The Rocky Mountains are known for their epic whitewater rivers, and Colorado has its fair share of excellent rafting spots. There are more than a dozen commercially rafted rivers from the Arkansas to the Animas.
We’ve highlighted some of the most successful and best whitewater rafting in Colorado rivers. These bodies of water can be found in the Rockies. Depending on the weather, the main whitewater rafting season runs from June to September. Because of the snowmelt earlier in the season, the whitewater is more strong.
On these rivers, there are floats for all, from novices and first-timers to experienced adrenaline junkies and families seeking adventure. You can go on half-day or full-day trips, and some rivers also offer overnight camping trips. You’ll find any sort of rafting trip you’re searching for here. Commercial guides have all of the required equipment.
In no particular order, here are some of the best spots for whitewater rafting in Colorado:
The Arkansas River is one of the most popular rafting destinations in the state and one of the most well-known in the world. The Arkansas River begins near Leadville and flows south to Salida, passing through Buena Vista and Nathrop before turning east to Canon City, Pueblo, and the plains. There are several epic parts and trips to be had, the most popular of which is the Royal Gorge. This advanced trip winds its way through the narrow canyon, passing through several Class IV and V rapids. You’ll ride by the train and probably under the breathtaking suspension bridge.
Aside from Canon City’s Royal Gorge, there are other notable rafting sections along the river’s long journey through the Rockies. Thrill seekers will enjoy taking on Buena Vista’s The Numbers, followed by a family-friendly float down Browns Canyon, a national monument situated between Nathrop and Salida. Bighorn Sheep Canyon, near Canon City, is another beginner/intermediate segment. On the Arkansas River, you can choose between half-day and full-day adventures.
Durango is the largest mountain town in Southwest Colorado, and one of the largest in the state, with a population of about 20,000 people. While the Animas River offers a burst of energy and entertainment during the year, the historic town is best known for its narrow gauge railroad. The Animas River is unique in that it offers both lazy floats and raging whitewater on half and full day trips.
The Lower Animas River, which passes through downtown Durango, is the less difficult of the two parts. It’s a fun-for-the-whole-family float that includes a ride through the Durango Whitewater Park’s man-made rapids. The Upper Animas River begins near Purgatory, Durango’s mountain resort, to the north of town. It is the longest, uninterrupted stretch of commercially run Class IV-V rapids in the United States of America, stretching for more than 30 miles. The thrills don’t seem to stop!
The Yampa River is the most well-known river in northwest Colorado. It’s one of the state’s longest rivers that hasn’t been dammed. Rafting trips down the Yampa River are usually leisurely multi-day floats, ideal for a relaxing getaway and sightseeing across Yampa Canyon. Along the way, there are some whitewater thrills. Dinosaur National Monument is where it crosses the Green River.
Since Vernal, Utah is the most common town near Dinosaur National Monument, several overnight trips congregate there and shuttle out. Rafting trips down the Yampa River provide the opportunity to experience Class III and IV rapids, with the best months for rafting being May through July. It’s usually multi-day camping and rafting journeys, with some lasting up to five days. There are also several shorter half-day trips that depart from Steamboat Springs’ downtown area. From May to early June, these have some Class II and III whitewater.
Whitewater Rafting In Colorado River
From near Kremmling, the Colorado River flows southwest past Radium, Glenwood Springs, and on to Utah and beyond. From family-friendly trips down Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs to super gnarly, roaring whitewater in Gore Canyon, there are many great parts of the Colorado River to raft. Gore Canyon, widely known as Colorado’s most dangerous and commercially rafted whitewater, is not your average float. Only experienced rafters with knowledgeable guides are allowed to raft this epic, advanced whitewater section near Kremmling. It has a plethora of Class IV and V rapids that can be monstrous when the CFS and water levels are high.
The Pumphouse Recreation Site is located downstream of Kremmling and Gore Canyon. Three boat launches are available for a number of trips down the Class II and III rapids. It’s about a mile upstream from Radium‘s well-known primitive hot springs pool. Glenwood Canyon, near Glenwood Springs, is located much farther downstream. It’s a common option for half-day and full-day trips for groups of friends and families. Your guide can also take you to a primitive hot springs along the river’s edge (not Radium). People commonly raft shorter parts of the river due to its length, but it is also a suitable river for overnight camping/rafting trips.
