Gunnison National Forest

The counties of Hinsdale, Delta, Montrose, Gunnison, and Saguache all share the Gunnison National Forest, spanning 1,672,136 acres through Western Colorado. The Forest Servie manages Gunnison in unison with its sister forests, Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre. That is why you will often see these three forests grouped together as GMUG.

A stand of aspen trees in Gunnison National Forest
Aspen trees in Gunnison National Forest – Photo by Angel Leon on Unsplash

About Gunnison National Forest

Gunnison National Forest is a destination for natural history, American history, horseback riding, and mountain climbing. The forest has exceptional horse trails and is nearby The Grand Mesa. Fourteeners and other mountains along the range can be spied from Gunnison’s scenic byways, such as Kebler Pass, Cottonwood Pass, and Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Cruise these roads and bask in Colorado’s unfiltered beauty as you pass snowcapped mountains, glittering streams, and green valleys.

History of the Forest

The forest’s namesake is American soldier and explorer, John Williams Gunnison. President Theodore Roosevelt chose this name at the creation of the reserve back in 1905.

John Williams Gunnison explored parts of Florida and The Great Lakes. He was making his way through Colorado and surrounding Rocky Mountain areas when Ute Native Americans attacked and killed him. 

Captain Gunnison and his men were in a hurry to map the area quickly in order to beat the snowy weather on the horizon. They split up into two groups at what is today the Gunnison Bend Reservoir. Gunnison and his fellows worked to map downstream while the other half of the party would map upstream. It was then that Gunnison’s half of the party suffered an attack. The attackers killed Gunnison and seven of his comrades. Reports claimed that the attackers had “brutally mutilated” the bodies. The site of this massacre is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Eight Ute Native Americans received charges for the attack, three of which were for manslaughter.

After the attack, rumors surfaced that Mormon leader Brigham Young had purposefully instigated the attack. Some believed that Young wished to rid the land of mappers and explorers. This was later assumed to be false as Gunnison and his team were actually warned by Mormons to be careful of the Ute people.

However, the assumption that there was no outside instigation of the attack is directly challenged by the eye-witness reports of white men deceptively dressed as Native Americans present at the attack. Many people accepted the claims of white involvement in this attack. They were assumed to be a part of Brigham Young’s vigilante group of Mormon fighters known as the Danites.

Snow-topped mountains in Gunnison National Forest with aspen trees in the foreground.
Snowy peaks in Gunnison National Forest – Photo by Angel Leon on Unsplash

Recreation in Gunnison National Forest

Here you will find opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, boating, hunting, and more. Gunnison offers all varieties of camping, accommodating campers by providing sites for RV’s, groups, individuals, cabins, and horseback campers.

In fact, Gunnison maintains 16 horse trails, the most popular of which is Snodgrass Mountain Trail. The route features unbelievable scenery, especially within the first mile of the hike. Wildflowers dominate the scenery in spring and summer with abundant meadows, while pale, bright-leafed aspens swallow the trail into its shade as it progresses deeper into the forest.

The trail features photographic views of Mt. Crested Butte and The Elk Mountains. Spring and summer are covered in a pallet of wildflowers, but fall is all gold as the aspens change colors for the season. The winters see about 54 inches of snow a year, making GMUG a skiing destination as well.  

Wilderness Areas

Gunnison contains several stunning wilderness areas. These especially wild sections of the forest are free from all human development and machinery, making them the perfect places to find quiet, seclusion, and wildlife.

Species you can expect to see include moose, elk, mule deer, black bears, Canadian lynx, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons.

 Hey birders, wondering what might be flitting around these woods? A trip to Gunnison means traveling through the habitats of jays, nutcrackers, grouse, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, and everything in between. The forest also hosts healthy populations of raptors such as hawks, golden eagles, and owls.

A Golden Eagle standing in grass - their is a healthy population of eagles in Gunnison National Forest.
If you’re lucky, you might spot a Golden Eagle in Gunnison National Forest – Image by A_Different_Perspective from Pixabay

Visit Gunnison National Forest

If you like to be prepared before heading off to the woods, check out the latest Alerts and Notices from the USDA on the GMUG area. The Forest Service updates this page with special reports, regulations, and closures. You can find more information on recreation passes here.   

Make sure you save The National to your reading list. Then, you’ll always be connected to America’s National Forests.

Have fun, be safe, and leave no trace!  

-by Heaven Morrow

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