Choosing a River for Whitewater Rafting in Colorado
You want to go river rafting in Colorado! Good choice. Whitewater rafting in Colorado is one of the most popular summer outdoor activities. There are many rivers in the state where river rafting is available, but how do you choose which river for your adventure?
Denver and Colorado Springs are the two most populous cities in Colorado, and are also the most popular gateway cities for people traveling to Colorado, whether flying or driving. Among the many rivers in Colorado, the two rivers most visited for white water rafting in Colorado just happen to also be the two closest to these cities, the Arkansas River and Clear Creek. The popularity of these rivers for rafting is in large part due to their proximity to the Front Range cities as well as the amazing variety of scenery and rafting opportunities to be found.
The Arkansas River is the number one choice of rafting rivers in the United States, and possibly the world! Sporting the longest season for rafting in Colorado, the Arkansas River has rafting available from mid-March through mid-October. The Arkansas River corridor comprises the lengthiest state park in Colorado, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, at almost 150 miles of Colorado white water rafting adventure.
Arkansas River rafting near Colorado Springs and Denver has something for everyone. From family raft trips floating on gentle sections of the river to genuinely challenging adventures, raft trips are available from an hour or two to half-day, full-day, and even as long as three-day overnight trips. The lower portion of the Arkansas river near Canon City is only 45 miles from Colorado Springs and a scenic two-hour drive from Denver and has the advantage of the best water levels, typically warmer and drier weather, the longest season, and the great rapids of Bighorn Sheep Canyon for beginners and family rafting in Colorado. And…the amazing world-class whitewater of the world-famous Royal Gorge for the real adventure seekers!
If you’re specifically looking for whitewater rafting near Denver, Clear Creek is conveniently situated just west of Denver along I-70 in Idaho Springs. Clear Creek is a very different style of river from the Arkansas. White water rafting, Idaho Springs style, is on a steep, narrow, fast moving and mostly continuous river. Due to terrain limitations (it gets too steep and fast!) trips are generally limited to fast-paced one-third to one-half day outings. Clear Creek is a mountain-fed river and consequently depends on snowpack and weather for its water. Due to the elevation and location the best times for rafting Clear Creek are typically late May to mid-August. As you are enjoying the scenic mountain mining area plan on getting wet on the crystal-clear water if you choose Clear Creek rafting!
Whatever river you choose for white water rafting in Colorado, you can feel confident you and your family or group will have a memorable Colorado adventure with scenery and adventure to stay with you long after you go home.
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6 Places to Go White Water Rafting in Colorado
Aimee is a Colorado native with nearly 20 years of experience as a professional journalist. She is the head writer and editor for TravelBoulder.com.
White water rafting is a favorite pastime in Colorado. The season lasts from April through October, centering around when the warmth melts the snow on the mountains (May and June, mostly), raising water levels and, subsequently, the speed of the current.
Colorado has about 30 main white water rafting areas, so a nearby river and professional outfitter is not hard to find. Popular rafting cities include Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Vail, Fort Collins, and southwestern cities like Durango and Buena Vista. Depending on where you go, you can find any level of difficulty, from Class I to Class VI (which is rarely attempted). Make sure to do your research before picking a guide and certainly don’t attempt white water rafting Colorado’s rapids on your own.
The Colorado River is one of the state’s (nay, the country’s) most famous rivers. First off, this massive, 1,450-mile-long river stretches through seven different states and two more in Mexico. It’s the one responsible for cutting the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
This is one of the best white water destinations in the U.S. While the most famous stretch is in the Grand Canyon, itself, rafting the Colorado in Colorado is also a must-try. The river spills through different canyons with jaw-dropping views, spanning both wild rapids and slick, calm stretches, making it a good fit for all levels of experience. Breckenridge, Grand Junction, and Glenwood Springs are popular jump-off points.
The Arkansas River has a crazy 5,000-foot drop within a 125-mile span, but don’t let that scare you. This popular river is appropriate for anyone, boasting Class I to Class V ratings. Its proximity to Denver makes it easily accessible, too. The views here are downright incredible, especially where it meets the Royal Gorge.