The Animas River is a tributary of the San Juan River, which runs through Pagosa Springs’ downtown area. It may not have the longest rafting stretch or the most whitewater, but for a few months per season, it serves as an excellent beginner rafting ride. It runs directly through Pagosa’s downtown whitewater park. Then, after you’ve conquered one river, try one or both parts of the other nearby river.
The Piedra River, which flows alongside the San Juan River in downtown San Juan, is a nearby tributary. Its source is deep in the national forest north of town. The Piedra River flows southwest of Pagosa Springs, about 20 miles west of Pagosa and 40 miles east of Durango, from its source high in the central San Juan Mountains. In Arboles, it crosses the San Juan River and empties into the Navajo Reservoir. The Upper and Lower Piedra River trips are both fantastic.
Pagosa Springs is situated northwest of the Upper Piedra River. Since the trips are technical, they are ideally suited for children aged 12 and up. Numerous Class II, III, and IV rapids can be found here. Combine it with an overnight rafting ride on the Lower (box of the) Piedra River the next day if you’re feeling adventurous and just want to see the best of Colorado. Outfitters organize outings, set up tents, and prepare meals.
Spend another day on the Lower Piedra River after warming up on the Upper Piedra. It gets much more intense during its run through a thousand-foot-deep box canyon, with many massive drops. This portion contains high-octane thrills and is recommended for those aged 16 and up. The name “The River of Stone Wall” comes from the Spanish word “piedra,” which means “rock.” The Lower Piedra has Class IV+ rapids and descends several deep box canyons, making for an action-packed ride.
Cache La Poudre River
The Cache la Poudre River, just west of Fort Collins, serves the northern front range and provides excellent whitewater rafting. This river, simply known as the Poudre (“Poo-der”), has a small number of outfitters leading trips on it, making it much less crowded than some of the others. For each form of rafter, there are a few trips that are both milder and wilder. They normally meet just west of Fort Collins and shuttle you to your launch point further west.
Poudre Canyon is a breathtakingly beautiful place. It’s on the Cache La Poudre-North Park Byway, a national scenic byway that runs west from Fort Collins to Walden. The river is the only one in the country that has been named as a national wild and scenic river. On the Poudre River, you can choose between a beginner/intermediate half-day on Class II and III rapids and/or a half-day on advanced Class III and IV rapids. Rafting usually begins in mid-May and lasts until early September for easier floats and early August for more difficult ones.
When the weather permits, the Dolores River is another beautiful Southwest Colorado rafting destination. This one is a little more hit or miss because there are only a few trips open, which typically begin in April and end in June. It’s considered one of the best multi-day rafting trips in Colorado and beyond by those in the know. During its 175-mile raftable leg, it takes you through some exciting canyons and drops.
Raft the Dolores River for three to ten days. The majority of trips leave from nearby Cortez, but the longer trips converge in Durango, where they depart farther upstream on the Dolores River. Along its way, the wilderness is remote and beautiful. Remember that the window for this river is small, and it is usually around May, depending on the weather and water level. Along the way, you’ll encounter Class III rapids, which are ideal for people aged 10 and up.
Idaho Springs, in a sense Denver’s own mountain backyard, provides the nearest rafting opportunity to the Metro. This historic former mining town is just 30 miles west of downtown on I-70. Clear Creek rafting offers half-day and full-day trips. You can plan trips for all levels of paddlers, including beginners, intermediates, and advanced.
Clear Creek is the steepest commercially rafted river in the state. It forms various technical rapids and steep drops as it flows through a narrow canyon within Clear Creek Canyon. From the highway, you’d never guess, but this river has a thrilling journey. Since public lands cover 80 percent of the county, nature and wildlife are still present.
Keep Whitewater Rafting In Colorado Rivers
Snowfall high in the Rocky Mountains creates the ideal environment for a labyrinth of rivers that flow on both sides of the continental divide. In the season, they stoke the whitewater in over a dozen commercially rafted channels.
Have a fun and healthy whitewater rafting adventure on one of these Rocky Mountain rivers! Remember that each river has its own season from May to September, and some early rivers are only open for a short time while the whitewater is at its most exciting, so prepare accordingly.
Water data levels for Colorado rivers can be found at the USGS. Compare this to the CFS amounts recommended for the river you plan to raft. Naturally, your guide will take care of this for you, so send one a call to plan a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.