How Water Levels Affect Your Rafting Experience

Are Rafting Trips Affected by Different Water Levels?

When it comes to water adventures, Colorado has a lot of options, and whitewater rafting is one of the most exciting, for sure. Every year, from mid-May to mid-August, Colorado rivers are the place for adventure.

One of the fun things about whitewater is that its difficulty level can vary depending on water levels. That allows for different adventures for different kinds of rafters, those who seek a huge adrenaline rush and those who are in for a nice, fun, family-friendly ride.

River flows are where the difference lies. Once the snow starts to melt —in the springtime— the rivers begin to boil. Water levels will continue to change throughout the year.

High Water

In Colorado, peak flows usually happen around the second week of June. Rivers can be affected in different ways when there’s high water. It can turn a boulder into a big obstacle or a dangerous hole or reversal. It could also go the other way. High water could cause particular technical rapids to be covered by water, making them easier to navigate. In general, the difficulty can increase when there’s high water, creating higher risk whitewater rafting trips. With faster flows, time to recover from swim decreases. Trips like this require you to adhere to your guide’s instructions strictly, following all safety measures. It’s an excellent time for a super exciting and challenging trip.

Mile HI Rafting tripsMedium Water

Since medium water happens during vacation time —mid-summer— this is how most people will experience the river. The average river flow is the farthest thing from boring. The river is much more manageable but still offers big waves and tons of excitement for a great trip with family or friends.

Low Water

August and September is the late season. Water levels drop, and although you won’t experience big waves, that doesn’t mean the river will be super easy or boring at all. Tight maneuvering will be required as more rocks will be showing during this time. Low water definitely, does not mean less attention is needed.

This season is almost over, but we are super excited about 2020 rafting season. Are you joining us?

How River Water Levels Will Affect Your White Water Rafting Trip in Colorado

Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range

Whether found in mountains, valleys, or plains, river environments are extremely dynamic. The water which flows through river basins is influenced by an array of factors within a given region. To this end, such things as water level, clarity, and flow rate vary with environmental influences such as rain, snowmelt, and temperature.

Water levels in Colorado rivers change with the 4 seasons. As such, the same stretch of water on the Arkansas River will look quite different in early spring than it does in early fall. As water stages fluctuate in with such influences as snowmelt and rainstorms, rafting companies plan their seasons around the best conditions.

If you’re planning a whitewater rafting trip in Colorado, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research to ensure that conditions are commensurate with your skill-set and expectations. In doing so, you will also ensure that your family has the most fun possible on their vacation.

To help you plan your next Colorado trip, Echo Canyon River Expeditions put together this brief guide on how river levels affect whitewater rafting.

Why do Water Levels in Colorado Rivers Fluctuate?

Colorado rivers are intimately bound to the mountain environments from which they are sourced. If you were to look at a map of the western United States, you would see major rivers – such as the Colorado and Rio Grande – finding their headwaters high in the Colorado Rockies. These rivers, like the Arkansas River, are sourced by snowmelt in the mountains.

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For those unfamiliar with mountains, it might be hard to comprehend how the snow that fell in December could impact river levels 6 months later in June. However, this is precisely the case concerning how snowmelt affects rivers in Colorado. During wintertime, the snow depth in high elevations continuously builds with each passing storm. When springtime arrives, this deep base of snow melts to provide water for streams, rivers, and low-lying communities throughout the summer months.

Controlled River Flows

Because there are dams on many rivers in Colorado, people are able to manipulate their water flows. Especially on popular rafting rivers like the Arkansas River , dams give people the ability to set flow rates in accordance with the best rafting conditions. If you are planning a trip to Colorado, it’s a good idea to research the water level of the Arkansas River. With this knowledge in hand, you can likely plan a more predictable rafting trip for your family. Please bear in mind, the most popluar CFS (cubic feet per second) for rafting is 700 – 2500 CFS, which represents medium to high river flows.

How will Different Water Levels Affect My Rafting Trip this Year?

To grasp how water levels will affect your Colorado rafting trip in 2021, you will need to understand the weather patterns from the previous year.

