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Sapphire Route

Gunnison Pioneer Museum

In 1964, with the purpose of preserving its pioneer history, the Gunnison County Pioneer and Historical Society began acquiring collections. Today, they are extensive and artfully displayed on landscaped grounds at the east end of town.

The museum includes an authentic railroad depot, narrow gauge train, water tank, a turn-of-the-century farmhouse filled with artifacts and a schoolhouse complete with desks, chalk boards and photographs. Also on display are antique cars and wagons, ranching machinery and a dairy barn. Information and exhibits are located in outlying buildings and in the interpretive center, which features an impressive collection of arrowheads and spear points.


In 1893, Almont became a resort boasting health-restoring waters, an excellent climate and great fishing. The town had a post office, a railroad depot and a zinc mine that operated during World War I. At an annual fish fry in 1940, 10,000 guests turned out to hear Wendell Wilkie, a Republican presidential candidate, announce his campaign.

Today, Almont remains much as it was at the turn of the century - a collection of small cabins on the Taylor and East Rivers. It is a popular summer resort with great fishing at the crossroads of two spectacular river valleys.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Early explorers were confounded by this incredible, 2,000- foot deep chasm. The canyon was named after Captain John Gunnison who explored the area in 1853.

The eastern-most portion of this 48-mile long canyon contains two fjord-like reservoirs within Curecanti National Recreation Area; downstream of that lies 14 miles of the deepest and most breathtaking stretch of the canyon within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; the final 14 river miles are within the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area (NCA)

The NCA encompasses diverse and scenic landscapes along the Gunnison River. Within the NCA, the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness provides a dramatic and challenging setting for whitewater boating, Gold Medal trout fishing, hiking, backpacking, and wildlife photography. Other areas within the NCA offer a multitude of trails and primitive roads for hiking or for your OHV, mountain bike, or horse.

Access to the NCA is possible from Hwy 50 on the west side and from Hwy 92 on the east side. Due to the primitive nature of roads and seasonal closures, visitors should call BLM for information prior to their trip. Special regulations and fees apply in the Wilderness.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The North Rim is accessed via a signed turn-off on Highway 92, two miles south of Crawford. An 11-mile road (the last five miles are unpaved and closed in winter) climbs through ranching country to the canyon's rim. Your first stop should be the ranger station, where an orientation map is available.

Hikes into the inner-canyon are extremely strenuous and require a permit. The moderately difficult North Vista Trail follows the rim to Exclamation Point, which offers one of the most dramatic views to the river. Several easy trails along the rim drive lead to marked over-looks that provide breathtaking views of the canyon. The North Rim is especially popular with expert rock climbers, who are drawn to its sheer, high cliffs. A campground is located near the ranger station.

The South Rim, accessed from Highway 50 east of Montrose, offers additional overlooks. A visitor center is open year around.

Curecanti National Recreation Area

South of Crawford on Highway 92, past the ranching community of Maher and Gould Reservoir, the Loop skirts Black Mesa while climbing to the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This fjord-like setting is home to Crystal and Morrow Point Reservoirs, which are part of Curecanti National Recreation Area. 

Picnic tables are available at Pioneer Point and trails lead to overlooks of the Curecanti Needle, Morrow Point Reservoir and Curecanti Creek. Beginning in 1882, narrow-gauge steam engines chugged their way along the canyon bottom pulling their loads of supplies and travelers between Gunnison and Montrose. "The Scenic Line of the World" was abandoned in 1949 and the 469-foot high Morrow Point Dam was completed in 1967.

The turnoff for Soap Creek leads to campgrounds and trailheads for the National Recreation Area, the National Forest and the West Elk Wilderness. 

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Blue Mesais the centerpiece of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. It is the largest body of water in Colorado. Highway 92 crosses the 342-foot high Blue Mesa Dam, finished in 1965. The reservoir is 20 miles long and has 96 miles of shoreline. Curecanti provides opportunities for summer and winter activities. Marinas and visitor centers are available at Lake Fork and Elk Creek. An anglers' paradise, the waters are rich in kokanee salmon, and rainbow, brown and lake trout.


Submerged beneath the deep water of Blue Mesa Reservoir are the remnants of Sapinero, a town built near the mouth of the Black Canyon. Founded in 1881, Sapinero served as an end-of-the-line camp for the westward push of Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. The town is named for a sub-chief of the Utes, a brother-in-law to Chief Ouray. Sapinero featured two hotels, the Rainbow and Sapinero, plus a mercantile store.

The Dillon Pinnacles, on the north side of the reservoir, are the remnants of massive mudslides from the West Elk volcanos.

Crested Butte

"Wildflower Capital of the Colorado"

The charming western Victorian town of Crested Butte nestles in a wide glaciated valley, surrounded by spectacular peaks. Crested Butte is known for friendly people, great arts, and abundant recreation enjoyed during the long snowy winters, spectacular wildflower summers and vivid golden autumns.

In the 1860s, hopeful gold and silver miners found their way north to the valleys and gulches of the upper East River valley. Some met an unfortunate fate at the hands of unwelcoming Ute Indians, while hard rock mining camps sprang up throughout the surrounding mountains. Crested Butte became a prominent supply depot, lumber producer and smelting center.

Crested Butte prospered initially from silver mining, but high quality coking-coal gave it staying power into the 1950’s. Remnants of the coke ovens can still be seen on the east side of Big Mine Park at Third and Belleview, near the skate park and ice rink.

