I paddled Colorado’s Clear Creek for the first time in 2013, in the middle of a three-night run of Widespread Panic shows at Red Rocks. A Denver-based friend and I drove a few miles out of Golden (of Coors fame) to a put-in. I remember the river feeling natural at first with a seemingly seasonable flow. After forty minutes or so, we came around a corner and the corridor suddenly opened up to an urban park scene, a far cry from the faintly bucolic river we were floating on moments before.
We had arrived at Clear Creek Whitewater Park, a quarter-mile stretch of manmade hydraulic features, spectator-friendly boulder bleachers, and sun-soaked summertime revelers. It was the first time I’d seen an engineered whitewater park and it was, I thought, completely surreal.
Throughout the West, river towns are designing whitewater parks and artificial play waves with several motivating factors in mind. In Colorado, the state with the most whitewater parks in the country, wave construction is most often a means of guaranteeing that enough river water reaches the community to facilitate the “beneficial use” of in-stream recreation. In Idaho and Nevada, whitewater parks have been developed to improve severely degraded urban sections of river. Artificial waves often replace defunct dams, irrigation diversions, or other unsightly, dangerous, or outdated in-stream installations.
Waves and play parks may be owned by the municipality or by the state. Non-profit organizations, private donors, or voter-approved bond packages may fund their construction and maintenance. And urban redevelopment groups or paddlesports clubs may initiate their development, or they may be part of a larger plan for ecological restoration in altered river systems.
Proponents celebrate the waves as boons to local tourism, mechanisms for community connection to rivers, and improvements to degraded stream sections. Opponents claim they are impediments to fish passage, cause damage to aquatic habitat, and contribute to a flawed public perception of “natural” river systems.
To put it simply, the debate over man-made waves is complex and often heated. While splashing around in perfect waves beneath summer sun, though, it’s pretty easy to forget the controversy.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to drive around the West with my sweetheart Nate in our truck packed with bikes and playboats. Our itinerary took us from southern Colorado to the coast of California, back up through Oregon and Idaho, and eventually toward our home in Missoula, Montana, visiting friends, seeing live music, and stopping at whitewater parks along the way.
That road trip feels a world away today, as I think back from this current moment, with its limitations on our ambulation and on gatherings like concerts and festivals. That collective appreciation of art and energy–the kind you find at concerts–is what I miss the most, now, as summer approaches. That said, staying close to home–exploring the nearby–has yielded myriad rewards, many of them unexpected. Without knowing what the coming summer will bring, I’m happy to share the data we collected on our 2019 tour of Western whitewater parks with you here, in hopes that you might find yourself wandering again someday soon.
It’s important to admit that Nate and I are not very serious about playboating. We enjoy it, but we can’t tell you here whether certain waves are better for right blunts or airscrews. What we ARE good at, though, is eating pizza, and we promise that the pizza joints we recommend here will not disappoint.
Montrose Whitewater Park
Montrose, Colorado on the Uncompahgre River
Check out current flows here and an interactive wave map here.
Pro Tip: All waves are good at 200 to 700 CFS. Over 700 CFS, waves 4 and 5 are reportedly the best.
Before getting on the water in Montrose, we met Hollis, a local surfboard builder who told us this park was designed specifically with SUP-ers and surfers in mind. You’ll find something to surf, even at super-low flows. There are fish ladders on surfer’s right on each wave—a nod to ecologists’ recommendation to build in fish passage every time a wave is constructed. Also, there’s free WiFi in the park!
A Montrose coffee barista pointed us toward Colorado Boy Brewery. The hostess gave us her enthusiastic endorsement and asked if we wanted to try the “Best pizza on the Western slope! Best beer, too!” Their 6” pizzas make a great snack. Delicious IPA on nitro tap. A projector screens old cartoons behind the bar.
Bonus: If you’re biking in Fruita, you should not pass up a stop into Hot Tomato Pizza.
Durango Whitewater Park
Durango, Colorado on the Animas River
Check out American Whitewater’s beta page, with recommended and current flows here. Colorado Kayak Supply also has excellent, specific beta here. And finally, the city provides and map and info here.
In 2014, the city of Durango fancied up its Santa Rita Whitewater Park with some new, more permanent features. We were in Durango when the Animas was still running pretty high. There are four main rapids/waves in the park, and when the river is high they can get big. The water diversion structure at the top of the park (added in 2017) is an unnatural, low-head dam-ish feature that can be so formidable that there’s substantial civil discussion about the risks it poses to recreational and commercial river runners. That said, the Durango park offers ample opportunities for surfing bigger features, practicing river running skills, and training for slalom.
There’s also excellent biking in Durango. After riding Horse Gulch, we recommend you stop in to see our friend Zach at Velorution Cycles. His bike tech recommended The Box at 11th Street Station for wood-fired pizza and beers.
You could definitely add the play parks at Salida and Buena Vista to complete your southern Colorado circuit. Pair those two sessions with pizza at Amicas and Eddyline, respectively.