Rafting in the Rain with Echo Canyon

Generally, Colorado summers see a very predictable “monsoon season,” when warm air from the Gulf of Mexico interacts with the cold, dry air in the Colorado Rockies. With this perfect mix of conditions, you can almost set your watch to afternoon thunderstorm activity in July and early August. Oddly, 2020 saw almost no monsoon activity, which pushed the state into drought conditions. The dryness in Colorado was evident in the extreme wildfire activity that tore across the state in the summer and fall of 2020.

Snowpack for winter 2020-2021 started off slowly but picked up steam in the later months of February and March. A wet spring greatly added to the available snowpack and overall water found in the mountains. Yet, things warmed up extremely fast in Colorado in May and June 2021, so the snow is melting quite quickly.

In the month of June, rivers were running fairly high with snowmelt and spring rains. However, in most regions of Colorado, the snowpack will not last long into summer, so outfitters will rely on rains and that monsoon moisture to bump up the river volumes. As such, for most people, the best rafting conditions for Colorado Rivers will be in June and July 2021. In August we can expect to see declining river flows and lower water conditions which is quite typical in the Arkansas River Valley.

Do Higher Waters Mean Better Rapids?

A paddle crew takes a big piece of the biggest wave in Maytag Rapid at high water

There are a lot of factors that contribute to whether or not higher waters mean better rapids. As river environments are highly dynamic, features like rapids and waterfalls are greatly accentuated with rising waters. Nonetheless, for some people, the choice between high water rapids and lower conditions simply boils down to preference.

Many rapids grow larger with increased water flows. As rivers rise and swell with more water, they also develop stronger currents, as well as hold colder water. All things considered, rivers with high water make for more challenging rafting conditions. Yet, many experienced whitewater enthusiasts prefer such hardcore conditions.

While you can almost always count on higher water producing bigger rapids, the conditions aren’t always better for rafting. To illustrate, high water can make certain river features wash out, or get smoother because the features creating the waves are so far under the surface, they no longer cause waves or hydraulics. This also translates to faster rafting trips and less time to enjoy the scenery. Even more, cold water, early season conditions requires additional gear like wetsuits, which can be a huge inconvenience for some.

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When is the Best Time to Go Rafting in Colorado?

Bighorn Sheep Canyon family raft trip

The best time to go rafting in Colorado will depend largely on your interests and skill level. For hardcore adrenaline junkies, spring and early summer will have the best conditions. However, beginners and families will likely enjoy rafting in mid to late summer when water levels have dropped to medium level conditions.

June and July are by far the most popular months for rafting in the state of Colorado. In these early summer months, mountain streams are running stronger with melting snowpack from the previous winter. In turn, these streams feed major watersheds like that of the Arkansas River. Therefore, the months of June and early July are your best bet for higher water flows and larger rapids on most rivers in Colorado.

As summertime progresses into the months of late July, August and September, mountain snowpack is dwindling in most regions of Colorado. With mountain snows melted, streams and rivers recede to lower levels – resulting in mellower rafting conditions. While late summer might not be a very exciting time to raft for adrenaline junkies, it’s great for families with older children in their teens. Especially in places like the Royal Gorge , August and September provide quiet waters and smaller crowds. If you’re curious, just do a bit of research about the Royal Gorge water flow.

Contact Echo Canyon Today!

Echo Canyon Expeditions is one of the leading whitewater rafting outfits in Colorado. Please Contact Us to learn more about river water levels for your next vacation.

How Will The Different Water Levels Affect My Rafting Trip This Year

Whitewater Flowing

The sun is shining here in Colorado and it finally feels like spring may be around the corner. After a long, snowy winter folks are packing away the skis and dusting off the boating gear for summer! Our state has no shortage of river running options; from family floats to the adrenaline pumping sections, Colorado doesn’t disappoint when it comes to whitewater. While most sections have a “typical” difficulty rating, the nature of whitewater can drastically change with fluctuating river levels. While us river rats live for high water trips, there are certainly pros and cons for different flows.

Terms to Know

To understand how river levels can affect a river trip, here’s a few terms that are good to understand.

CFS: CFS stands for cubic feet per second. Cubic feet per second is the unit in which guides, rangers, and other professionals measure the volume of water in the river.