After the closing of the last coal mine in 1952, Crested Butte struggled through uncertain years and the population dwindled. In the early 1960s, Crested Butte was revived as a ski area, establishing recreation and tourism as the new economy. Preserving a rich history and opportunities for outdoor recreation are big priorities, as evidenced by the unpretentious authenticity of Crested Butte's National Historic District and the miles of trails through acres of protected open space surrounding the town.

New and old blend in interesting ways; Beside those remnants where the coke ovens once stood at Big Mine Park, a public skateboard park and Frisbee golf course entertain all summer and fall. Hockey rules the covered ice rink come wintertime, alongside a great sledding hill and renowned Nordic ski center managing over 55 km of trails. (970-349-1707).

The telemark ski turn was popularized in Crested Butte during the early 1970s and has continued to grow and flourish as an alternative method of downhill skiing. There are more telemark skiers per capita in Crested Butte than any other ski town. A weeklong Telemark Ski Festival celebrates the sport.

Crested Butte is the Colorado birthplace of mountain biking. The oldest mountain bike event in the world starts from Crested Butte every September - The Pearl Pass Tour to Aspen. Explore the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame housed inside Crested Butte's Mountain Heritage Museum. The museum is located in Tony's Conoco, a restored storefront at Elk Avenue and Fourth Street. Enjoy the self-guided walking tour of historic sites throughout town.

Recreation Along the Byway

Opportunities abound for a wide range of recreational activities along the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway: hiking, road/mountain/motor biking, horseback riding, camping, fishing, hunting, photography, wildlife and wildflower viewing, golf, tennis, rock climbing, kayaking, rafting, sailing, swimming, windsurfing, pleasure boating, ice fishing, ice skating, ice climbing, snowshoeing, alpine/telemark/cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and don't forget shopping for antiques and collectibles in numerous towns and shops along the Byway.


East of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the Gunnison River passes through a narrow canyon, then meanders into an open valley with the City of Gunnison at its center. Hay meadows, intermixed with rolling hills of sage and bitter- brush, join the grasslands on the edges of town. These hills connect to pine-forested mountains surrounding the entire Gunnison Basin. Spectacular views of the West Elk and Fossil Ridge Wilderness Areas and the Continental Divide can be seen from town.

Placer gold and silver mines lured thousands of hardy miners seeking their fortune to the area in the 1860s through 1880s. The cattle industry prospered with the turn of the 20th Century, and many Gunnison ranches remain in operation today. It isn't unusual to encounter a cattle drive along the Byway during spring and fall while in Gunnison County.

Gunnison is home to Western State College, a four-year institution offering Bachelor of Arts and Science degrees. You can't drive into Gunnison without noticing the huge “W” on Tenderfoot Mountain just south of town.

Gunnison attracts sportsmen year around and has an active summer visitor season. Fairs, recreational events, arts festivals, college conferences and community programs fill a busy summer calendar. Cattlemen's Days Rodeo, one of the oldest rodeos in Colorado, turns Gunnison into a cowboy's dream for an entire week every July.

Gunnison's two main streets are very wide, and if you're traveling through during winter you might observe “windrows,” a center divider made of snow in the middle of the street. Tomichi Avenue (Highway 50) and Main Street (Highway 135) were constructed to handle “windrows” during the winter months.

Kebler Pass


The 30-mile Kebler Pass road follows Coal Creek west from Crested Butte and climbs gradually past the old Keystone Mine. The pass is named for J. A. Kebler of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which mined coal in the region.

The graveled road follows the old Rio Grande Railroad grade toward Kebler Pass and the once booming mining camps of Irwin and Ruby, the lumber camp of Telco and the coal mining town of Floresta.

Only skiers and snowmobilers can travel through the deep snows.

          If you plan to snowmobile the Kebler Pass Road, please remember the following:

          - Do not snowmobile on plowed roads. Drive,

          park and unload at the Kebler Pass

          Trailhead (2 miles west of Crested Butte) or

          at the Watson Flats Trailhead (2 miles south

          of Erickson Springs).

          - Observe and obey the posted speed limits

          for the Kebler Pass Road.

          - Travel single-file on the right side of the

          groomed road corridor.

At the top of the pass, a road forks left toward Ohio Pass and Gunnison. The West Elk Loop goes straight over Kebler Pass and into the Anthracite Creek drainage, meeting Highway 133 at the Paonia Dam. The Irwin Cemetery is located on top of the pass and includes the grave of Mary Bambrough, who died in 1881 of scarlet fever at age 17. A poem adorns her grave marker.

Four miles from Kebler Pass to the north is beautiful Lake Irwin, set beneath the mountain peaks of Ruby and Owen. A Forest Service campground is on one end of the lake and the Irwin Lodge stands above it.

West of Kebler Pass is a prominent rock formation called "The Dike." This igneous intrusion stands as a wall just north of the highway where it adjoins 12,644-foot Ruby Peak. Laccoliths, dome-shaped bulges of igneous rock, are prominent in the northern West Elks.

As the pass descends toward Paonia, the road cuts through one of the largest contiguous aspen stands in the world. The aspen tree is a unique organism that produces clones from common root systems and reproduces rapidly to cover vast areas. This forest is made up of many thousands of clone colonies. The aspen leaves turn bright yellow with hints of orange and red in autumn, creating a brilliant mosaic. The oakbrush turn orange, red and russet to complement the scene.