Truckee River Whitewater Park
Reno, Nevada on the Truckee River
Check out American Whitewater’s beta page, with recommended and current flows here or information from the city here.
The Truckee Whitewater Park features eleven drops over a half-mile stretch of the Truckee River. The City of Reno owns the $1.5 million park. A state-wide, voter-passed bond funded its design and construction, and the park’s management falls to the State of Nevada. Before the park opened in 2004, 7,000 tons of smooth boulders were installed along the Truckee’s urban banks for ease of “access, spectating, and kayaking maneuvers.”
We weren’t in Reno in time for pizza, but we found a decent riverside breakfast spot in Café Capello. The river through town was running too low (in mid-July) for us to paddle, but we saw the potential to have a lot of fun here. It was also cool to see locals in business suits dip their feet in the water on a coffee break. The river here feels fully integrated into downtown Reno life.
Nate and I interrupted our tour des rivières with a foray to the coast of Northern California, where we were slated to help out with our friends’ stage at the Northern Nights Music Festival. We traversed, sans air conditioning, the Sierra Nevada and then the sweltering Sacramento sprawl, eventually landing in the relative cool of the Redwoods.
The Eel River flowed through the property where this little party happened. As people arrived to camp, floating pool toys: giant unicorns, graceful swans, and slimy lobsters inundated its meandering shallows captained by sloppy and scantily-clad pretty people with an affinity for bass music–a different kind of play park, I guess. As much as we loved slinging cocktails to DJs and thrashing around in the sun with our friends for a few days, we did NOT love the lack of hygiene at Northern Nights. We’ve both spent plenty of time at Burning Man and at multi-night Widespread Panic runs, but this was different. People clearly did not wash their hands often (a totally unimaginable offense now, given our current and unavoidable fixation with soap and water), and sanitation options were regrettably limited.
Four days later, we broke down our camp, totally throttled by a powerful festival-borne G.I. funk. We limped northward and slept in Crescent City, where someone cut the cable lock off the top of the truck in an unsuccessful attempt to repossess our bikes. The next morning, we drove to Bend, Oregon, in a feeble effort to resume our tour of whitewater parks and wash away the post-festival sickness.
Bend Whitewater Park
Bend, Oregon on the Deschutes River
American Whitewater’s beta page, with recommended and current flows here or a city map and info here.
Inspired by the success of the Boise River Park 300 miles away, in 2012 the residents of Bend, Oregon, voted for a $29 million dollar bond package that included funding for their own whitewater park. The Bend Whitewater Park replaced a 1915-era dam on the Deschutes River. It features a whitewater channel with four separate standing waves controlled by pneumatic bladders, a more docile channel for tubers and floaters, and a third channel with slow-moving water, intended as habitat for wildlife.
The park opened in September 2015. Not more than a month later, it was temporarily closed for maintenance; “damaged equipment, washed away rock and unfinished business” spurred the closure, according to one journalist’s criticism in the Bend Bulletin. The project managers say this is a performance issue (rather than a safety issue), and it was to be expected. It’s a complicated system, and the features need to be “fine-tuned.”
Before we got in our boats, we spoke with a Parks and Rec guy sitting in the shade beneath a footbridge, attempting to fix the device that counts the tubers. One specialist controls the wave bladders from his iPad, he explained. Some adjustments make the waves better for kayakers, others for surfers. He told us how when making decisions about the Deschutes, the local spotted frog habitat is the city’s number one priority. And that the city recently renamed the “safe passage” channel to the “fish ladder,” since the channel was never really, totally safe.
According to him, waves 1 and 3 “didn’t really work out,” and that wave 4 is consistently good for beginner kayakers. I watched wistfully as an inflatable glittery swan passed beneath the footbridge. (Mine had met an early demise in the crowded, colorful Eel at Northern Nights.) The guy counted the swan on his clicker. We surfed that bottom wave 4 and found it fun and mellow–perfect for our fragile bellies.
There are too many pizza joints to list within walking or biking distance of the whitewater park. We recommend you just ask a local for their favorite spot. Bend is a haven for people who love good beer and food.
Boise Whitewater Park
Boise, Idaho on the Boise River
Check out American Whitewater’s beta page, with recommended and current flows here or a map and info from the city here.
In the early 1900s, the Boise River was channelized, diverted, and subjected to the whims of turn-of-the-century industrialism. Nearly a hundred years later, a 1999 management plan from Boise City Council and the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission identified the 30th Street area as the potential site for a future river park. Previously home to a concrete plant, and what the City called a “disinvested residential area,” a century-old diversion dam scarred the 30th Street zone and the adjacent section of river. In 2010, Friends of the Park (the non-profit group who spearheaded the whitewater park initiative), the City, and Thurman Mill Irrigation District reached an agreement that would allow wave construction to begin.
There’s no mistaking the Boise River Park for a series of naturally occurring river features; the surf waves form between concrete walls. However, residents of the city now engage with their river in a way that was previously impossible–or, at least, unappealing. The project plan addressed issues of safety, access, compromised water quality, degraded riparian habitat, and bank instability, and the city’s investment in this forgotten concrete district is paying off. Boise residents now congregate along and celebrate this section of river, rather than turning away from it.
