Dreaming of Spring and summer whitewater? The season is setting up to be one for the ages.
This winter, David Costlow felt as encouraged as he could remember in 10 years. “It’s been snowing, and it’s been cold enough to keep the snow,” says the executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. He’s encouraged because the snowpack and spring rain will swell whitewater around the state. Now it’s time to dream about which rivers to hit.
Outside Walden, the North Platte River plunges into the granite realm of Northern Colorado’s remote Northgate Wilderness. The canyon section spans 11 miles, ending with a steep hike out. Add another day or two and reach the hot springs of Saratoga, Wyoming. Length: Full day; Routt Access put-in to Six Mile Gap Class: III–IV; kayaks to 14-footers
It’s one of the most coveted permits out there—“and for good reason,” says Alex Mickel, founder of Mild to Wild Rafting. The river is steeped in legend, guarded by sandstone walls that hold the ancient remains that give Dinosaur National Monument its name. Eventually converging with the Green River, the 71-mile venture is highly sought and rafters hope for runoff to deliver into early June. While the lottery permit period is closed, unclaimed permits become available again in March. Length: Four-five days; Deerlodge Park put-in to Split Mountain. Class: II–III; kayaks to 18-foot rigs
Unlike the Yampa, the Delores does not require a permit. However, like the Yampa, this segment is cherished for its wild, remote beauty and rarity. Take it from Bill Dvorak, who’s been boating the West for decades: “The Dolores is on top of the bucket list.” McPhee Dam has long kept water from the river. The Dolores has been further strained by drought. “If you hear it’s gonna run, you just gotta be ready to go,” Costlow says. Also be ready for the notorious Class IV–V Snaggletooth rapid. Otherwise, it’s a mild journey amid forest and red rock. Length: Full day to full week; common three-day from Bradfield Bridge to Slickrock. Class: II–IV; kayaks to 18-foot rigs
Unknown to outsiders, locals around Montrose have historically known this as an otherworldly escape reached via horseback. They’ve known this as the “Gunny” and also “the little Grand Canyon.” And, yes, you might want a steed. Anglers typically pay packers to haul boats and gear down to the Gold Medal waters. The mile-long hike will “beat you up,” Dvorak warns. But the 14 river miles won’t disappoint. Length: Two-three days; from Chukar Trail put-in to Gunnison River Pleasure Park. Class: II-IV; kayaks to 14-footers
San Miguel River
If the Dolores doesn’t work out, this could be an alternative in the state’s southwest. The intimate, slender river meanders through sandstone canyons and pine woods, with chances in between for big-mountain vistas. In the early season, the river tends to be swift and twisting but never stressful, “so you can cover a lot of miles,” Mickel says. Length: From half-day to multiple days, with several launching points. For an introduction, Mickel recommends putting in at Specie Creek Recreation Site and taking out at Beaver Creek, about 9 miles. Class: II–III; kayaks to 14-footers
Photo Cover courtesy Mild to Wild Rafting