For a Royal Gorge adventure, Echo Canyon River Expeditions claims to be the leading white water destination resort in central Colorado. The 40-plus-year-old company offers all kinds of rafting adventures, from family floats on smooth waters to adventurous rides, as well as places to stay and eat.
For a full getaway, stay in glamping tents or luxury cabins at Royal Gorge Cabins. These are the first ever luxury accommodations located close to the famous gorge and river; the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is only about four miles from the cabins.
Clear Creek stands out for its convenience. It’s close to Denver, right off I-70, the highway that leads to the ski resorts of Vail and Breckenridge. But though it’s close to the highway, it feels remote. You’ll likely run across the resident bighorn sheep and beavers during your adventure.
Clear Creek Rafting Co. offers day trips from mid-May through mid- to late-August. You can find all levels of rafting here, from beginner patches appropriate for kids to adventurous challenges up to Class V and some of the toughest rapids you might dare conquer, despite the water’s humble and disarming “creek” designation. Head to the former mining town of Idaho Springs for a good starting point.
Roaring Fork River
Roaring Fork River is a super-convenient stopover from Aspen or Carbondale and it packs major adventure. The top part of the river is called Slaughterhouse, (a pretty ominous nickname, and for a reason). These rapids are extreme. But the payoff is worth it. Here, you will find one of the state’s rare commercially rafted waterfalls.
Roaring Fork starts at 12,000 feet above sea level on the stunning Independence Pass. You can also set off farther downstream for a milder ride. Kayaking is popular in the lower waters.
In total, Roaring Fork winds about 70 miles and drains into the Roaring Fork Valley, ending in Glenwood Springs. Wrap up your water adventure by taking a dip in Glenwood’s famous natural hot springs.
Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande River (meaning “big river” in Spanish) is the nation’s fifth largest river, stretching 1,760 miles in Colorado alone. It runs through the scenic San Juan Mountains all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The “upper box” portion of the river is best for experienced rafters—Classes III through IV—but the lower stretch is much milder and more family-friendly. A popular launching point is the small, historic city of Creede. As with many mountain towns, this was founded as a mining town.
If you are visiting the cheerful mountain town of Steamboat Springs in the summer, a tour down the Yampa River is essential. The Yampa River runs right past the ski village’s restaurants and bars, and it even winds through the exciting Dinosaur National Monument. As the name implies, this area is packed with dinosaur remains that you can see in the rocks—it’s a white water trip with an ancient bend.
Another thing that makes the Yampa so unique is it is one of the last, free-flowing tributary rivers on the Colorado River and the only free-flowing river in the state, which means it isn’t obstructed by dams and diversions. The Yampa is just over 260 miles long, and you can find rafting trips for all levels of experience, including some major challenges for the adrenaline junkie.
While you can easily find an outfitter just by walking through downtown Steamboat, one highly recommended way to arrange a rafting trip is through Moving Mountains’ concierge services.
8 Best Rivers to Raft in Colorado
The Rocky Mountains are well known for the epic whitewater rivers they produce, and Colorado boasts its fair share of top places to raft. From the Arkansas River to the Animas, there are more than a dozen commercially rafted rivers.
We’re highlighting some of the most popular and best rivers for whitewater rafting in Colorado. You can find these bodies of water in all corners of the Rockies. The main whitewater rafting season is from around June to September, depending on conditions. The earlier in the season the more fierce the whitewater because of the resulting snowmelt.
There are floats for everyone on these rivers, from novice and first-timers, to seasoned adrenaline junkies and families looking for a thrill. You can choose half-day or full-day trips, even some rivers provide overnight trips combined with camping. Whatever type of raft trip you’re looking for you can find it here. All necessary equipment is provided by commercial guides.
Here are among the top places to go whitewater rafting in Colorado, in no particular order:
Whitewater rafting down the Arkansas River. Photo: Ginger Campbell
The mighty Arkansas River is the most rafted river in the state, and one of the most well-known in the country. The headwaters of the Arkansas River begin near Leadville and flows south past Buena Vista and Nathrop, to Salida, before venturing east to Cañon City, Pueblo, and the plains.
It features many epic sections and trips you can take, none more popular than the Royal Gorge. This advanced trip leads through the narrow canyon, encountering some Class IV and V rapids along the way. You’ll pass under the stunning suspension bridge and possibly by the train.
