Blue Mesa - CO

I am planning a mid-September trip to Blue Mesa Lake and area. Wondering if anyone can offer information and suggestions about best camping and paddling places, as well as weather and winds at that time of year?

Big place with cold water
Talk to a ranger. Phone number is at the website:

I did an overnight paddle-camping trip there one time in early June. In summer, afternoon winds kick up hard and blow from the west (windsurfers like it). I don’t know about mid-September.

There are a few designated boat-in campsites, first-come first-served basis. When I went (in a drought year), I couldn’t even see the one I was aiming for; it was probably high and dry that year. So I camped elsewhere, as dispersed camping is allowed as long as you’re at least half a mile from any developed facility (car campground, marina, etc). I also changed my trip from what was supposed to be a 2-night trip to a 1-night trip, because I found NO flat spot for even my tiny bivy-sac-like tent.

The main basins (Sapinero, Iola, Cebolla) are big and open. You can get a break from that exposure if you paddle up the arms: Soap Creek, West Elk, Lake Fork. (They are also pretty.) But if the wind is moving parallel to the arms, you’ll be in for a wild ride. I paddled up and down the Lake Fork arm with a storm brewing, and there was a huge difference between my times downwind and upwind.

Get the Fish-N-Map waterproof map for Blue Mesa. (I should’ve mentioned in the Flaming Gorge thread that Fish-N-Map makes a good map for that place, too.)

Have fun! I may see you out there, as I am considering a paddle-camping trip there this year.

Re: Blue Mesa
Thanks hugely for the info, and I will be sure to phone the rangers before leaving. My plan at the moment is to arrive on Sept. 16th and spend about six days, and then head on down to the northern end of Navajo Lake for another five.

I am planning to start at the western end of the lake, camping the first night at either Lake Fork or Ponderosa, and tuning in to a paddling itinerary.

Let me know if you will be there at that time, and perhaps we can meet.

Sounds like a nice trip

– Last Updated: Aug-17-09 12:38 AM EST –

I actually called the Curecanti ranger station this spring. The people I talked with didn't know much about the things I was asking, like "With current water levels, how hard is it to find a good place to camp?" I decided to bag the trip, partly because I knew the water would be frigid at that time of year.

I may call them again in a couple of weeks.

BTW, when I did my short trip there, I parked at Ponderosa Campground. The camp host told me it was OK to leave my vehicle and trailer near the tent-camping area, which is near the water (no shade). They just wanted to know what day I expected to return (no parking fee). There is a nice forested camping area up higher, but it's not near the lake. Either way, you have to endure about 7 miles of washboard dirt road to get to Ponderosa.

You could also launch from Lake Fork Campground, but you'd need to drive to the boat ramp because that campground is high on a bluff. They have showers, though; Ponderosa does not.

Blue Mesa is nice in that the boaters are almost all fishermen. Real quiet, no jetskis or waterskis. There are also two smaller reservoirs downstream of Blue Mesa, both of them a long portage for long boats. But I've got a notion to carry my WW boat down the 232 steps to Morrow Point Reservoir one of these days. Or maybe down the trail to Crystal Reservoir. Need to be very careful about when they're releasing water there, so if you plan to paddle in these, definitely ask what's going on before you put in.

Navajo should be nice in September. I've only been there once (car camping and day paddles), end of August last year, and wow it was HOT. But the water was so warm I could roll repeatedly in it without wearing neoprene. I went to the NM part of it.

Oh...are you planning to paddle around all of Blue Mesa?

Blue Mesa

– Last Updated: Aug-17-09 1:24 AM EST –

I hope to paddle round most of the lake, with a base camp and day trips, and maybe even upstream a bit into the Gunnison River. I may start out camping at the eastern end, and then move to Lake Fork after exploring those waters.

I have been to both ends of Navajo, the southern (Sims Mesa) in 2005 for five days with Mark Arnold, another P-Netter, and the Colorado end in 2007 for four days. Both trips were in mid-September, and the weather was typically warm during the day and cool at night. Most pleasant, but both times we were caught in suddenly-arising 40 knot winds. Quite the experience!

And I do not think I will attempt to carry my 16-foot sea kayak down, and afterwards up, the 232 steps to Morrow!

Question about the Terrain

– Last Updated: Aug-17-09 1:19 PM EST –

I found some online photos of Blue Mesa and some of the campgrounds, and got mightily depressed. It looks very uninteresting, with treeless, scrubby mesas and very little, if any, rock formations near the water.

If so, then I will go to the Lake Fork end and explore the two arms and surrounding area for a couple of days, and then go on to Navajo for the rest of the trip, camping at both ends of the lake. At least there are wonderful vistas and fascinating rock formations, especially along the southern end of the lake, even if there are more powerboats and people.

Depends where you are
The main big waters are open, and the surrounding land is, too, though you’ll see mountains not that far away. Up the arms, you are more walled in, with trees and brush. I don’t remember any cliff wall types of features at Blue Mesa, though of course that is what distinguishes Black Canyon of the Gunnison. But you can’t paddle a sea kayak there. The hiking at BCG is rigorous: no maintained trail down from the rim, extremely steep, loose rocks everywhere. But if you head down even partway near Painted Wall, you’ll get a fantastic view of this narrow, deep, dark canyon.

