Friday, September 11, 2015

East Portal and Gunnison Tunnel, 9/09/2015

Today we explored the East Portal area of the Curecanti National Recreation Area that borders the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The East Portal Road is on the right immediately after you pass through the entry point of the Black Canyon. The road is extremely steep with hairpin curves and 16% grades. Vehicles over 22 feet in length and trailers are prohibited.  

The road leads down to the Gunnison River and the Tunnel that was built for irrigation in the early 1900s. We pulled over for a quick photo opportunity as we began the drive down to the river.

One of the highlights of our day was spotting this black bear cub on a steep incline near the road. He was in shade so the photos are not too good, but what a thrill to see this beautiful animal in the wild!

The road leads to the Gunnison Tunnel that was built between 1905 and 1909. The purpose of the tunnel was to divert water from the Gunnison River to the arid fields of the Uncompahgre Valley to the west. After surveying the Black Canyon (very dangerous work that began in the 1890s), a site was initially selected three miles upriver in the Narrows. Because of the difficulty in reaching that location, this spot was ultimately selected.

The tunnel measures 11' x 12" and is approximately six miles long. It was built by digging (using drills and dynamite) from both sides and meeting in the middle. Electric trains were used to remove debris from the tunnel. This was a significant engineering feat at the time. 

President Taft dedicated the tunnel in 1909 in a festive event in Montrose, CO. At the time it was the largest irrigation tunnel in the world. Construction of it was made possible by the Reclamation Act of 1902. 

The Diversion Dam (shown below), the concrete lining of the tunnel, and finishing the ditch system (to further distribute the water to farms for irrigation) in the Uncompaghre Valley were completed in 1912. Although it is mostly covered by trees, the small building on the right is the location of the tunnel. 


Water is normally diverted to the tunnel April through October. The tunnel is inspected annually in the winter. The original parts to open/close the tunnel are still operational today. 

Below is a map that shows the location of the tunnel and surrounding area.

We continued down the East Portal Road to the Crystal Dam. This is one of three dams that creates the reservoirs in the Curecanti National Recreation Area and manages the flow of the Gunnison River.

We stopped several times to enjoy the beautiful landscape along the river. Sadie went for a swim (the water is really cold!) but was careful not to go too far from shore where the current is still swift. The dams upriver have reduced the flow of the river to about 1/5 of its original volume. 

For additional information about this part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, please see there website.


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