options to the ability level of our group. We settled on a 6-hour tour in the Lower Gunnison River that would only get as intense as Class II rapids.


We met with our kayak guide at the RIGS shop in Ridgway at 8:00 am. After going over rules and expectations, we all loaded up in the shuttle. We quickly realized our shuttle was heading straight back through Montrose and we probably should have had our driver pick us up in Montrose. But no regrets, because we really did have a lot of fun visiting Ridgway!

The shuttle took us to a put-in spot on the Lower Gunnison, in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. We arrived at about 9:30 am. We all worked together to get our kayaks pumped up and ready to put in. Our guides would have done it themselves but we’re more than willing to help and really wanted to get in the water. And it’s a lot of work, getting all those boats pumped up!


From the put-in point to the take-out landing is about three-miles. The scenery along the Lower Gunnison River is not as striking as the views inside Black Canyon. It is a pretty river, though. There are also a lot of animals. We saw an otter, a crane, a (harmless) water snake, lots of ducks, and this flock of sheep.


My favorite part was when the guide stopped all of us on the side of the river so we could get out and swim. He explained how the rapids makes an eddy in the river: The rapid motion of the river creates an empty space on the opposite side of the river. The river then tries to fill in that empty space. In doing so, it creates a portion in the current that actually flows upstream. We could easily set our kayaks in this upstream current and get out to play in the water. You can slide down the rapids one way, swim across, and then catch the eddy to take you back to your kayak.

Kenon and his brother, Atley, immediately took this opportunity. They were very quickly out of their kayaks and hiking back up the river. When they got to the top of the rapids, they laid back and floated, bumping along the little waves, towards the eddy. It looked like a blast but I am a big baby when it comes to cold water! It took a bit but they finally convinced me try it myself. I’m so glad I did! It’s like Mother Nature made us a little water park in the middle of the Gunnison.


At about mile 2, RIGS had us pull our kayaks out so we could enjoy lunch under a cottonwood tree. They provided a build-your-own sandwich station, fruit, chips, cookies, Gatorade, and water. It was all so well done.

After lunch, we went on a short hike to an active archeological dig site. There was no one working on it when we arrived. We got to see petroglyphs from the Native Americans and many tools and processes used by archeologists. I’ve never been to a dig site so I was totally geeking out.


We were incredibly lucky to catch the cacti while they were blooming. The normally brown landscape was dotted everywhere with brilliant color.


The last hour of the tour was spent casually floating down the river. This last stretch was peaceful and gentle. It was incredibly relaxing and beautiful. We hit the take-out point just before 3:30 pm.


The guides really make the tour, no matter where you are. Our guides were experienced, fun, and conversational. By the end of the tour it felt like they were always part of the family.

There are so many opportunities to kayak, white water raft, and get out on the water around Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Definitely consider making it part of your trip!


Thank you, Dave and Mary, for making this trip possible!

Gear of the Trip:

Some time in the near future I would like to buy myself a kayak. I asked our guide what good, all-around, multi-use kayak he would recommend. He confidently suggested the very same inflatable duck boats we were using that day. They are durable and adaptable to most (not all) rivers, lakes, and white water situations. Check them out Here.


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