11 Things to Know About White Water Rafting Colorado
You don’t have to be an expert to go White Water Rafting Colorado:
If you’ve seen photos of white water rafting Colorado and said, “Not me, no never,” because of the size of the water, or maybe an upended raft, don’t worry. Extreme rafters can certainly get their thrills on the more extreme parts of the river, but there are hundreds of miles of stretches of less extreme water.
The sport of rafting is safe and fun for people of all ages, experience levels, and abilities. Before signing up for any Colorado river rafting adventure discuss your group’s abilities with the rafting company when you sign up.
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The Arkansas River in Colorado is the number one whitewater rafted river in the world.
White water rafting Colorado is synonymous with the sport of white water rafting. A large tributary of the Mississippi River, rising in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains near Leadville in central Colorado, the river generally flows east-southeastward for 1,460 miles (2,350 km), through Colorado, Kansas, and Arkansas before entering the Mississippi River 40 miles northeast of Arkansas City, Arkansas.
Throughout Colorado, the Arkansas River combines the best mixture of rapids, white water rafting, and spectacular views in the lower 48 states. Huge rock walls on either side of the river make for quite an experience through the Royal Gorge. Other river sections along the 100+ mile river offer other views, challenges and some of the most famous rapids in the world.
All Colorado River rafting guides are experts:
Competition to become a Colorado river rafting guide is intense. Only the best are selected each year. They’re chosen for their rafting experience in general, and specifically for how long they’ve been rafting Colorado river rafting. They have the personal skills needed to navigate the river. They also have years of customer service skills and learning how to take care of those on their trips.
White water rafting Colorado guides are used to guiding both trips for seasoned rafters and for the young or old who have never dipped a paddle in the water, or been in a raft. Just make sure to discuss your concerns, your experience (or lack of it) with the white water rafting company you want to sign up with.
You don’t have to be an athlete to go White Water Rafting in Colorado
Yes, the people in the brochures all look fit, young, and athletic, but that’s because those are brochures. In reality, the people on Colorado River rafting trips are middle-aged, many of them with their grandchildren. They are out of shape, a bit overweight and rarely active when they’re at home. Like you, they’re looking for adventure, a fun day with their children or grandchildren, and a wild, fun, run rafting down the Colorado River.
All white water rafting participants wear extra buoyant life vests that keep them on the surface of the water if they fall out of their raft. You don’t need extra strength to stay afloat, or to swim. You don’t need extra strength to sit on the side of a raft, or to paddle. You’ll be paddling with a half to a full dozen other people, and usually only for brief moments of time. Strength isn’t a prerequisite to white water rafting in Colorado, or anywhere for that matter.
Your Trip Guide will teach you everything you need to know about White Water Rafting in Colorado
Okay, so you’ve never even held a paddle, let alone used one. Don’t worry, before each trip the Trip Guides will teach you everything you need to know about paddling, where to sit on the raft, and what to do if you fall overboard. They’ll teach you how to paddle to get closer to a rock and how to push away from a rock, to where to go to the bathroom.
Women upstream, men downstream is the rule for bathroom breaks when rafting in Colorado
You might be wondering about where you’ll be stopping for bathroom breaks. Unfortunately for those who are nature shy, there are no formal restroom facilities once you leave the dock, so “go before you go” is the best option if you need a “real bathroom.” Otherwise, this is what to expect. When the boats are on the beach for lunch, or a break if you need to go to the bathroom you will be told “Women upstream, men, downstream.” The rule comes from the “Skirts Up, Pants Down,” era when, women wore skirts and men wore, pants.
This means that women head upstream to find a spot to pee, and men head downstream. “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Since all urine must go into the river or the wet sand beside the river, try to find a rock or cover close to the water if possible. There’s also the “check the straps” option. That means you wade-into-the-water-in-your-shorts and pee in your pants. It’s a technique used by millions with great success.
If you have to actually squat and drop your pants for other reasons. Some white water rafting Colorado companies have physical toilets they set up – usually for overnight breaks. Women, for “that time of the month” it’s advised you bring several ziplock baggies for your tampons. Pads are not advised as you’ll be spending a lot of time in the water. Here’s a video of one such toilet system.
