So, you’ve probably heard: This year will not be the best year to tame the bucking, bruising beasts that are Colorado’s famed whitewater rapids. A historically low snowpack and an early runoff mean that river recreators and outfitters must manage their expectations, prep for an early season and call this “the year of family rafting” to support a milder season. Which means one thing: Hit the water now! Don’t waste any time, and support this pivotal industry when it needs it most.
But you’ll likely need help picking a river ride that suits your fancy. We’ve offered up 10 great river rides for you to try. Or check out the brand-new website raftingcolorado.net for a comprehensive guide to Colorado’s gentle giants and wild rapids.
Short but oh so sweet on the Arkansas
The Arkansas holds some of the state’s most iconic, feared and beloved rapids. Numbers is one such icon. A half-day trip down Numbers is only 6 miles, but it’s a lot of action per mile. Come prepared to have a guide scream bloody murder at you. With nearly continuous whitewater, this series of rocky and steep drops is a very technical ride and requires precise paddling. In the shadow of the Collegiate Peaks, you’ll be paddling for dear life…and loving every minute of it. If you want to extend the trip, make it a full-day excursion and experience what is called “the ultimate whitewater adventure”—begin above Numbers in the Pine Creek stretch of the Arkansas, which drops 200 feet in less than a mile. It’s intense, so come emotionally and physically ready for some activity and a potential swim in the drink.
Good for: Experienced rafters
City: Near Buena Vista
Min age: 16 to 18 depending on outfitter
2. South Platte
A kayaker’s paddle playland
There is something entirely special about urban whitewater. It can also be said that the South Platte and its play parks give an special feel to the Denver area. Over 15 miles, paddlers can go from Chatfield Dam’s South Platte Park all the way to Confluence Park in the heart of Denver. This section of the South Platte leads through various community parks and past the city’s most famous landmarks (i.e. Elitch’s). The mild water of the South Platte is only interrupted by a few small rapids and various whitewater play parks, which includes downtown’s Confluence Park.
Good For: Kayakers
Min age: Kayaking experience recommended
Tubers unite in Boulder’s famed waterway
Tubing Boulder Creek is a milestone in any local’s life. The Boulder Creek Path parallels the creek, so hop on and off as you please. Tubers should drop in down from the Eben G. Fine whitewater park during high water, or you’ll get heavier whitewater than you’re probably looking for (class II-III rapids). Here, flows are best from May to early July. The creek is not always a super mellow ride, and you’ll likely fall out, so don’t wear flip flops, string bikinis or lose jewelry. They’ll likely become sacrifices to the whitewater gods.
Good For: Tubes, kayaks and river boards
Min age: 13
A perfect day-trip just up I-70
The nice thing about Clear Creek is you can choose how extreme you want to go. Starting in the Lawson/Dumont area, heading through Idaho Springs and running nearly to Golden, the action can range from technical and dangerous to a fun, family friendly ride fit for those as young as 7. It’s an intimate creek that provides some heart-thumping, adrenaline fueled adventures. If you’re up for an advanced full-day trip, you’ll hit 30 major rapids over 18 miles. At the bottom stretch, you’ll earn your stripes on some class IV and V rapids with names like Hell’s Corner, Terminator and Corkscrew. If you prefer something simpler, enjoy the upper section of the creek with sizable but manageable whitewater, and check out a bit of urban rafting as you make your way through Idaho Springs. The biggest bonus is just how close Clear Creek is to the Front Range, a mere 30 minutes drive from Denver.
Good For: Rafters and kayakers who want something close to home.
City: Near Idaho Springs
Min age: Depending on the section you tackle, from 7 to 16
5. St. Vrain River
A lazy river through Lyons
Before or after a trip to Oskar Blues, tube or kayak down the St. Vrain. It’s a mellow ride that entertains adult and child alike. Stop by the Lyons Conoco or the tire dealership to pick up a tube. You can put in just upstream of Planet Bluegrass at the Apple Valley Bridge or downstream near Bohn or Meadow parks.
Good For: Tubers or kayakers
Min age: Little ones are OK in medium and low water levels, if they can swim and are wearing a life jacket.
Head north for a wild and scenic adventure
Knowing the Poudre River is officially designated as a “national wild and scenic” river (it’s the only one in Colorado), you can understand what you are getting into. It’s also a bit out of the spotlight that’s shines on the Arkansas. So, head north and pick a Fort Collins outfitter and select a trip. You can experience whitewater-lite on a 2-hour trip with the family on the Poudre or you can go big with a full-day trip packed with continuous class III and IV rapids on the Upper Poudre, which ensures you’ll walk away drenched. Depending on the trip, you may get to experience the Mishawaka Falls section of the river, with some solid drops and major rapids. The Cache la Poudre River offers truly gorgeous views of rocky peaks and wooded hillsides and some wild rides.
Good For: Families, experienced rafters and seasoned kayakers.
City: Drop in near Rustic
Min age: 7 for easier trips, 13 to 18 for more difficult sections of the river
7. Gunnison Gorge
Anglers, rafters and kayakers rejoice
In Almont, the Taylor and East rivers meet to form the Gunnison, which then takes on different personalities: calm and serene, wild, dangerous and inaccessible. Several outfitters will take you through the beautiful Gunnison Gorge, which is a 14-mile section with rapids that range from class II to IV and views of Precambrian rock formations and a black granite gorge. Gunnison Gorge is a treasure trove for anglers as well. If you want something calmer, float closer to Gunnison and Crested Butter for a mellow run amidst stellar mountain views. Miles downstream of the town of Gunnison is the hard-to-access Black Canyon section of the Gunnison. It’s considered un-raftable and is recommended for expert kayakers only. Closer to Delta and Montrose, find easy floating through the Dominguez-Escalante Canyon.
Good for: Rafters and kayakers of all abilities
Min age: All ages in easier sections of the river
A landmark from the water, oh, and crazy rapids
Maybe you’ve experienced the Royal Gorge from away above its raging waters. Or you’ve sat in the train that soars against the canyon wall. But rafting the Royal Gorge is a totally different kind of attraction. It’s a surreal experience—with spectacular views of granite walls, big rapids, crashing waves and water all up in your grill. It’s a technical trip with some deep, powerful drops, but the Royal Gorge is a must for adventure-seekers. Not as demanding as Numbers, this is still one of the more raucous rides in Colorado. Royal Gorge’s rapids includes the Boat Eater and Wall Slammer… Gulp.
Good For: Experienced rafters and all-around bad asses
City: Near Canon City
Min age: 14