Whitewater rafting is a thrilling experience whether you’ve gone one or one hundred times. Everyone experiences the adventure a little differently, but they all agree that it’s an activity that changes their lives forever. Once the whispers of winter finally melt away, water flows into the rivers and sets up the season well for Colorado whitewater rafting experiences throughout the state.
There are countless river guides, companies and rivers to choose from when selecting where you’re going to go rafting. But no matter what you end up deciding you can’t go wrong and will still be in for a memorable trip. It’s said that Colorado rafting is a different experience than anywhere else. It’s also said that it’s the best place to raft hands down. Alright—that might be a little biased though a lot of people can attest to this statement.
Regardless of where you think the best rafting is, Colorado’s rivers offer exciting and challenging trips. Some are more laid back (I or III) while others are ranked at the top of the class scale (V or VI). Each also requires different levels of preparedness and physicality that is important to note before hopping into a raft. Before you plan your trip, it’s best to brush up on the facts so you can enjoy your time out on the water a little more. Here’s your guide to rafting in the Centennial state!
There are a total of 158 named rivers in Colorado, but not all of them are meant to be rafted down. Out of them all, there are around 20 rivers that are the most popular (and offer the best) whitewater rafting in the state. The 18 that are navigatable have rapids of all levels and some even switch from a low class to a high class in the span of a few miles.
Many rafting guides tend to take people along the Arkansas & Clear Creek rivers because of their scenic views and the geologic landscapes that they run through. Rivers like Roaring Fork and Taylor will take you for a more challenging ride and is a fantastic option for more advanced paddlers.
The Yampa and San Miguel rivers both have stunning views as well and are suited for families to navigate. The Yampa is perfect for multi-day “floats” and sets you up to view several archeological and fossil sites along the way. The San Miguel will swiftly take you past alpine forests and desert red-rock canyon walls. Rapids only get to Class III with waves up to four feet. There are some narrow passages that will cause water to gush over the sides so you’ll want to be prepared for when it happens.
No matter what your level requirements are, there is a river with your name on it! The possibilities are endless and if you’re craving more of the outdoors you can take your pick from several rivers and spend more than a half-day on the water.
Rapids For All Skill Levels
Selecting the right river trip is all about lining up your abilities with how tough it is to navigate. If you’ve never tested the waters (literally and figuratively) then trying a Class V rapid should best be avoided. Likewise, if you’re a seasoned adventurer, a Class I or II rapids might be fun but a little less exciting.
Some of the best places for beginners to start are the Lower Browns Canyon, Hayden Meadows, and Milk Run on the Arkansas River. The rapids are a little calmer and there’s less need to worry about high water walls splashing into the raft. They both are classified with the I and II levels of rapids meaning there is little to no maneuvering required and the waters stay more even and slower for the most part.
Intermediate explorers have more room to work with on the river and can tackle Class III- IV rapids. This includes other parts of Browns Canyon, Clear Creek River, Blue River, Cache La Poudre, Taylor River and Upper Colorado River (to name a few.) These rivers command more of your attention with rapids that aren’t as forgiving. But as long as you’re up for the challenge it won’t come as a surprise! There are quite a few more options for intermediate rafters than
For those who crave advanced rapids-ranked as Class IV-V(+)- you’ll want to hit the Animas River, Arkansas & Gunnison Rivers, Piedra River, or the beginning of the Roaring Fork River.
Sections of each of these flowing bodies of water will challenge even those who have been enjoying the activity for years. You’ll come across longer, more challenging rapids, narrow passages, and fast twisting and spinning. Each paddler on these trips should stay alert and be ready for how technically demanding the rapids will be.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you should be prepared for physical challenges while on your trip. Whitewater rafting can be extremely fun, but the adventure can easily become a bust if you don’t:
- Listen to your guide
- Understand that your guide can help you to a point
- Understand that the weather can change quickly, so pack accordingly
- Taking your own limitations into account prior to stepping onto a raft
Rafting does take a toll on you so be sure you’ve rested well and can handle what happens while on the river. Falling out isn’t always something that happens, but it is a possibility. A sunny day might turn into a dreary afternoon. There are a lot of “what ifs” that can occur which means it’s best to do your due diligence ahead of time.
Most rafting companies will also set you up with a life jacket and a wetsuit to rent, but it’s up to you to bring (or leave) a few additional items. You’ll want to have plenty of water with you, extra clothes for after the adventure and sunscreen (and chapstick) for sunnier days. Light snacks like jerky and nuts are easy to bring with you but keep the amount to a minimum.
Jewelry, expensive items, and cameras (including DSLRs) should be left at home. Rivers in Colorado can change quickly and loose items have a tendency for falling out without much notice.
It’s best practice to follow along with your guide for an optimal river experience. Once you’ve taken everything into account and have asked questions ahead of time, you’ll be one step closer to prepping for your rafting trip. The whitewater rafting is an exciting experience and one that you’ll remember for a lifetime! Be safe on the water and get ready for a unique Colorado experience.