Like many Front Range natives and transplants, I did my first rafting trips on the Pumphouse to State Bridge stretch of the Upper Colorado, or the “Upper C,” as it is generally known. I was nine on that first trip, rocking a floral one-piece bathing suit and a pair of jellies. And while I moved on from one-pieces and jellies in my teens, I kept floating that stretch of river well into my 20s. Despite crowding in recent years, this section remains one of the classic runs within a three-hour drive from Denver.
When I left the paddling hub of Carbondale for Denver, I was forced to find (and appreciate) whatever water I could get on. And hopefully, my beta will help other boaters stuck in the urban rut to get out there too.
I’m giving away no secrets here. Any of the runs listed below are well-known and have become increasingly crowded in recent years, especially during the outdoor recreation boom of 2020, and many are in danger of being “loved to death.” While it’s great that more folks are getting out on the river, safety and resource-protection concerns are becoming more pronounced, and it’s essential that users of these rivers have solid paddling and safety skills, vigilantly practice Leave No Trace, and respect other boaters. In the words of American Whitewater, let’s all Paddle Wise.
Disclaimer: Flows in Colorado are highly variable right now. Check out americanwhitewater.org for up-to-date flow reports.
The Poudre River
Rating: Class III-IV(+)
Drive Time from Denver: 1.5 hours
Overnight or Day Trip: Day trip
Fort Collins’s Poudre River is Colorado’s only designated Wild and Scenic River. It’s close to Denver and very popular with tourists and locals alike. At higher water levels boaters can float the entire 21 miles of navigable river, but there are shorter stretches as well. People can get in trouble on the Poudre and it’s not a place for brand-new paddlers. Though the section is done as a day trip, there is plenty of camping along the highway if you want to break it up for a weekend overnighter. Plan for crowds on weekends.
Fort Collins is a small city with a large university and has a hopping downtown with many restaurants and breweries to round out your day. Crooked Stave Brewery, Coppermuse Distillery, and New Belgium Brewing Company are favorites for drinks. Check out Big Al’s Burgers and Dogs, Vatos Tacos and Tequila, or the Yampa Sandwich Company for after-float food. If you love donuts, don’t miss the Fort Collins Donut Company. It can be fun to pair your day on the river with a visit to the Mishawaka Amphitheater for an outdoor concert or movie.
Rating: Class III-V
Drive Time from Denver: 1 hour
Overnight or day trip: Day trip
Though the first boatable stretch of this river is rated as intermediate, nothing on this tight, technical river is easy and the river only accommodates kayaks and small rafts. The five-mile intermediate stretch is upstream near the towns of Lawson and Idaho Springs and the sections through Clear Creek canyon proper are tight, technical, and for advanced paddlers only.
Running the full stretch could take up to five hours, and a swim through here could be long and nasty. Kayakers or playboaters looking for something short and mellow can hit the whitewater park in Golden. Once the water drops, the section in town is very popular with tubers. Important note: conditions change rapidly in Clear Creek due to highway closures and debris in the river. A diversion dam in the class IV-V section needs to be taken seriously. Do your research before you choose Clear Creek. American Whitewater and the online forum Mountain Buzz can provide helpful, up-to-date beta on this stretch.
You’ll be taking out right outside of Golden, which has plenty of options for post-river food and drinks. Golden City Brewery is a town institution, and Woody’s Woodfire has fast pizza and salad bar options. D’Deli is a good option for a quick sandwich, and Cannonball Brewery has plenty of seating, interesting beers, and rotating food trucks.
The Arkansas River
Rating: Class I-V
Drive time from Denver: 2.5 hours
Overnight or Day Trip: Usually a day trip, sections below can be combined for an overnight
The Arkansas River is a Front Range favorite and is also the most commercially-boated river in the United States. Take note that the river can be very crowded and the water is very cold, especially early in the season. The Arkansas is located near the quaint, yet hip, towns of Buena Vista and Salida at the base of the Collegiate Peaks and offers some of the best intermediate boating in the area.