Current: The current is the water’s natural flow downstream. Consequently, all the water may be flowing downstream. Look for the fastest moving water. This is called the “main” current. River guides like to find the main current to maximize the movement of downstream travel to conserve energy.

Eddy: When water flows back upstream in an area void of the current an eddy forms. They typically form along a river bank where the water has been previously deflected by an obstacle. They can vary in size. Some are barely big enough for one or two rafts, while others are a hundred yards long. Eddies make great spots to pull in to slow down (if waiting for other rafts). They are also ideal to pull into to park for a hiking excursion or to make camp. “Eddy out” or “catch an eddy” is one of the most popular whitewater river terms.

Hydraulic/Reversal or Hole: These terms are generally used to describe a specific feature in the river. These are features formed when the river passes over the top of a rock, ledge or other obstacle in the river. When the river current passes over the obstacle, it travels deep toward the bottom of the river and “reverses” back onto itself. Larger or more powerful “holes” can easily stop and flip rafts. Smaller and less powerful “hydraulics” can be used to “surf” and provide great entertainment for the entire raft.

Class I: Few rapids, minimal waves, and no obstructions.

Class II: Still very mild, yet more frequent rapids with few obstructions.

Class III: Waves under four feet with some obstructions.

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Class IV: Long, difficult rapids. Scouting is a must from here up.

Class V: Large waves, complex rapids in succession, and difficult routes.

Class VI: The maximum difficulty. Unrunnable.

High Water

During the spring when temperatures start to warm, we’ll see some gradual increase in river flows. When temps start to stay above freezing at night is when the snowmelt really starts to increase, and rivers begin to boil. Historically Colorado rivers see peak flows the 2nd week of June.

High water can have numerous effects on rivers. Rapids are formed by rock formations and gradient drops; water levels can determine if that big boulder is an obstacle to navigate around or if it forms a man eating hydraulic. Some rapids can increase with difficulty when those boulder gardens turn into massive waves. However, some tight, technical rapids can “wash out” meaning the amount of flow has essential covered the rapid up making it easier to navigate.

High flows usually mean a more difficult, high risk trip. Not only are the waves and holes bigger but since the river is flowing faster the time to recover from a swim greatly decreases since eddies can be few and far in between. If you choose to boat at higher flows make sure you are prepared by booking a trip with a reputable outfitter or choosing your rafting buddies carefully. Having extra safety with more rafts (and competent boatmen) will help keep the risks at bay since you can assist each other if needed.

While highwater is more challenging it can certainly be the best time to enjoy the power of water as it crashes downstream.

Medium Water

In general, medium flows is how most folks experience the river since it is mid summer and folks are on vacation! Usually July to Mid – August most Colorado rivers will be at a more average flow. This is a great time to get the family out to have some whitewater fun. Most rivers are a bit more manageable at this point while still having waves big enough to soak everyone! The water is usually starting to warm up a bit, (although it never really gets above 50 degrees).

Low Water

During August and September river levels drop however it can still be a great time to go boating. Lower flows may not provide the big crashing waves but that certainly doesn’t mean all rapids are easier! While most hydraulics and wave trains are smaller that means more rocks are showing requiring some tight maneuvering to prevent hitting (and perhaps high siding) off them. Don’t let the slower flows fool you into thinking you don’t need to pay attention. One of my flips occurred at only 280 CFS!

Paddleboarding Colorado

Weather is usually pleasant and more dependable this time of year. It’s a great time to hop on those smaller crafts like kayaks and paddleboards and the water is warmer so it’s also a great time to do some swimming and cliff jumping!

If you are an angler, the lower water months are ideal for landing that lunker of a trout. Since the water clarity improves with less run off, fishing is usually off the charts this time of year. Often you can spot fish in a quiet eddy since the water is so clear. A quiet September morning fishing on the Colorado is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the river.

When the snowmelt comes gushing down the mountains and cascades into the river it signals spring here in the West. One of the magical things about rivers is they are dynamic and always changing…from month to month and sometimes even hour to hour. Different water level can provide a mix of whitewater experiences as the season progresses and taking water levels into account can help you plan the kind of trip you’re looking for.




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