Autumn Cottonwoods on Colorado’s Gunnison River

October 27, 2023

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Photographer: Ray Boren  

Summary Author: Ray Boren 

The course of western Colorado’s Gunnison River becomes a golden-yellow ribbon when the tall, deciduous narrowleaf cottonwoods (Populus angustifolia) and thick willows along its banks don their fall colors, as illustrated in this photograph, taken on October 8, 2023. A fisherman is trying his luck below a bridge over the stream, beside the Riverway picnic and access area on the east side of Curecanti National Recreation Area. A National Park Service unit, Curecanti encompasses much of the river and multiple reservoirs between the towns of Gunnison and Montrose, along U.S. Highway 50.

The Gunnison flows here through farms and ranchland pastures, providing an invitingly moist riparian zone for the cottonwoods. The trees in turn establish strong roots that help stabilize the riverbank, and also provide shade, shelter and nutrients, allowing other plants to thrive, from willows to serviceberries and wild roses. When the shorter days and frosty temperatures of autumn arrive, the long, finely serrated leaves of the cottonwoods stop producing greening chlorophyll through photosynthesis, revealing their rich yellow carotenoid pigments, and begin to fall.

The Gunnison River and a nearby town are named for a 19th-century U.S. Army officer and government explorer, John Williams Gunnison. The river — Colorado’s second-largest by volume — flows generally west for 180 miles (290 km), from the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. The upper Gunnison is impounded by several dams before carving a remarkably deep chasm at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and then slicing through the mesas of the Uncompaghre Plateau. Ultimately the tributary merges with the Colorado River at Grand Junction, where it almost doubles the Colorado’s volume, according to the Western Rivers Conservancy.


Curecanti National Recreational Area, Colorado Coordinates: 38.454722-107.326944

Related Links:

Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison 

Wyoming’s Bridger Basin Badlands 

Autumn Reflections