It’s a study in contrasts, this sunburned landscape. Eroding sandstones, limestones and shales to the west, the pinnacled remnants of a long-ago volcanic eruption to the east, thunderheads rapidly retreating over the sagebrush-dotted high mountain desert to the south — and right here, sunset’s golden light suffusing our crescent beach with an otherworldly pink-and-peach glow.
Our 21-foot Sun Tracker Party Barge bobbed gently a couple of feet from shore, solar dragonfly lights twinkling in the fading day. The boat, our tent, a dancing fire and the flat rock we’d made our camp kitchen were the only signs of humanity; yet we were just an hour from the marina.
Whenever you plan a camping adventure by boat, the only certainty is that it will be heavy on the adventure, and our trip to Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir did not disappoint. But it also delivered a startling dose of pure, unadulterated magic.
A Desert Oasis
When we first moved to the Rocky Mountain West, we were shocked to see boats in people’s driveways. Where on earth, we wondered, were they boating? This state has countless highlights, but boating hot spots would seem to be thin.
Then we discovered Blue Mesa, nestled at 7,519 feet in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. A glimmering blue eye in the high mountain desert west of Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide, this Gunnison River reservoir is 20 miles long and has 96 miles of shoreline and depths of more than 300 feet.
We were excited to learn that it also features four boat-in camping areas, and it’s the largest lake trout and kokanee salmon fishery in the United States. A mecca where boating and fishing meet backcountry camping, in the heart of the southern Rockies. Go figure.
This summer was prime time to explore Blue Mesa. Snowpack in the region was at 126 percent of normal the previous winter, so the lake was within a few feet of full pool. Boaters have a ton of choices when it comes to lake access. If you want to top off your gas tanks, get an engine tuneup or purchase last-minute supplies, you can launch at the Elk Creek Marina at the reservoir’s east end or at the Lake Fork Marina to the west. Or, if you’re simply looking for a place to splash, the reservoir has four additional launch ramps, plus six beach launch sites that allow trailers.
We had our sights set on the Elk Creek Marina, located 16 miles west of Gunnison on U.S. Highway 50. This operation has more than 150 slips, a tackle shop, a fish-cleaning station and floating restrooms; its west dock, added in 2011, boasts 4-foot-wide arms. It also has an enormous launch ramp to keep traffic moving on busy summer weekends.
Not only could we fill up our coolers with fresh ice and make sure we were leaving with plenty of fuel, but we also eagerly anticipated capping off our overnight cruise-camping trip with a celebratory margarita at Pappy’s Restaurant, a beloved watering hole perched creekside with a large deck overlooking the docks.
For the 24 hours prior to that frosty libation, however, we would be on our own.
Boating to the Backcountry
Camping with a boat does give you more space and flexibility than if you actually were backpacking, yet it’s not quite the same as car camping. For one, you need to be self-sufficient; there won’t be a late-night run to the camp store or the nearest gas station if you need anything. Next, you must be able to ferry everything ashore easily.
Imagine climbing down through the forward gate, wading to shore and then hiking across sand or up a steep trail to your designated campsite. Less is definitely going to be more.
We tried to keep things simple. We packed our family tent, sleeping bags for two adults and one child, pillows, extra towels, clothing, camp stove, cookware and utensils, collapsible camp chairs, a five-gallon container of potable water, water treatment system as an emergency backup, propane fire pit (expecting, correctly, that firewood would be scarce) and coolers loaded with carefully planned meals and lots of ice.
Despite our best efforts, it took a long time to unload the car and load up the pontoon. So we rushed more than we normally would, stacking duffel bags and camp chairs behind the helm and piling pillows and towels on top of the forward seats.
We knew this was unwise. July marks the start of the North American monsoon in Colorado, and that means storms blow up like clockwork during the hot afternoon hours. We hoped we’d get lucky.
It was 2 p.m. by the time we finally fired up the 60 hp Mercury four-stroke and cast off the dock lines. Motoring out of Elk Creek into Blue Mesa’s Cebolla Basin, we kept a wary eye on the thunderheads building around us, but it looked as if our luck would hold. In fact, it was almost too hot, which made the 60-degree water look deceptively alluring.
We were grateful for the pontoon’s large Bimini top and for the floppy sun hats we forced ourselves to wear. The intensity of the sun at altitude can be dangerous; sunscreen, hydration and shade are critical.
Consulting our chart, we cruised first to the Cebolla Creek boat-in campsites, tucked in a gully on the west shore of the reservoir’s southern Cebolla Creek arm. Spying the roof of a vault toilet, we threw the anchor ashore, buried it securely and hiked to the campsites.
It wasn’t quite what we imagined. It didn’t have any big views due to the thick stands of cottonwoods, oaks and junipers, and it was a long, steep walk from the beach. Perhaps too long for ferrying all the gear, and the tent pads didn’t look quite large enough for a two-room family tent with screen porch.
