Get Outdoors! Hiking Public Lands around the North Fork

Jun 23, 2015 by     No Comments    Posted under: Public Lands

In a fifteen mile radius from the intersection of CO HWY 92 and CO HWY 133, at the hub of the North Fork Valley in Hotchkiss, Colorado there is a public lands hike for nearly everyone.   Among the more accessible and easier trails, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers opportunity to view its splendor for people ranging from the young to the elderly.


Enjoying brunch at the edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Photo by Elaine Brett.

Although some of the trails on the North Rim provide easy and accessible opportunities to look at this natural wonder, the plunging depth of the Black Canyon are not for everyone.  If heights are a worry, or safety in doubt, there are still other places where all ages and abilities can get out and enjoy the natural surroundings of the North Fork.

Try the Paonia River Park, with a small trail winding from the parking area, which offers an easy hike and lots of places to explore.  The River Park already has some accessible features and is installing more this summer to provide wheel chair access to the river.  The river here can be fast, and even when it looks slow and lazy adults should always keep an eye on kids who will want to play by the water.

More advanced than the easier National Park walks or River Park, but still generally available for most ages and abilities, the Jumbo Mountain area adjacent to the Town of Paonia provides ample trails and opportunities to explore.  The area is popular with mountain bikers, so hikers will need to be OK with sharing unmarked trails.  While basic route finding skills are useful, getting seriously lost is unlikely.  But if you don’t keep track of your directions, you might be especially hungry or parched when you make it to one of the valley’s great restaurants or tasting rooms.

Another step up from those hikes are other local favorites.  Near Crawford one trail winds partway up Needle Rock, the iconic feature in the Smith Fork Valley, several hikes, including one that follows Smith Fork creek, climb toward the West Elks Wilderness while another  climbs up “C Hill” (Youngs Peak) right from town.

The Paonia River Park is a great place for a quick stroll or a leisurely picnic. Photo by Joanna Calabrese.

The Paonia River Park is a great place for a quick stroll or a leisurely picnic. Photo by Joanna Calabrese.

West of Hotchkiss and Rogers Mesa, the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (NCA) provides a range of intermediate and more advanced hiking opportunities, as well as gold medal fishing at Pleasure Park.  Upstream from the NCA, the National Park provides easy to strenuous hiking – from quick walks to fantastic vistas, to steep and strenuous hikes into the canyon (and back up).


Hiking in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo by Elaine Brett.

Double that radius to thirty mile and the area’s public lands offerings increase dramatically, including numerous popular trailheads in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, on the Grand Mesa, and in the Kebler Pass area.  Within 30 miles a hiker can find everything from amazing desert—on the flanks of the Uncompahgre Plateau in the Roubideau Area and off trail in arroyos and along ridgetops in the Adobe Badlands—to long-distance mountain backpacking in the Raggeds Wilderness Area.


Overlooking the Smith Fork canyon. Photo by Elaine Brett.

The public lands around the North Fork provide an abundance of opportunity to get out and explore.  These places are true treasures, part of an American legacy first laid down in the 19th Century even as the nation pursued expansion and the Industrial Revolution.

And still today the issue is balance, and making sure that the national heritage of our public lands is not undermined by either ill-conceived attempts to remove them from national ownership, or by ill-considered development schemes that would alter and harm their character and natural qualities.  In our own lives that balance means finding time to both get out and enjoy the offerings of the public estate, and making the commitment to do what is needed to defend it from these ill-advised attempts to undermine them.


Agency Contact Information

Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, Paonia Ranger District 970-874-6600 (Forest HQ)

U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Uncompahgre Field Office   970-240-5300

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park  970-641-2337

Curecanti National Recreation Area  970-641-2337

Western Slope Conservation Center, Paonia River Park  970-527-5307


Hiking Mt. Lamborn, Delta County’s highest point. Photo by Elaine Brett.

Within 15 Miles of Downtown Hotchkiss

Jumbo Mountain

Paonia River Park

Black Canyon NP

Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area

Needle Rock/Smith Fork

Youngs Peak (“C Hill”)

Mount Lamborn


Fall hike in Roubideau Canyon. Photo by Elaine Brett.

Within 30 Miles of Downtown Hotchkiss

Roubideau Area (Camel Back Wilderness Study Area)

Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area

Crags Crest Trail

Adobe Badlands Wilderness Study Area

Curecanti National Recreation Area

Dark Canyon

Lost Lake-Three Lakes Trail

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