Located along the upper stretches of the Gunnison River, the Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest man-made lake in Colorado. This artificial reservoir possesses a total surface area of 9,180 acres. It not only ranks as the largest reservoir in Colorado but also the largest lake located entirely inside the state. The reservoir contains some of the best trout and kokanee salmon fishing in Colorado. It also features breathtaking scenery that’s sure to impress even the most experienced nature enthusiasts.
The Blue Mesa Reservoir was formed due to the creation of the 390-foot-tall Blue Mesa Dam. Several waterways feed into the reservoir, including the Gunnison River, Soap Creek, and Cebolla Creek. Historically, the Blue Mesa Reservoir contained a massive amount of water. At full pool, its surface elevation reached 7,519 feet. A synonym for full capacity, “full pool” represents the highest water level a reservoir can contain without overflowing. When at full capacity, the reservoir can hold 940,800 acre-feet of water and sports a maximum depth of 310 feet. However, persistent years of low rainfall have led to historically low water levels in the reservoir. Despite its low water levels, with over 96 miles of shoreline, there’s still plenty of lake for visitors to enjoy.
Blue Mesa Reservoir is a hidden gem nestled amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The National Park Service manages recreational facilities on the reservoir out of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Other attractions in the area include the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the West Elk Wilderness, part of the Gunnison National Forest.
The wide variety of habitats and protected areas means that the reservoir and surrounding landscape support many kinds of animals. The reservoir contains rich stocks of trout and kokanee salmon. Other fish commonly found in the reservoir include yellow perch, white sucker, and longnose dace. The surrounding area also teems with birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals throughout the year. If you enjoy watersports and boating, you can access the lake from 2 marinas, 5 boat ramps, and numerous other access points. Visitors can also take advantage of camping sites, trails, visitor centers, and beaches along the shoreline.
History of Blue Mesa Reservoir
The idea for the Blue Mesa Reservoir stemmed from a dire need for better water management in the western United States. Disputes over water rights to the Colorado River and its major tributaries in the early 20th century prompted authorities to take action. In response, the US Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act. The act gave the Secretary of the Interior the power to complete water maintenance projects across the Colorado River Basin.
In 1956, the US Bureau of Reclamation began planning the part of the project focused on the Gunnison River. Overall, the project entailed the construction of four dams along the river east of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Construction on the first dam, Blue Mesa Dam, started in 1962 and finished in 1966. The 390-foot-tall earthen fill dam created the Blue Mesa Reservoir within the zone of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Agents of the National Parks Service were tasked with maintaining recreational facilities on the lake and its surroundings.
The creation of the reservoir buried several towns, ranches, and fishing resorts under dozens or hundreds of feet of water. In addition to Blue Mesa Dam, the US Bureau of Reclamation also constructed two other reservoirs along the Gunnison in the area. These smaller reservoirs – Morrow Point Reservoir and Crystal Reservoir – both lie within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Authorities created the Blue Mesa Reservoir primarily to better manage water access to the Colorado River. That said, the reservoir also helps control flooding and provides water storage, while the Blue Mesa Dam generates hydroelectric power for the region. Incidentally, the reservoir also transformed the area into one of the prime recreation spots in central Colorado. The reservoir offers numerous recreational opportunities, including boating, fishing, camping, hiking, and hunting. You can access the reservoir by boat from the Elk Creek and Lake Fork marinas off US Highway 50. The reservoir also features 8 campgrounds, some of which accommodate RVs and offer electrical hookups.
In addition to recreational activities, Blue Mesa Reservoir also features some of the best trout and kokanee salmon fishing in Colorado. The reservoir is stocked with several trout species, including rainbow, brown, and lake trout, as well as yellow perch, white sucker, and longnose dace. Each year the reservoir is stocked with hundreds of thousands of trout and millions of fingerling kokanee. You can also ice fish in certain sections of the reservoir during the winter.
Blue Mesa Reservoir Geography
The Blue Mesa Reservoir resides on the upper reaches of the Gunnison River in Gunnison County, Colorado. The river flows into the reservoir on its eastern border and is contained by the Blue Mesa Dam on the reservoir’s western border. Several smaller waterways also feed into the reservoir. These include Cebolla Creek and Soap Creek, both of which reside in difficult-to-access sections of the reservoir’s deep arms. In total, the reservoir contains three main basins. From east to west, they go by the names the Iola, the Cebolla, and the Sapinero.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park lies to the west of the reservoir, while the West Elk Wilderness – part of the Gunnison National Forest – lies to the north. Given that the reservoir lies within the Rocky Mountains, much of the landscape surrounding the reservoir is mountainous terrain covered by evergreen and deciduous forests. While most of the reservoir’s shoreline is rocky, it does feature several sandy beaches.
Where Is Blue Mesa Reservoir Located on a Map?
U.S. Highway 50 follows much of the reservoir and crosses it at the Lake City Bridge, approximately 7 miles west of the city of Gunnison. It crosses the reservoir again via the Middle Bridge before continuing toward the dam. The small town of Sepinero lies on the reservoir’s southern shore, just 1.5 miles east of the Blue Mesa Dam. The dam is situated 30 miles west of Gunnison and 30 miles east of Montrose.
Blue Mesa Reservoir Reviews
The vast majority of people who visit Blue Mesa Reservoir report having a positive experience with the lake. Most reviews mention the beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. While the water can get cold, people report the beaches are warm in the summer, and the water is perfect for dogs or hardy swimmers. The reservoir offers plenty of opportunities for scenic hiking and great fishing, which makes it an angler’s dream. Moreover, even when busy, Blue Mesa Reservoir does not feel overly crowded. This makes it easy to feel like you’re getting away into nature, even when visiting a man-made lake.
The negative reviews of Blue Mesa Reservoir vary regarding their grievances. Overall, most negative reviews complain that the water levels in the lake have been low in recent years. The low water level stems from insufficient ice packs in the mountains and rainfall, so you can’t exactly blame the lake for this. Some other reviewers commented that the nearby Curecanti National Recreational Area Visitor Center needs repairs and updates.
Finally, some reviewers state that – while they enjoyed visiting the lake – they would have enjoyed their trip more if they got out in the water to fish or boat. As with anything, your experience with the Blue Mesa Reservoir will vary depending on your expectations. If you enjoy simply appreciating nature, you’ll likely love simply walking the trails around the lake or lying on its beaches. If you prefer more engaging activities, consider renting or taking a boat out on the lake to navigate its waters or fish.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/PK Visual Journeys
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- , Available here: https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/as-the-blue-mesa-reservoir-dries-out-a-forgotten-small-town-reemerges/
- , Available here: https://www.nps.gov/blca/learn/nature/animals.htm