The Rocky Mountains are well known for the epic whitewater rivers they produce, and Colorado boasts its fair share of top places to raft. From the Arkansas to the Animas, there are more than a dozen commercially rafted rivers.
We’re highlighting some of the most popular and best rivers for whitewater rafting in Colorado. You can find these bodies of water in all corners of the Rockies. The main whitewater rafting season is from around June to September, depending on conditions. The earlier in the season the more fierce the whitewater because of the resulting snowmelt.
There are floats for everyone on these rivers, from novice and first-timers, to seasoned adrenaline junkies and families looking for a thrill. You can choose half day or full day trips, even some rivers provide overnight trips combined with camping. Whatever type of raft trip you’re looking for you can find it here. All necessary equipment is provided from commercial guides.
Here are among the top places to go whitewater rafting in Colorado, in no particular order:
DUE TO COVID-19, SOME COLORADO RAFTING GUIDES HAVE CANCELLED THEIR 2020 SEASON, OTHERS ARE PROCEEDING AND OPEN WITH SAFETY MEASURES IN PLACE.
The mighty Arkansas River is the most rafted river in the state, and one of the most well known in the country. The headwaters of the Arkansas River begin near Leadville and flows south past Buena Vista and Nathrop, to Salida, before venturing east to Cañon City, Pueblo and the plains. It features many epic sections and trips you can take, none more popular than the Royal Gorge. This advanced trip leads through the narrow canyon, encountering some Class IV and V rapids along the way. You’ll pass under the stunning suspension bridge and possibly by the train.
During its long journey in the Rockies there are other notable rafting sections besides Cañon City’s Royal Gorge. Thrill seekers will enjoy tackling The Numbers by Buena Vista, before enjoying a family friendly float down the scenic Browns Canyon, Browns Canyon, a national monument located between Nathrop and Salida. Another beginner/intermediate section is Bighorn Sheep Canyon by Cañon City. Choose from half and full day adventures on the Arkansas River.
Durango is Southwest Colorado’s largest mountain towns in terms of population, and one of the biggest in the state at around 20,o00 residents. The historic town may be most known for its narrow gauge railroad, but the Animas River provides a surge of energy and recreation throughout the year. What’s cool about the Animas River is both lazy floats and raging whitewater can be found on half and full day trips.
The Lower Animas River runs through downtown Durango offering the easier of the two sections. It’s a family-friendly float with thrills assured by passing through the manmade rapids of the Durango Whitewater Park. The Upper Animas River begins to the north of town near Purgatory, Durango’s mountain resort. It has the honor of being the longest, continuous stretch of commercial run Class IV-V rapids in the United States of America, 30+ miles. The thrills just keep on coming!
Northwest Colorado’s most notorious river is the Yampa River. It’s actually the longest non-dammed rivers in the state. The rafting trips down the Yampa River are usually relaxing, multi-day lazy floats, perfect for a peaceful retreat and sightseeing through Yampa Canyon. There’s some whitewater thrills along the way. It meets up with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.
Because Vernal, UT is the most popular town around Dinosaur National Monument, many of the overnight trips meet up there and shuttle out. Rafting trips down the Yampa River provide a chance to encounter Class III and IV rapids, best run from May through July. They are mostly multi-day camping and rafting trips, some either 4 or 5 days. There are also some shorter half day trips that launch out of downtown Steamboat Springs. These provide some Class II and III whitewater from May to early June.
The Colorado River runs its course from near Kremmling to the southwest past Radium, Glenwood Springs and onto Utah and beyond. There are many great sections of the Colorado River to raft, from family friendly trips down Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs, to super gnarly, raging whitewater in Gore Canyon. Widely regarded as the most fierce, commercially rafted whitewater in Colorado, Gore Canyon is far from your typical float. This epic, advanced whitewater section near Kremmling is reserved only for experienced rafters with knowledgeable guides. It boasts numerous Class IV and V rapids that are monstrous when the CFS and water is high.
Downstream from Kremmling and Gore Canyon lies the Pumphouse Recreation Site. It features 3 boat launches for a variety of trips down its Class II and III rapids. It’s located a few miles upstream from Radium and its notorious primitive hot springs pool. Much further downstream will bring you to Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs. It’s really popular for groups of friends and families looking for half and full day trips. Your guide might even lead you to a primitive hot springs on the banks of the river (not Radium). Due to the long length of river, people notoriously raft shorter sections, though this is a suitable river for overnight camping/rafting trips as well.
