Wheel on over!
This easy four-mile hike follows an ATV trail from the Escalante Boat Ramp, along the Gunnison River, to an old homestead and ends at the last remaining waterwheel on the Gunnison River.
Starting mainly after the Civil War, Anglo-American colonists began settling in Ute lands (Nuuciuweep in the Ute language). This included the lands along the Gunnison River, which was fertile bottomland. Although a treaty in 1868 promised to maintain all of Colorado for the Utes, by 1881 the Ute Removal Act had been passed and forced virtually all Utes off of this rich farming area, allowing mainly white settlers to take up occupancy on the forcibly vacated land.
After the 1881 Ute Removal Act, development in western Colorado stepped up. The Denver and Rio Grande Western had a route planned along the Gunnison River as far back as 1879, but after the removal act, they were able to act quickly, establishing a rail line along the banks of the Gunnison River, and finally connected to Grand Junction in 1890. This allowed the formerly isolated farmers along the Gunnison to quickly get their crops (alfalfa/mellons/fruit) to market in Grand Junction and further afield.
The waterwheel is significant since it represents the last surviving example of a waterwheel along the Gunnison River. These waterwheels were vital for watering the crops that farmers were planting in the rich but dry soil above the river. These waterwheels used buckets to haul water up out of the river and into canals that were dug to supply the fields and were generally constructed of wood. During the 1920s, massive floods wracked the Colorado River Basin, including along the Gunnison River. A railroad bridge near Bridgeport was destroyed, derailing a train and killing several passengers. Farms were swept away, other farmers were forced into bankruptcy. Many farms consolidated during the aftermath. The current waterwheel was built in the 1930s as part of the recovery. It is made of metal and uses car gas cans as its scoops. It no longer turns but it serves as a reminder of how agriculture flourished before the days of the electrical pump on the Gunnison River.
The hike is straightforward. From the Escalante Boat Ramp, walk across the bridge and turn left on the ATV track that heads south along the Gunnison River's west bank. The trail follows the river for almost a mile before veering off and climbing up a gravel embankment, deposited during the Ice Age when the Gunnison River was much larger and hadn't eroded as far as today!
This stretch above the bluff is easy going on the ATV trail, crossing the flats across from Rattlesnake Canyon (the gash seen in the eastern canyon walls). The trail drops back down a gravel bank, passes by some old fields (that are hard to notice) on the left, and then climbs two low ridges before arriving at the waterwheel overlook, approximately 2 miles after leaving the parking area at the boat ramp.
From here most people return to the trailhead the way they came, but it is possible to follow the old canal line from the waterwheel past a grove of cottonwoods before returning to the trail. Alternately with more time or a different transport method, you can continue along the ATV trail all the way to the town of Delta.
The Gunnison River if you're desperate, but bring your own.
Possible but not done frequently.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.