The water is high and it’s prime season to get out on the river or plan a big trip. Not sure where to start? We give you four classic floats in the Centennial State, each tailored to how long you have to get away.
The Day Trip
Cache La Poudre River, Steven’s Gulch to Poudre Park | Class: III-IV
Make It Happen: Spring is the best time for Front Range residents to run their local waters. Clear Creek is a top option, but very popular. This equally gorgeous alternative farther north combines two sections—Upper and Lower Mishawaka—for a challenging and exhilarating 6.5-mile run that includes rapids ranging from class III to class IV+, depending upon flow. As you whip through the Poudre’s most difficult stretch of water below the Narrows, your adrenaline will spike on drops like Tunnel Rapid (IV) and Mishawaka Falls(IV). While you’re maneuvering through river bends, blind corners and undercut walls, make sure to take in the scenery on this free-flowing stream: rugged canyon walls and sporadic orange granite cliffs dotted with ponderosa pines. After all, this is Colorado’s only designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.
Bonus Points: Soak in post-float beverages and music at the Mishawaka Inn (themishawaka.com). It’s an hour-and-40-minute drive from Denver and just 20-30 minutes from Fort Collins.
Insider Info: Because it’s a small, shallow river, the Poudre becomes pretty technical at low water. Go when flows are high for non-stop play.
Arkansas River, Ruby Mountain to Salida |
Make It Happen: It’s tough to beat these 20 miles of weekend-favorable whitewater. The highlight? An eight-mile boulder-strewn stretch in Browns Canyon National Monument with magnificent pillars of pink rock, craggy spires and immense granite walls towering overhead. Riverside camping is plentiful and remote here, and even if you’re just spending one night under the stars you’ll feel as if you’ve left civilization far, far behind. And it’s fun: The serene canyon boasts plenty of long, class III/IV rapids, fast-paced wave trains, holes and drops including Zoom Flume, Raft Ripper, Graveyard, Last Chance, Widowmaker and Seidel’s Suckhole. Downstream of the monument, the cottonwood-lined river opens up to reveal sublime views of the snow-capped summits of the Collegiate Peaks.
Bonus Points: Be sure to put-in at Ruby Mountain to avoid the crowds and the commercial trips who typically start at Fisherman’s Bridge one mile upstream. The takeout is in the heart of Salida, within easy walking distance of a number of excellent restaurants and bars including the ever-popular Boathouse Cantina (boathousesalida.com).
Insider Info: Avoid weekends during peak season if you can; this is one of the most run and guided river stretches in the country. Have more time? Add a day or two and continue through Bighorn Sheep Canyon.
The Multi-Day Getaway
Gunnison Gorge, Chukar Trail to Gunnison River Pleasure Park | Class: III
Make It Happen: This unique adventure begins with a one-mile hike or horseback ride on the Chukar Trail, a path worn into an adobe clay hillside that passes rocky outcrops as it descends to the river’s edge. From here, slip off the grid on one of the state’s most secluded rafting expeditions: This is a true wilderness experience that merges exciting rapids, calm glassy water, world-class fly fishing, dramatic canyon scenery, wildlife galore (peregrines and bighorn sheep, among others) and picturesque views. Though it only covers 14 miles of river, you’ll want to take a few nights to fully appreciate the unspoiled grandeur of the narrow river corridor that cuts through black granite cliffs soaring thousands of feet skyward.
Bonus Points: These are Gold Medal trout waters.
Insider Info: Boaters often hire pack animals to help get gear to the put-in. You can arrange for a BLM-permitted outfitter here at on.doi.gov/2JgPr7L.
The Big Endeavor
Dolores River, Bradfield Recreation Site to Dewey Bridge | Class: IV–V
Make It Happen: Born in the high peaks of the San Juans, the 200-mile Dolores River flows through the heart of classic red-rock canyon country to merge with the Colorado River near Moab. On this 173-mile float down the Dolores—a river that maintains its wild character despite being altered by a dam and irrigation demands—you’ll experience an array of landscapes, discover (and respect) indigenous cultural sites like rock art, enjoy tranquil campsites and all in a place without internet access (adios, Snapchat). Plenty of class II to IV rapids, including Snaggletooth, Three-mile and Stateline, enliven this stream that has somehow remained less discovered than other big Western float trips.
Bonus Points: Spectacular hikes and scrambles at every turn equal endless chances for discovery; explore dinosaur tracks, rock art panels, Grand Canyon-class side canyons, waterfalls and arches.
Insider Info: Perhaps what makes the Delores even more appealing is its inconsistency. The BLM regulates flows to the Dolores from the McPhee Reservoir, making for a short season (typically late April to early June). Beware: That also means you can’t always raft the river. In dry years, such as we are experiencing now, the water may be too low (though smaller craft can handle flows as low as 200 cfs). Follow flows at doloreswater.com/releases and be ready to drop everything and go at the last minute.