For Incredible Scenery and Miles of Thrills, Go Whitewater Rafting in Colorado
There Are Few Better Places for Rafting Than the Rocky Mountain State
Colorado is home to nearly 160 named rivers and offers some of the best whitewater for rafting on Earth. Whatever your skill level or experience, odds are you’ll find a rafting trip that’s ideal for you here. From deep wilderness multi-day excursions to gentle family-friendly floats, the Rocky Mountain State truly offers it all.
Whitewater rafting Colorado will not only give you some thrills, you’ll also get to see some incredible scenery all over the state. So what do you need to know if you hope to experience this outdoor vacation?
Whitewater Rafting Is for the Type of Person Who…
If you’re the type of person who enjoys outdoor adventures, spectacular scenery and getting wet, you’ll probably love whitewater rafting. This isn’t one size fits all — while there are trips for adrenaline junkies, there are also trips for those who get a little jittery about riding the rapids. The only people who should probably avoid it are those who really dislike the water.
What You’ll Experience
The thrill of crashing through the waves and going toe to toe against the elements can make you truly feel alive, while the spray and mist of the river cooling you underneath the warm rays of the sun can be a meditative experience. You’re sure to experience all sorts of emotions on a trip — fear, wonder and pride, among others.
Sure, the cold water soaking your face is bound to be refreshing. But whitewater rafting is refreshing in another way — giving you a break from technology. If you go on a multi-day trip, your technology isn’t likely to work in the wilderness. And even a day trip will afford you the opportunity to get away from your phone for a few hours.
Even the most tech-addicted teenagers will forget all about social media and texting while focusing on the unforgettable thrill of the ride.
Whitewater rafting is a team sport, requiring everyone to be involved in order to traverse the rapids. Everyone has to pull their weight, listening carefully to the raft leader and encouraging their fellow rafters. This makes it a great trip for families, couples, friends or even coworkers.
What to Know Before You Go
Whitewater rafting doesn’t mean riding a raft like the one Tom Hanks floated around on in “Cast Away.” The raft you’ll be riding in is an inflatable watercraft that can cut through roaring streams and whip around giant boulders. Your mission is to propel and maneuver the raft through various grades of rapids utilizing a paddle .
A few hours of paddling through turbulent waters can burn some serious calories and provide a great workout, especially for your arms and abs. Your hips and shoulders are likely to be a bit sore the next day as well! Of course, if you aren’t an experienced paddler, your best bet, and the safest one, is to work up to something more challenging over time.
This sport is a fun spring or summertime activity with a range of difficulties for nearly all ages and abilities, but as with any activity there are inherent risks, which means it’s important to research and select only a qualified, experienced outfitter. Certain river trips come with less risk than others, so it’s important to choose the appropriate level of whitewater too.
While being able to swim is highly recommended for whitewater activities, it isn’t always mandatory. Trips meant for beginners are usually less risky for non-swimmers, especially when water levels are lower.
Why Go in Colorado
As mentioned, Colorado is home to countless rivers, offering something for everyone with diverse scenery to paddle through. That includes those dramatic Rockies that led John Denver to sing “Rocky Mountain High,” almost always blue, sunny skies, along with rugged canyons and breathtaking gorges.
Plus, while you’re visiting this state, you can combine the adventure with other activities too, like world-class fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, horseback riding and four-wheeling.
The Top Rivers
With so many rivers, one of the most difficult decisions you’ll make is which river to choose for your trip. These are some of the most popular for Colorado whitewater rafting:
This river cuts through the canyons of Central Colorado, dropping 5,000 feet in its first 125 miles. One of the most popular rafting rivers in the nation, it includes everything from the gentle ride in Browns Canyon National Monument to the more heart-pounding stretches in Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge. Most trips depart from Salida, Canon City or Buena Vista.
This river is one of the most diverse in the state, with departures typically from Breckenridge, Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. It’s divided into lower and upper sections and includes a mix of calm stretches and thrilling rapids with scenery featuring rugged ravines and spectacular canyons.
For excursions close to Denver, Clear Creek sits just off Interstate 70, about a 40-minute drive west of the Mile High City. While it’s close to the highway, you won’t notice it at all while enjoying the scenic water. The river offers a Class IV day, or shorter splashes for families. Most trips depart from Idaho Springs.
Down in the Four Corners region running through Durango, the Upper Animas River offers big thrills with Class IV and V rapids and is known as some of the most challenging waters in the United States. The Lower Animas, on the other hand, is popular with families and outfitters often pair trips with a ride on the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
The circa-1882, coal-fired, steam-operated train was built specifically to handle the narrow, winding mountain routes, chugging along at 18 miles per hour as it climbs the precipitous mountain passes between Durango and Silverton, 45 miles north.
Cache La Poudre River
Located in Northern Colorado, the Cache La Poudre River is the state’s only nationally designated Wild and Scenic River. It flows through Poudre Canyon with its rugged cliffs and unique rock formations dotted with pines, mountain mahogany, aspen and sage brush. The Cache La Poudre River is best for intermediate or advanced paddling. Trips depart from Fort Collins.
North Platte River
Another river in Northern Colorado, the North Platte is ideal for escaping the crowds and enjoying wildlife along the way, including moose, river otters and bald eagles. It’s typically accessed from the small town of Walden.