We glanced skyward. One thunderhead seemed closer. It had a bruised, angry look, and it growled.
Searching for Solitude
Hoping we’d have better luck up the West Elk arm, we hurried westward, motoring under the Highway 50 bridge into the Sapinero Basin and catching our first glimpse of the stunning Dillon Pinnacles.
Here, wind and water have sculpted 30-million-year-old volcanic lava, rock and mud — called the West Elk Breccia, after the ancient West Elk Volcano — into surreal spires that jut dramatically out of the surrounding high mountain desert. Keeping the pinnacles to starboard, we turned northward into the West Elk arm. Somewhere at its head lay a boat-in camping area, and we were determined to find it.
The arm narrowed. We sliced forward at a crawl, scanning the shoreline for any sign of a campsite. Nothing. I kept a sharp eye on the water, as submerged trees and other snags are ever-present dangers up the twisting arms of reservoir lakes. The last thing we needed was to ding the prop or throw a blade.
Suddenly, there was the creek. We could see its translucent waters spilling down the rocks, and we quickly threw the pontoon into reverse. We still hadn’t spotted a campsite, but it wasn’t worth the risk to go any farther. We also noted that the wind had shifted; it was now blowing like stink down the channel, and those reputed sheltered waters for mooring had vanished.
Our window for making camp was closing rapidly, so we roared southward back to the main lake with steady 25- to 30-knot winds blasting us on the nose. Once we reached open water, toothy breakers greeted us in a barrage of cold spray. We leaped into action, stuffing pillows, towels, sleeping bags and duffels into any available orifice on the boat, from the cubby underneath the helm console to the compartments beneath the seats.
I wrapped our uncomplaining 5-year-old daughter tightly in a rain poncho and used my body to shield her from the worst of it. We set our course for the southwest and beat our way across the lake, bound for the fjordlike Lake Fork arm and its sheltered embrace.
We found the boat-in campsites right away, tucked into a secluded cove with a few downed trees. Mooring the pontoon to a large one at the water’s edge, we scampered up the trail to the designated sites; they included a large cleared area that would be perfect for our family-size tent. They also had people in them.
We could hunker down here and wait for the weather to pass, or we could return to Elk Creek. The nearby Turtle Rock campsites might be an option — or full too.
Since it was getting late, we opted to leave our safe harbor. As soon as we returned to open water, however, it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere. First, the flat-topped mesas near the Dillon Pinnacles looked blurry behind an ominous gray sheet.
The storm was here. Our window had closed.
After the Storm
The rain blew sideways and lightning crackled across the sky, the wind whipping the lake into a frantic bathtub of steep, breaking waves. We sought refuge at the Lake Fork Marina, trying to stay warm and watching the clock as it ticked past 6 p.m.
Then we remembered the dispersed camping. While Blue Mesa features four established boat-in camping areas with vault toilets, picnic tables, fire pits and tent pads, it also allows camping along the south shore, on Red Creek Island and along the four main arms, provided you aren’t setting up camp within a half-mile of any developed area, bridge, public road or an already established backcountry campsite.
It was now or never, so we made a run for it. As the storm eased, we hurtled back onto the pontoon, slipped off the lines and cruised back to the West Elk arm. We remembered a grassy place below the cliffs, a sheltered sweep of shoreline with a deserted yellow-sand beach. It just might be the place.
Steely gray water softened to emerald green as the spent storm drifted south and we approached the shallows near our chosen spot. Splashing ashore, we buried the anchor and wrapped the rode around a massive rock. Finally, we found our spot.
Swallows swooped and dived under the lip of the orange cliffs, and amid the array of tumbled-down boulders on the sand, we had plenty of room to pitch our tent and arrange our fire pit and camp chairs. Supper was a quick affair, thanks to our decision to precook the sauce and noodles, and with the palette of sunset colors fading, we plied our daughter with roasted marshmallows and sent her to bed.
A bright, silvery moon gave way to a still dawn, and I woke to the whirr of a spinning reel as my husband made a valiant yet unsuccessful effort to catch breakfast. Instead, we fired up the camp stove for a hearty skillet of scrambled eggs, potatoes and precooked bacon.
All too soon, it was time to make the leisurely cruise back to Elk Creek Marina and our victory margarita. Sadly, Pappy’s was closed on Tuesdays, but the National Park Service concessionaire graciously allowed us to make a picnic lunch and eat it on the broad, sunny deck. He even whipped up a signature margarita so we could share in this local boating tradition.
Taking stock, we spent several hours of our adventure wet, cold and frustrated. Was it worth it? Absolutely. There is nothing like cruising into a backcountry campsite that feels like it’s a million miles from nowhere. And, most important, it’s sheer pleasure to discover a boating haven where you least expect it.