The upper stretch of the river, called The Numbers, is suitable for advanced rafters and kayakers only. Many boaters have gotten in over their heads here. Brown’s Canyon is the most popular stretch on the river and offers continuous class III-IV whitewater for 13.5 miles. Flips are common, especially at higher water levels, but the stretch is within reach for most intermediate boaters. The Milk Run is a short, five-mile run downstream of Brown’s that is appropriate for all levels and is kid-friendly. Bighorn Sheep Canyon is a lesser-known class II-III stretch also downstream of Brown’s
On your way to the river, stop at Brown Dog Coffee for caffeine and breakfast, and at the end of the day head to local favorite Eddyline Brewing Company in Buena Vista for craft beer, burgers, and pizza.
The Upper Colorado River
Rating: Class II-III (below Gore Canyon)
Drive time from Denver: 2.5 hours
Overnight or day trip: Both are popular
The Upper Colorado—or Upper C—from Pumphouse to State Bridge is likely the most popular stretch of river for private boaters in the state, for good reason. This relatively easy run has a combination of splashy wave trains and rock-dodging. Boaters should make sure they’re paying attention at Eye of the Needle and Yarmony rapids, but the rest of the trip is mellow. This stretch of river also features the riverside Radium hot springs, concerts at Rancho del Rio and State Bridge, as well as good riverside camping. Of all the stretches mentioned here, planning ahead, excellent Leave No Trace, and communication with other parties are perhaps most essential to keeping the river open without a permit.
Those looking for a less crowded experience can start their trip at one of the many put-ins downstream of State Bridge.
Since you’ll either be taking out at State Bridge or close to Dotsero, there are not many close-by après options. If you’re taking out at State Bridge, I recommend a stop in Minturn on your way home. Thai Kitchen is awesome, and the Minturn Saloon offers an unbeatable combination of Mexican food and classic American bar food.
North Platte River
Rating: Class I-IV (V at high water)
Drive Time from Denver: 3 hours
Overnight or day trip: Usually an overnight
Northgate Canyon on the North Platte is a technical run through a narrow canyon. The North Platte is one of Colorado’s last free-flowing rivers, meaning the season is short and runoff dependent. Running this stretch at high water is recommended for advanced boaters only. The six miles of the upper canyon between the put-in at Routt and the takeout at Six-Mile Gap contain the biggest rapids, but the 21 miles into Wyoming are mellow and very popular for fishing.
The Six-Mile Gap boat ramp is located in a wilderness area, and river access is only via a steep trail–be ready to hike in your gear! Significant portions of the North Platte flow through private land and landowners can be very strict. Do your research ahead of time and only pull over or camp on public land. Finding information about the North Platte can be tricky, but the Poudre Paddlers Kayak and Canoe Club provides excellent information about each section, as well as other popular stretches in Colorado and surrounding states.
The more common takeout, Bennett Peak, is remote and the nearest civilization is the small Wyoming town of Saratoga Springs. A visit to the springs could be nice if you had a chilly run.
Once you’ve picked a river to run, please keep the following in mind:
If you’re new to the sport, make sure you have the skills to safely be on the river. Choose a run that’s appropriate for your ability level and consider taking courses to keep building skills. Anyone who is spending time on the river should have basic rescue and first aid skills. Look for an ACA-approved swiftwater course and consider taking a wilderness first aid course as well. Salida-based Canyon River Instruction offers private instruction for new boaters as well as swiftwater rescue courses. There are also numerous boating clubs and Facebook groups on the Front Range and joining a group of more experienced paddlers is a great way to build your skills and confidence. It can also be a good idea to start with a commercial trip on a stretch you’re not familiar with.
Protect the resource.
Crowding in river corridors, especially unpermitted stretches like those listed above, has resulted in serious environmental impacts. Popular campsites are often filled with garbage, human waste, and numerous fire pits, and shorelines are littered with trash and toilet paper. We all need to learn and use Leave No Trace practices to keep our impact as minimal as possible.
Respect other river users.
There are a lot of us out there, and we can all choose to act in ways that help make the experience as enjoyable for everyone as possible. A big part of this revolves around safety and Leave No Trace, but here are several additional considerations. 1) Be as fast as you can on the boat ramp, which is often small and crowded. Pre-rig and de-rig as much as possible before pulling your vehicle down to get your boat. 2) Keep music volume low. Some people prefer the sound of the river over the sound of other people’s music. 3) Manage boat spacing and communicate with other parties. Stay together and talk with other boaters about campsites and lunch stop plans.
Stay safe, keep the river clean, and have fun out there!