The water is high and it’s time to get out and surf Colorado. Here’s where to do it.
Skiing. Fourteeners. Columbines. Biking. Coors. Legal weed. All are quintessential Colorado. But, surfing? It’s not the first thing that comes to mind in our landlocked state, but surfing opportunities abound thanks to our mountain-fed rivers and visionaries who have created whitewater parks with sweet waves.
Born in Germany in the 1970s, river surfing’s popularity has burgeoned over the past decade. With around 30 whitewater parks in Colorado, we are quickly turning into a mecca for river surfing. But it’s about more than just making powerful ocean-style turns; it’s about community. Surfers spend hours at one spot, honing shortboard skills, cheering each other on, and sharing tips. As Salida resident and surfer Peter Jones puts it: “The river community I’ve found through surfing is the sweetest, most-welcoming I’ve experienced. They helped me find my passion for fun again.”
A big part of the fun is getting to check out different locations throughout the state (and beyond), since each town and surf spot has its own unique personality and characteristics. And because waves change throughout the year—even throughout the day—beginners to experts can always find a new challenge in the same wave.
With the help of Mike Harvey—co-founder of Badfish in Salida, river-surfing pioneer,and whitewater park designer for Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP)—we came up with a few can’t-miss spots for you to check out this summer.
Note: Always wear proper safety equipment, including a lifejacket and helmet, when recreating on the river.
What’s the holy grail of river surfing? A wave you can ride year-round. Enter the Scout Wave, a wide, glassy sheet right downtown. Completed in fall 2022, this national attraction designed by Harvey is the best feature for surfing in Salida’s four-wave whitewater park. A remodel of an original 2009 feature, the Scout Wave was built to perform best at low and moderate flows (below 1,000 cubic feet per second), which is what the Arkansas River experiences for 85% of the year. Thanks to advances in technology, Harvey says the Scout Wave is unlike most waves created to date: It’s faster, more sustainable, more reliable, and higher performing, meaning surfers can learn tricks, practice carving quicker turns, and progress all skills more quickly. Right now, it’s the most predictable, consistent wave in the state, but it hasn’t seen a summer yet, so we’re all waiting anxiously to find out what happens here at high water.
Gear Up: Born in Salida in 2009, Badfish (badfishsup.com) is opening a full-service mountain surf shop on May 5, just blocks away from the Ark in downtown Salida. Though Harvey and co-founder Zach Hughes have been in business for 13 years, they say the shop is “another chance to promote the history and culture of the sport and to interact with friends and the burgeoning surfing scene.” For lessons, hit up Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) (rmoc.com) and for rentals, Totally Tubular (totallytubularsalida.com) is right next to the river.
Celebrate: FIBArk (First in Boating the Arkansas, fibark.com) is America’s oldest whitewater festival. Returning for its 74th straight year from June 15–18, FIBArk boasts a sweet music line-up, whitewater races, and biking and running events.
Also on the Ark and designed by Harvey, the Buena Vista Whitewater Park boasts five features, including a few iconic waves in the surfing world. The best surfing feature, called Staircase Wave, is located ¼ mile downstream of the first feature (Uptown Wave) and near the Community Center. The popular Staircase Wave is beginner friendly, works very consistently at lower flows, and has a solid recovery pool. Plus, it’s not as fast as Salida’s Scout Wave, making it a great place for aspiring surfers to learn or hone skills. Harvey explains that this older feature, which will be getting an upgrade this fall, has contributed to the growth of the sport by helping people progress and gain confidence.
Gear Up: For rentals and all your river needs visit CKS Main Street (cksmainstreet.com) in downtown Buena Vista.
Celebrate: A celebration of river sports with music, competitions and fun, CKS Paddlefest (ckspaddlefest.com) takes place May 26–29. Plus, 1% of every sale from the fest goes toward the River Fund.
Due to irrigation releases on the Uncompahgre River, the Montrose Water Sports Park (also designed by Harvey) has a super-long season annually, with decent flows from March through October. Utilizing innovative construction techniques, REP created six distinct features (and adjacent fish passages) that vary in shape and difficulty—and change based on flow—turning Montrose into a sweet place for all skill levels. Waves 1 and 2 are best for intermediate and expert surfers, while 3 and 4 are ideal for beginners. With 1,000 feet of river channel, the WSP is one of the largest in Colorado and a valued resource that has helped grow river surfing on the Western Slope. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Gear Up: Montrose Surf and Cycle (montrosesurfandcycle.com) can meet all your outdoor gear needs, plus it offers surf lessons, rentals, and Surf Nights on Wednesdays throughout the summer.
Celebrate: FUNC Fest (aka Fun on the Uncompahgre, visitmontrose.com/events/fun-on-the-uncompahgre) on Saturday Aug. 13 is a chance for all watersports enthusiasts to experience a day of fun-filled activities including competitions, music, vendors, and food trucks.