There’s a wave “schedule,” wherein the city adjusts the bladders to create conditions ideal for stand-up surfing (green wave) or kayaking (wave/hole) on alternating days. Although everyone is technically welcome anytime, our Boise pals say that there are definitely “surfer days” and “kayaker days,” and that the two user groups don’t always mix so well.
There are a bunch of cute little restaurants and bars on the west side of the river, but to get pizza, you’ll have to head back into Boise proper.
Kelly’s Whitewater Park
Cascade, Idaho on the Payette River
Check out Kelly’s website here or the American Whitewater’s beta page, with recommended and current flows here.
Kelly’s opened in June 2010 in the tiny town of Cascade (population ~ 900). A local philanthropist donated the land for Kelly’s which was built in memory of Kelly Brennan. It’s a stunning complex of water, trail, and expansive Idaho mountain views. There’s a visitor’s center whose displays offer local history lessons and whose floor-to-ceiling windows frame the gorgeous Payette River valley. When we stopped in, crawling our way toward home, we were too sick to surf, but took a wander anyway. There was a class of watercolor artists on the visitor center’s deck, a squad of teenaged SUP-ers on one wave, and a middle-aged guy in a playboat on another. Kelly’s has five waves, each unique and offering a different challenge. Though we weren’t in pizza-eating shape, the local consensus is that Reo’s is the place to go.
Missoula, Montana on the Clark Fork River
Check out American Whitewater’s beta page, with recommended and current flows flow here. Although, AW measures below Missoula, the NOAA flows above Missoula, might more accurately reflect flow through town.
Brennan’s Wave, in the heart of downtown Missoula, where I live, took the place of a dilapidated but functional irrigation diversion in 2006. It’s named for Brennan Guth, who died kayaking in Chile in 2001. According to a 2015 economic impact report by researchers at the University of Montana, Brennan’s Wave generates over $2 million annually in tourism and commerce as a recreational amenity. After damage sustained in a flood event in 2011, Brennan’s Wave needs repair: if no maintenance is performed, the structure could fail completely, eliminating its utility as an irrigation diversion. Yet the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to grant Brennan’s Wave, Inc. (the nonprofit that raised the funds to build the wave initially) permission to repair the structure, mandating that they must complete a long list of cost-prohibitive analyses before a permit is issued.
For some, the fight to repair Brennan’s Wave is a fight to protect Brennan Guth’s legacy, to groom future river advocates by inspiring Missoulians to reconnect with the Clark Fork. Brennan’s Wave is a few miles below the site of the Milltown Dam—removed in 2008—at the heart of the Clark Fork Superfund Complex. The site of another proposed wave—he Max Wave, named for local kayaker Max Lentz, who died on West Virginia’s Gauley River in 2007, at the age of 17—lies about a mile downstream of Brennan’s; no permit has been issued for its construction.
A pervasive gap in scientific data exacerbates the argument over artificial waves in the Clark Fork, Montana’s largest river and a highly prized trout fishery. The Endangered Species Act—the beloved Clark Fork bull trout is a federally listed species—and the historical complexities of water law in the American West further complicate the issue.
Brennan’s is special. Park at Cara’s Park downtown, and then cross the riverside bike trail to head toward the water. It’s surfable year-round, and you’ll find equal parts river surfers and kayakers in short and longboats alike. In the spring, keep an eye out for timber coming downstream. In the summer, look upstream for innertubes and rafts full of revelers.
At high water, the water moves fast and ferrying between the middle and river-right eddies can be quite aerobic. The two waves at Brennan’s keep changing subtly each year, but there’s always something to surf, including anomalous pockets and secondary waves that pop up at different levels. According to the authorities at Missoula’s beloved kayak shop, Love Boat Paddle Co., Brennan’s is best from 7000 – 20,000 cfs on the “above town” gauge.
At Brennan’s, it’s a rare day when there aren’t ice cream-licking spectators on the wooden deck overlooking the main wave. It’s fun to listen to peoples’ dialog as they watch the boaters and surfers below. Not everyone assumes or knows that this is an unnatural feature of the Clark Fork, but seeing those smiling surfers connect with the water so intimately must ignite a unique sense of appreciation in those who stop to watch.
Our pizza affections are divided between Biga, just a few blocks up from the river, right downtown, or The Bridge, on the south end of the Higgins Street bridge. Both are perfectly situated within walking distance of Brennan’s Wave.
We love this place, our home, and it’s nice to know that through it all—post-festival bug, dreary winter months, or pandemic—Brennan’s is there, sparkling under the moonlight, serenading downtown Missoula with the sound of rushing water. Even if it’s unnatural, man-made, I’m grateful for that wave, as a paddler and as someone who tries to appreciate intelligent river restoration. There’s a unique beauty in the visual heterogeneity of a revived urban riverscape. More than that, Brennan’s brings our community to the river. To me, that’s worth its weight in gold.