The aforementioned Animas River is a tributary to the San Juan River, which passes right through downtown Pagosa Springs. It may not offer the longest stretch of river to raft, or most whitewater, but for a few months each season it makes a great beginner, introduction-to-rafting trip. It passes directly through the Pagosa’s whitewater park in downtown. Then after you have a river under your belt, tackle one or both sections of the other local river.
On top of the in-town San Juan River, there’s another tributary to it nearby, the Piedra River. It has its headwaters north of town deep in the national forest. From high up in the central San Juan Mountains, the Piedra River flows southwest of Pagosa Springs, about 20 miles west of Pagosa and 40 miles east of Durango. It joins the San Juan River there in Arboles, emptying into the Navajo Reservoir. There are two great trips on the Piedra River: the Upper and Lower.
The Upper Piedra River is located northwest of Pagosa Springs. Trips are technical so it’s best suited for children 12 years and up. It includes numerous Class II, III and IV rapids. If you’re feeling adventurous and really want to experience the best of Colorado, combine it with an overnight rafting trip, which hits the Lower (box of the) Piedra River the next day. Outfitters guide trips, set up tents and cook your meals for you.
After warming up on the Upper Piedra, spend another day on the Lower Piedra River. It’s even more extreme with several huge drops during its run in a thousand-foot-deep box canyon. This section has big thrills and suited for ages 16 and up. Piedra means “rock” in Spanish, so it. gets the name “The River of Stone Wall”. The action packed trip down the Lower Piedra has Class IV+ rapids, descending multiple deep box canyons.
Cache La Poudre River
Conveniently serving the northern front range, the Cache la Poudre River offers great whitewater rafting just west of Fort Collins. Known simply as the Poudre (“Poo-der”), this river has a limited number of outfitters guiding trips on it, so it’s much less than crowded than some of the others. You can find a couple of trips both milder and wilder for each type of rafter. They usually meet just west of Fort Collins and will shuttle you further west to your launch-in point.
Poudre Canyon is an extremely scenic place. It’s located on the Cache La Poudre-North Park Byway, a national scenic byway drive west to Walden from Fort Collins. The river itself is the only one designated a national wild and scenic river. Choose from a beginner/intermediate half day on Class II and III rapids and/or a half day of advanced Class III and IV rapids on Poudre River. Rafting generally start around mid May and go to early September for easier floats and early August for harder ones.
The Dolores River is another scenic Southwest Colorado rafting hotspot, when it’s permitted. This one is a little more hit or miss though as there are only limited trips available, usually starting in April and finishing in June. Those in the know, know it as one of the top multi-day rafting trips available in Colorado and beyond. It leads you down some exciting canyons and drops during its 175-mile raftable section.
Raft the Dolores anywhere from a 3 to 10 day trips. Most trips generally depart from nearby Cortez, but the longer trips meet up in Durango, departing further upstream on the Dolores River. The wilderness is remote and gorgeous along its route. Remember the window is limited for this river, depending on the conditions and water level, so it’s generally around May. You’ll hit Class III rapids on the way, suitable for ages 10 years and older.
In Denver’s own mountain backyard of sorts, Idaho Springs offers an exciting rafting opportunity closest to the Metro. Only 30 miles west of downtown on I-70 leads you to this historic former mining town. Both half and full day trips are available rafting Clear Creek. You can arrange trips suitable for beginners, intermediates and advanced paddlers.
Clear Creek is the steepest river in the state that’s commercially rafted. It flows through a narrow canyon within Clear Creek Canyon, shaping numerous technical rapids and steep drops. You’ll never know it from the highway, but this river features a wild ride. 80% of the county is public lands, so nature and wildlife are always present.
Keep on Rafting these Colorado Rivers
The snow produced high in the Rocky Mountains provide the perfect recipe for a maze of rivers running on both sides of the continental divide. Come springtime they fuel the whitewater found in more than a dozen commercial rafted rivers. In addition to the ones above, the following are other great places to experience the sport of rafting.
Here are some other places to go rafting in Colorado:
- Blue River – Silverthorne
- Eagle River – Vail
- Gunnison River – Delta
- North Platte River – Walden
- Rio Grande River – Creede
- Roaring Fork River – Aspen
- San Juan River – Pagosa Springs
- San Miguel River – Telluride
- Taylor River – Crested Butte, Gunnison
Have a safe and thrilling whitewater rafting trip to one of these Rocky Mountain rivers! Remember, each river has its own season within the a range of May to September, some early rivers are just a shorter stint while the whitewater is at its peak, so plan accordingly.
You can check the water data levels at USGS for Colorado rivers. Compare that to the appropriate CFS levels for the river you plan on rafting. Naturally, your guide will handle this for you, so just give one a call to schedule a trip of a lifetime.