During its long journey in the Rockies, there are other notable rafting sections besides Cañon City’s Royal Gorge. Thrill seekers will enjoy tackling The Numbers by Buena Vista, before enjoying a family-friendly float down the scenic Browns Canyon, Browns Canyon, a national monument located between Nathrop and Salida.
Another beginner/intermediate section is Bighorn Sheep Canyon by Cañon City. Choose from half and full-day adventures on the Arkansas River.
Rafting the Animas River in Durango, CO, with 4 Corners Whitewater. Photo: Jack Vinson
Durango is Southwest Colorado’s largest mountain town in terms of population, and one of the biggest in the state at around 20,o00 residents. The historic town may be most known for its narrow gauge railroad, but the Animas River provides a surge of energy and recreation throughout the year.
What’s cool about the Animas River is both lazy floats and raging whitewater can be found on half and full-day trips.
The Lower Animas River runs through downtown Durango offering the easier of the two sections. It’s a family-friendly float with thrills assured by passing through the manmade rapids of the Durango Whitewater Park.
The Upper Animas River begins to the north of town near Purgatory, Durango’s mountain resort. It has the honor of being the longest, continuous stretch of commercial run Class IV-V rapids in the United States of America, 30+ miles. The thrills keep on coming!
The Grand Overhang, Mather’s Hole, Yampa River, Colo. Photo: MichaelGat
Northwest Colorado’s most notorious river is the Yampa River. It’s actually the longest non-dammed river in the state. The rafting trips down the Yampa River are usually relaxing, multi-day lazy floats, perfect for a peaceful retreat and sightseeing through Yampa Canyon.
There are some whitewater thrills along the way. It meets up with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.
Because Vernal, UT is the most popular town around Dinosaur National Monument, many of the overnight trips meet up there and shuttle out. Rafting trips down the Yampa River provide a chance to encounter Class III and IV rapids, the best run from May through July. They are mostly multi-day camping and rafting trips, some either 4 or 5 days.
There are also some shorter half-day trips that launch out of downtown Steamboat Springs. These provide some Class II and III whitewater from May to early June.
Rafting the Upper Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon. Photo: Don Graham
The Colorado River runs its course from near Kremmling to the southwest past Radium, Glenwood Springs, and onto Utah and beyond. There are many great sections of the Colorado River to raft, from family-friendly trips down Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs, to super gnarly, raging whitewater in Gore Canyon.
Widely regarded as the most fierce, commercially rafted whitewater in Colorado, Gore Canyon is far from your typical float. This epic, advanced whitewater section near Kremmling is reserved only for experienced rafters with knowledgeable guides. It boasts numerous Class IV and V rapids that are monstrous when the CFS and water are high.
Downstream from Kremmling and Gore Canyon lies the Pumphouse Recreation Site. It features 3 boat launches for a variety of trips down its Class II and III rapids. It’s located a few miles upstream from Radium and its notorious primitive hot springs pool.
Much further downstream will bring you to Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs. It’s really popular for groups of friends and families looking for half and full-day trips. Your guide might even lead you to primitive hot springs on the banks of the river (not Radium). Due to the long length of the river, people notoriously raft shorter sections, though this is a suitable river for overnight camping/rafting trips as well.
The aforementioned Animas River is a tributary to the San Juan River, which passes right through downtown Pagosa Springs. It may not offer the longest stretch of river to raft, or most whitewater, but for a few months each season, it makes a great beginner, introduction-to-rafting trip.
It passes directly through Pagosa’s whitewater park downtown. Then after you have a river under your belt, tackle one or both sections of the other local river.
On top of the in-town San Juan River, there’s another tributary to it nearby, the Piedra River. It has its headwaters north of town deep in the national forest. From high up in the central San Juan Mountains, the Piedra River flows southwest of Pagosa Springs, about 20 miles west of Pagosa and 40 miles east of Durango. It joins the San Juan River there in Arboles, emptying into the Navajo Reservoir.
There are two great trips on the Piedra River: the Upper and Lower.
