Colorado’s North Fork Valley is transitioning from coal mining to outdoor recreation—and the local community is reaping the benefits.
As snow melts off the West Elk Mountains, something new is happening at their feet in the North Fork Valley. Western Slope SUP, the river outfitting service I started two years ago, is preparing to offer its first guided whitewater rafting tour on the North Fork of the Gunnison River, cradled between the Grand Mesa and the West Elk Mountains. In the town of Somerset, the river quietly passes the remains of 100-year-old coal mines. These abandoned mines used to support the people of the North Fork Valley, but in 2016, two of the three mines shut down, causing great economic hardship. Lifelong neighbors moved out of the valley in search of work while remaining businesses have had to work a little harder to survive.
I came to the North Fork at the peak of economic collapse. My seven-year river guiding career had taken me around the world, but this valley captured my attention. It appeared to me as a post-apocalyptic wonderland. Vacant buildings crowd the main streets, but there were also blooming cherry trees, a 12,000-foot skyline and three rivers full of potential.
The North Fork of the Gunnison is fed by Anthracite Creek, and confluences with the Gunnison River at its terminus. Fun class II and III waters course through the upper valley, and calmly cut a deep canyon downstream in the Gunnison Gorge. Since I was the only boat on the water day after day, the idea of starting a river guiding service here made sense to me.
Western Slope SUP was a sign of change for the Valley. Amid the collapse of the mining industry, our local outdoor industry is emerging. This year, a geology and wine tour service is starting up in Paonia alongisde a cyclery offering tours and rentals. A fishing outfitter guides the gold medal waters of the Gunnison River. The countryside is dotted with orchards and wineries. The North Fork Valley has long been overlooked as an outdoor adventure destination, but things are slowly changing.