Your post is funny, because I was slightly disappointed in Navajo Reservoir, or what little I saw of it. It was pretty enough–but I guess I expected something more like Lake Powell or the southern part of Flaming Gorge, which really is beautiful. Still, I probably will return to paddle more there. It wasn’t crowded even in late summer. And I like that at least the NM side wasn’t all developed.

If you want a scenic mountain lake paddle, go to Twin Lakes near Leadville. You can easily paddle around it as a day trip, and there are several car campgrounds nearby. Wind is always potentially dangerous at the mountain lakes, so get an early start. While you’re in the area, you might also want to paddle around Turquoise Lake, which has an amazing hue if “they” have not just played with dam releases and murked it up.

BTW, I have met Mark. Early last year I drove to the Corpus Christi area, and we did 4 paddles together. He took pains to make sure I would get a good dolphin show, and another day we were lucky enough to see the “white morph of the reddish egret”. You could not have a better tour guide.


– Last Updated: Aug-17-09 9:10 PM EST –

I spoke with a ranger at Curecanti this afternoon. She said levels are only 7 feet below capacity, so there is plenty of water.

She recommended tent camping at either Elk Creek or Ponderosa, and said Cebolla and Lake Fork arms had some rock formations.

She also mentioned putting in at Sapinero to paddle Lake Fork arm, or parking my car there if wanting to do some boat-in camping.

Also drinking water will be available until October, but she did not know about showers.

All in all, it made me feel better about the trip.

As for the NM end of Navajo, it certainly is not Flaming Gorge -- which I only know from photos -- but as I said, I found the rock formations to be endlessly fascinating, and the dearth of people in mid-September was a great joy.

Unfortunately, the endless sound of oil rigs was often jarring.

Dillon Pinnacles is pretty, too
Forgot about those. They are on the north side of Blue Mesa. You have to hike to get right near them, but you can see them from the reservoir. You can drive your car to a designated trailhead and hike to them. That area looks stunning in fall when the cottonwood groves are flaming yellow (just like aspen).

Elk Creek is the main car campground, and it’s huge. If you are interested in seeing prairie dogs, the biggest prairie dog town I’ve ever seen is next to it. I haven’t camped there since the early or mid 90s, but I remember that some sites were fairly close to the water. There is a decent restaurant called Pappy’s at the marina next to Elk Creek Campground.

Ponderosa is prettier and quieter. There’s a reason it’s named “ponderosa.” You just have to put up with that washboard dirt road to get to it.

I don’t remember much in the way of rock formations on Lake Fork arm. The slopes were brushy with loose tan rocks. But then again, that was at a much lower water level.

It’s good you called the ranger. I’ve seen photos of (for example) Merritt Reservoir online, and they did not do it justice. Some places look attractive in any kind of light; others (such as Blue Mesa and Merritt and the northern part of Flaming Gorge) need good light quality.

I forgot about the sound of the oil rigs at Simms Mesa! Are there any on the Colorado side? How does that side compare for scenery?

Dillon Pinnacles
Thanks for the tip – I will keep an eye out for them. I would definitely rather camp at Ponderosa, even with the long washboard road, but then it makes paddling anywhere but down Soap Creek Arm a long slog.

Since I will be coming in from the east, I can scout Elk Creek to see if any of the walk-in tent campsites will be peaceful and somewhat rustic. I doubt there will be too many people in mid-September.

Also, it makes exploring the lake in both directions somewhat easier than being at one end or the other.

The CO end of Navajo is mostly conifers, with few rock formations, even underwater, and there are only two day paddles worth taking. I could hear the oil rig that is just across the NM border, especially at night, but it was nowhere as loud as the noise from them at Sims Mesa.

If I had a paddling partner, the southern part of Flaming Gorge would be by far my first choice, but with the canyons and suddenly-arising winds it seems much riskier for me going alone. I can manage a paddle float self-rescue, but have not learned to roll.

Navajo Lake scenery
is really dependent on the water level. The first time I went (before Merlin) the lake was about 60 feet lower than normal. The rock walls and cliffs were spectacular. Of course trying to find a campsite was almost impossible unless you were part mountain goat. The year Merlin and I went I think the lake was still about 20 ft low. It was nice, but not nearly as interesting cliffs. However, at the higher water levels you could go farther up the side canyons. When the lake was 60 ft low, the Colorado SP area was one big mud flat.

Paddling with Merlin was really nice. As an aritist he saw all kinds of little details that I as a “big picture” kind of paddler would have just paddled by without noticing.

PS - The dolphins want to know when you are coming back for another visit.


Less exposure in southern Flaming Gorge
A guy at the concession in Lucerne told me that the southern section does not get huge waves like the northern section does. Just something to consider. There is much less fetch.

I had some wind down there, nothing horrendous. Did have one high-wind day up north, which worked out OK since I had not had a rest day yet. Spent all day holed up in a tiny tent! A gull also spent the whole day sitting on the ground just outside my tent, behind my kayak.