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.
Located in the southwest corner of Colorado at the base of the San Juan Mountains, Durango is the ideal summer destination. Durango is home to many historical sites, including the famous Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, world class whitewater on the Animas River, and the San Juan National Forest.
Durango is home to a full-service regional airport and is easily accessible by car. Several major U.S. and state highways approach the city from every direction, and make up the scenic San Juan Skyway click for more. Durango’s rich Colorado history and endless activities make this the ideal Colorado vacation town!
Summertime in Durango is the perfect time of year to get outside and enjoy an amazing array of outdoor activities including horseback riding near Vallecito Lake, sightseeing along southwest and, of course, rafting! Whitewater rafting on the Animas River offers beginner options that are great for families with children, as well as intense, advanced whitewater that’s perfect for experienced rafters.
What is the closest rafting to Durango?
The closest rafting to Durango is on the Animas River in southwest Colorado. The Animas River is class III rapids that allow kids as young as 4+.
What is the closest zipline course to Durango?
The closest zipline adventure in Durango is Full Blast Adventure Center which offers 3 hour adventures and 2 hour adventures.
What is the best rafting near Durango?
The best rafting near Durango is on the Lower Animas River which has an adventure level of mild to intermediate which has contact with water and swimming potential.
When is the Durango rafting season?
The best time to go rafting in Durango is between April and October. During high water which can happen May, June or July, you will experience up to class III+ rapids.
Is there Family-Friendly rafting near Durango?
Durango is a great place to go rafting with the family. All kids need to be age 4+ and during high water age minimums can increase. Choose from a half day or full day to make sure the trip is just right from your family.
Is it safe to go rafting in Durango?
There are inherent risks when it comes to rafting. Rafting on the Animas River in Durango is classified as mild to intermediate meaning there is a potential for swimming and rafters will have to paddle, but there will also be times of slower moving water.
How long is the average rafting trip near Durango?
There are half day and full day rafting trips on the Animas River in Durango. Half day trips can take between 3-4 hours total and full day trips can take between 5-7 hours. Trip lengths depend on the water levels.
What should you pack for a rafting trip near Durango?
It is important that you wear shoes that will stay secure to your feet. Tennis shoes, water shoes and chacos work great. Flip flops and Crocs will not work for rafting. Depending on the temperature you might want to wear a wetsuit with a swimsuit underneath. Make sure to pack dry clothes to put on after you are done whitewater rafting.
If you are traveling around Colorado, there are AVA activities in each of the following locations.
Buena Vista, Colorado located less than 4 hours north of Durango, Colorado
Breckenridge, Colorado, located about 5 hours north of Durango
Idaho Springs, Colorado is located about 5 hours and 45 minutes from Durango
Kremmling, Colorado is located 6 hours
WHAT TO DO IN DURANGO
- White water rafting the Animas River
- San Juan National Forest
- Historic Narrow Gauge Railroad rides
- Mesa Verde National Park (35 miles away from downtown)
- 1 Hour to Four Corners Monument
- Vallecito Lake and Lemon Lake
- Bar D Chuckwagon
- Historic Downtown
- Trimble Natural Hot Springs
Looking for some live entertainment? Enjoy authentic old west entertainment by starlight at the Bar D Chuckwagon, where you’ll indulge in a delicious dinner and get full bodied entertainment all wrapped into one! Or enjoy a summertime concert at one of Durango’s many music venues. Explore
Durango’s historic downtown, where the old west meets the southwest, and discover Durango’s vibrant art scene, eclectic shops, and rich culture, right in the heart of town. If you’re looking to stretch your legs, take a stroll along the Animas River Trail that winds through town.
Durango is also the home to Trimble Natural Hot Springs, the perfect place to relax and unwind after a fun filled day in the Colorado wilderness.
When Can You go White Water Rafting In Durango
One of the best seasonal activities in Colorado is Durango white water rafting . From as early as May, locals and visitors alike can experience the ultimate outdoor adventure on the beautiful Animas river. Whether you’re scouting the rapids upriver or floating freely near the city, there are a few factors to keep in mind. Find out more about how to determine the best times to go white water rafting in Durango.
Colorado is one of the top ten sunniest states – with an average of 300 sunny days per year. It’s no wonder that white water rafting is a go-to pastime for locals and tourists. Despite the sunny days, weather is still a determinate when it comes to best rafting times.
Snowfall during the winter and snowmelt during the spring are both factors when it comes to water levels in the warmer months. This makes weather an important aspect when planning white water rafting trips. Typically, rafters will find fairer temperatures in the mid-morning to mid-afternoon when the sun is at its peak. Although you can start your rafting trips as early as May, rafting is best during warmer months as late as September.
White Water Rapid Classes
Before you head out, it’s important to recognize the rapid classification levels . This will determine the difficulty level of the rapids and rafting trip. There are six rapid classifications ranging from easy to extreme. Only navigate rapid classes that you are comfortable with – typically beginner to intermediate rafters are comfortable between Class 1 and Class 4 rapids. Class 6 is not considered viable for any rafter and even advanced level rafters should be wary of Class 5 rapids.
About Water Levels and River Accessibility
Because of the influx of snowmelt from the high country, the Animas river level is constantly in flux. This means that some days will be impassable, while others provide the perfect conditions for world-class rapids. There are three water levels that are typical depending on the time of year. They include:
Low – April and September
Low water levels typically occur at either the very start of the warm season or the very end. Adventurous rafters who want to avoid the crowded tourist season can enjoy more technical rapids at these times. You’ll spot more wildlife and get to enjoy a quiet atmosphere, but be prepared for colder water and air temperatures.
Medium – Late June to August
As the drier season arrives, the river water levels out. This is the best time for family trips or for beginner rafters. However, summer in Colorado is peak tourist season. If you want to experience these perfect white water rafting conditions, be sure to book your trips as soon as possible.
High – Late May to June
The beginning of the warmer season often yields high water levels because of the recent snow melting into the river. Although high water season does result in more intense rapids and waves, novice rafters should be cautious. The swift current is more dangerous for those without experience.
To recap, you can go white water rafting any time between May and September. The best times to go rafting are mid-day to mid-afternoon when the water levels are medium to low. Only raft on rapid classification levels that you are comfortable with or have training on. For more information about Durango white water rafting, contact Colorado Outback Adventures.