The Upper Piedra River is located northwest of Pagosa Springs. Trips are technical so it’s best suited for children 12 years and up. It includes numerous Class II, III, and IV rapids. If you’re feeling adventurous and really want to experience the best of Colorado, combine it with an overnight rafting trip, which hits the Lower (box of the) Piedra River the next day. Outfitters guide trips, set up tents, and cook your meals for you.
After warming up on the Upper Piedra, spend another day on the Lower Piedra River. It’s even more extreme with several huge drops during its run in a thousand-foot-deep box canyon. This section has big thrills and is suited for ages 16 and up. Piedra means “rock” in Spanish, so it. gets the name “The River of Stone Wall”. The action-packed trip down the Lower Piedra has Class IV+ rapids, descending multiple deep box canyons.
Cache La Poudre River
Rafting the Cache la Poudre River whitewater. David Kalsbeek
Conveniently serving the northern front range, the Cache la Poudre River offers great whitewater rafting just west of Fort Collins. Known simply as the Poudre (“Poo-der”), this river has a limited number of outfitters guiding trips on it, so it’s much less crowded than some of the others.
You can find a couple of trips both milder and wilder for each type of rafter. They usually meet just west of Fort Collins and will shuttle you further west to your launch-in point.
Poudre Canyon is an extremely scenic place. It’s located on the Cache La Poudre-North Park Byway, a national scenic byway drive west to Walden from Fort Collins. The river itself is the only one designated a national wild and scenic river. Choose from a beginner/intermediate half day on Class II and III rapids and/or a half day of advanced Class III and IV rapids on the Poudre River.
Rafting generally starts around mid-May and goes to early September for easier floats and early August for harder ones.
Rafting the Snaggle Tooth rapids on the Dolores River. Photo: Amanda Wilson
The Dolores River is another scenic Southwest Colorado rafting hotspot when it’s permitted. This one is a little more hit or miss though as there are only limited trips available, usually starting in April and finishing in June. Those in the know, know it as one of the top multi-day rafting trips available in Colorado and beyond. It leads you down some exciting canyons and drops during its 175-mile raftable section.
Raft the Dolores anywhere from 3 to 10-day trips. Most trips generally depart from nearby Cortez, but the longer trips meet up in Durango, departing further upstream on the Dolores River. The wilderness is remote and gorgeous along its route.
Remember the window is limited for this river, depending on the conditions and water level, so it’s generally around May. You’ll hit Class III rapids on the way, suitable for ages 10 years and older.
Rafting through the Clear Creek canon by Idaho Springs, CO. Photo: Kari
In Denver’s own mountain backyard of sorts, Idaho Springs offers an exciting rafting opportunity closest to the Metro. Only 30 miles west of downtown I-70 leads you to this historic former mining town. Both half and full-day trips are available rafting Clear Creek. You can arrange trips suitable for beginners, intermediates, and advanced paddlers.
Clear Creek is the steepest river in the state that’s commercially rafted. It flows through a narrow canyon within Clear Creek Canyon, shaping numerous technical rapids and steep drops. You’ll never know it from the highway, but this river features a wild ride. 80% of the county is public lands, so nature and wildlife are always present.
More Colorado Rivers to Rafting
Rafter dunking it in Gunnison River Whitewater Park. Photo: Mark Anderson
The snow produced high in the Rocky Mountains provides the perfect recipe for a maze of rivers running on both sides of the continental divide. Come springtime they fuel the whitewater found in more than a dozen commercial rafted rivers. In addition to the ones above, the following are other great places to experience the sport of rafting.
Here are some other places to go rafting in Colorado:
- – Silverthorne – Vail – Delta – Walden – Creede – Aspen – Pagosa Springs – Telluride – Crested Butte, Gunnison
Have a safe and thrilling whitewater rafting trip to one of these Rocky Mountain rivers! Remember, each river has its own season within the range of May to September, some early rivers are just a shorter stint while the whitewater is at its peak, so plan accordingly.
You can check the water data levels at USGS for the Colorado rivers. Compare that to the appropriate CFS levels for the river you plan on rafting. Naturally, your guide will handle this for you, so give one a call to schedule a trip of a lifetime.
About Matt Thomas
Matt is an avid writer and explorer, who loves to showcase this wild, wondrous world. His favorite place to be is right here in the Centennial State.