This river that carved out the Gunnison Gorge — a dramatic canyon of both black and red rock — offers a remote experience away from the crowds, with donkeys and horses required to haul your gear down. Excursions leave from the town of Gunnison.
Yampa and Green Rivers
These rivers meander through Dinosaur National Monument and are perfect for multi-day trips. You’ll float past archaeological sites, fossils, petroglyphs and interesting geological formations. Trips typically depart from Steamboat Springs.
Roaring Fork River
This river that offers views of the jagged Collegiate Peaks is broken up into an upper and lower section, with the lower offering a more mellow float for families, and the upper ideal for thrill-seekers.
Fed largely by snow melt from Vail Mountain, the Eagle River is popular with first-time rafters as it offers some exciting rapids that aren’t too difficult to manage. As it relies on good snowpack, trips usually run through spring and into early summer, departing from Edwards, Wolcott and Eagle.
San Juan River
The San Juan flows through some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet in Southwestern Colorado, descending over 400 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River. Most trips begin in Pagosa Springs.
The Upper Uncompahgre River is perfect for beginners and families with young ones who wants to paddle while marveling at the San Juan Mountain scenery.
There are all sorts of options to choose from — trips span numerous lengths of time, from a few hours to multiple days, and cater to different comfort levels, from those looking for more leisurely rides to those looking for a challenge.
Venture into the Wild with O.A.R.S.
If you’re a thrill-seeker looking to ride the rapids, O.A.R.S. is an adventure travel company that offers some of the best rafting trips around, including some of the top experiences in Colorado. Established nearly a half-century ago, it’s been named the “Best River & Sea Outfitter on Earth” multiple times by National Geographic Adventure.
In the northwest corner of the state, the Yampa River and Green River spill from the Rockies’ western slopes into the heart of Dinosaur National Monument, which is home to fossils of all the different dinosaurs that lived in North America in the Jurassic Period.
Three quarters of the bones found in the Quarry Exhibit Hall here belong to Sauropods, the dominant animals from the late Jurassic Period. These include the bones of the diplodocus, the barosaurus and the apatosaurus (or brontosaurus), which was an astonishing 75 feet in length and weighed as much as 34 tons.
Rafting here allows you to experience the one major tributary in the Colorado River system that runs wild and free of upstream dams. In the springtime every year, the river offers thrilling whitewater with rapids like Little Joe, Big Joe, Teepee and Warm Springs.
As O.A.R.S. notes, the Yampa River Rafting trip offers more than whitewater with plenty of long calm stretches that will bring you past scenery that rivals even that of the Grand Canyon. In between paddling, you’ll hike to waterfalls, caves, petroglyphs, ancient Native American sites and more.
This adventure is available in either a three- or five-day trip and is geared toward solo travelers, couples and families. You’ll be provided plenty of tasty food for fueling all the fun, with nights spent at scenic campsites where you can enjoy gazing at beautiful views and billions of twinkling stars.
Take Things Slow with Colorado Rafting
Colorado Rafting offers half-day and full-day trips if you’re looking for something shorter. The Browns Canyon Sizzler is ideal for the entire family, and one of the best options for rafters with no experience, though experienced paddlers are sure to enjoy it as well.
The full-day excursion includes jaw-dropping canyon and mountain scenery through the Browns Canyon National Monument. You’ll start the day with a paddling lesson before hitting the rapids and be provided a delicious, hot lunch. Not to mention you’ll be outfitted with life jackets, wet suits, splash jackets and helmets.
If an easy scenic float is what you have in mind, Colorado Rafting features a half-day trip too, along a gently flowing section of the Colorado River, with just a few small rapids as it winds through the Gore Range and Mountain Ranchland. This relaxing trip includes time to swim, soak up the sun or just relax and enjoy the scenery along the five-mile journey.
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Accommodation options in Colorado are plentiful too. Book a multi-day trip and you’ll likely be camping after a day on the water, but if you’re seeking a day trip or something shorter, the state offers everything from campgrounds and cozy cabins to vacation homes, hotels and resorts situated near most departure points.
If soaking in hot springs after a day on the rapids sounds like you’re kind of idea of fun, that’s an option for that too. There are multiple hot springs resorts throughout the state, like Mount Princeton, which includes hot springs that sit within natural, rocky surroundings as well as human-created pools that are all heated by geothermal water.
There are pools for fun and pools for relaxing in the healing mineral waters, as well as numerous facilities, including an outstanding restaurant, bars, and a spa where you can indulge in facials, body treatments, various types of massage, private mud or lavender salt soaks and more. Lodging includes cabins and a variety of guest rooms.
What to Bring
What to bring really depends on the type of trip you plan to experience. Most outfitters will provide specific information based on the excursion, but trips typically include gear like life jackets, paddles, helmets, wet suits and splash jackets.
No matter the trip, you can expect to get wet, so dress accordingly. Jeans are one of the worst items of clothing you can wear as they’re heavy and uncomfortable when wet. Wearing a bathing suit and a quick-dry (no cotton) t-shirt and shorts is generally recommended. To protect your toes you may want to wear water shoes over flip-flops.
Pack a change of clothes, a towel and some water. While you’re likely to get drenched, once on land you’ll be thirsty, though your tour guide is likely to bring plenty of drinks too. Waterproof sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses are usually a good idea too, particularly in Colorado due to the often sunny skies and high elevation.