Bring a waterproof camera or a good “dry bag”
What fun is rafting the Colorado river if you can’t show selfies and photos of you on the water? Fortunately, there are waterproof bags you can buy, usually for $25 or less, in most marine or outdoor stores. These come with a cord for securing to your lifejacket or shorts. Do not wear them around your neck, so you aren’t strangled if you fall off the raft.
Don’t even think of taking a cell phone down the river (water resistant or not) without one of these bags. Better yet, buy a waterproof camera designed to be used in the water, and underwater. Amazon.com has dozens of selections for under $100, and most for $50.
Wear old clothes and good rafting shoes
Everyone likes to look good on the water, but not many people think about what muddy, sandy water will do to their favorite clothes or shoes, so here’s a tip. Wear only clothes you don’t mind being ruined or damaged. We’re not saying your clothes will be ruined, but there’s a chance they might be. Better to wear old clothes you don’t mind getting muddy, torn, or stained, than a new expensive outfit.
The fact is, you’re going to get wet, muddy, and hot, then cool off, then get wet, muddy, and hot all over. That’s the fun of white water rafting in Colorado! Leave any sequined or other decorated clothing at home. Wear old, comfortable t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts and swim trunks. Jean shorts and anything not designed for the water will become waterlogged, hot and heavy and will chafe. If you don’t have beach shorts or long-legged swim trunks, buy a pair from your local Goodwill to bring with you.
You’re going to get wet White Water Rafting in Colorado
Even though people look at the posters, photos, and brochures of white water rafting, some of them still think it’s possible to stay dry in a raft on the Colorado River. If you’re on a trip where they are no rapids, it’s possible, but remember, you’re still getting in and out of the water.
White Water Rafting Colorado Intensity Varies By Time of Year
Plan your trip to match the intensity of water you want to float. Most experienced rafters know the best, the highest, fastest water flow is in the springtime when mountain snows are melting and feeding into the streams and rivers. As the snow pack goes down, so does the intensity of the water.
Depending on the time of year and the stretch of river you’re own, you could be on a thrill a second roller coaster ride among the rapids, or a calm leisure float trip on still, rippling water. If you’re looking for fast water, aim for May and June, when melting mountain snow makes for more exciting rides. By August and into September, the rivers are much milder, but still fun for the first time rafter.
You can customize your trip
Are you elderly? Disabled? Traveling with young children? Nervous and afraid of boats but willing to take the plunge? Don’t worry. White water rafting Colorado companies offer plenty of options for your trip. They’re able to accommodate those with physical disabilities, as well as families with young children. Most companies have a minimum age limit of 8-years-old, but check before you book. Rafters can also customize a trip, combining it with multi day adventures that include camping, or other adventures, like train rides, winery tours and fly-fishing trips. Check out several companies before making your decision, or start with one and work your way through all trips.
Where to Whitewater Raft in Colorado
It’s never hard to find a place to whitewater raft in Colorado. In fact, Colorado actually boasts as many rafting companies as there are ski slopes. Look for rafting companies in Colorado towns, like Buena Vista, Salida, Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Vail, Grand Junction, Durango and Fort Collins.
There are nine primary rivers for commercial rafting in Colorado (alphabetical order):
- Animas River
- Arkansas River
- Blue River
- Clear Creek
- Colorado River
- Delores River
- Eagle River
- Poudre River
- Salt River
In case it’s easier to pick a river based on the city you’re going to be staying in, or near, here’s a breakdown by city/town and nearby rivers:
- Aspen: Arkansas River
- Buena Vista:Arkansas River
- Breckenridge: Arkansas River, Blue River, Clear Creek, Colorado River, Eagle River
- Colorado Springs: Arkansas
- Denver: Arkansas River, Clear Creek, Colorado River, Poudre River
- Durango: Animas River, Dolores River, Salt River
- Estes Park and Rocky Mt. National Park: Clear Creek, Colorado River, Poudre River
- Glenwood Springs: Arkansas River, Colorado River, Eagle River
- Idaho Springs: Arkansas River, Clear Creek, Colorado River
- Keystone: Arkansas River, Blue River, Clear Creek, Colorado River, Eagle River
- Steamboat Springs: Arkansas River, Colorado River
- Vail: Arkansas River, Blue River, Clear Creek, Colorado River, Eagle River
If you don’t know much about rafting, any trip anywhere in the state will meet your expectations, and whet your appetite for more. If you’re an avid or experienced rafter, or you simply want to raft the best, start with the most famous whitewater in Colorado. This river is also the nation’s favorite stretch of white water river, a 10 mile run through Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River.
Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River
The Upper Arkansas River Valley is home to the largest concentration of 14,000’ + peaks in the country. Beginning high in the Colorado Rockies near the Continental Divide, the Arkansas River delivers more than 100 miles of whitewater – which is what makes it the most popular rafting river in the West. Where there are many popular stretches of water along this river, Brown’s Canyon is perhaps the most popular and famous. Known around the world for its hiking and views, the valley itself is also commonly referred to as the “whitewater capital of America.”
Located in a “banana belt” climate, the valley has several rafting companies who offer “mild to wild” raft trip options for all ages and abilities. When you’ve run the river, there are dozens of other adventures that await – from mountain biking to fly fishing, hiking, and horseback riding.
Situated just north of Buena Vista, a Browns Canyon raft trip will deliver a mix of exhilarating whitewater and the majestic quality of a granite canyon no matter what company you choose. This trip makes for great photography as well as a fun ride. The Browns Canyon of the Arkansas trip will blast rafts through famous rapids like Zoom Flume, a class III stretch and Pinball, also a class III stretch. A Brown’s Canyon Arkansas River adventure is perfect for guests with a short time frame.
Most rafting companies offer two departures per day down the Browns Canyon run, so you can choose what works best for you. This is a great trip for families with older children – teens and up. All companies offer equipment, including paddle, helmets, and life vest as part of the rental. Some offer additional gear, like camera bags, for an additional fee.
White Water Rafting Colorado Ratings
All whitewater rapids on rivers in America are rated on a “river and rapids” class system from 1-to-5, with a 5 being the most technically challenging. The purpose of the system is to ensure when someone goes rafting or kayaking, that they have a good idea of what to expect from the river. To clarify and simplify this process, all whitewater rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI. The rapids receive ratings based on a combination of difficulty and danger.
The system is not perfect, and ratings are only guidelines. As river difficulty increases, the danger to swimming paddlers becomes more severe. As rapids become longer and more continuous, the challenge increases. There is a significant difference between running an occasional Class-IV rapid on a Class II river, versus dealing with an entire river of Class-IV rapids one after another.
The only exception to the Class 5 system is the Grand Canyon river system, which is rated on a 1-to-10 scale. This is what the different levels mean:
Class 1 – White Water Rafting Colorado
Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. There are few obstructions, all of which are usually obvious and easily missed with little training. The risk to swimmers is slight; and self-rescue is easy.
Class 2 Novice – White Water Rafting Colorado
Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily avoided by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.
Class 3 – White Water Rafting Colorado
Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must make” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. For kayakers, a strong roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class IV- or Class IV+ respectively.
Class 4 – White Water Rafting Colorado
Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential.
Because of the large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV, Class V is an open-ended, multiple-level scale designated by class 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc. Each of these levels is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last. That is, going from Class 5.0 to Class 5.1 is a similar order of magnitude as increasing from Class IV to Class 5.0.
Class 5 – White Water Rafting Colorado
Runs of this classification are rarely attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapid has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.
Exceptions For White Water Rafting Colorado
The Grand Canyon has a 1-to-10 rating, Flat water on the Grand Canyon is 1 while tough rapids like Lava Falls or Crystal can be rated 10 at certain water levels. A 10 rating in the canyon is roughly equivalent to a Class V in the standard river scale.
White Water Rafting Companies in Colorado
Commercial white water rafting in Colorado is regulated and permitted by the state of Colorado. Any white water rafting company offering tours anywhere in the state must be licensed and permitted to do so. And, all guides working on your tour must be certified as well.
Some rafting companies may have several outfits located around the state, under different names. This is to help rafters find an outfit by location. Think of it as having several fast food places in one city with various locations. Be sure to ask about what locations around the state they offer trips to. Here are the outfits currently offering white water rafting in Colorado (listed in alphabetical order).
Adventure Outfitters: http://waorafting.com/
Arkansas River Tours: https://arkansasrivertours.com/
American Adventure Expeditions: https://www.americanadventure.com/
The Adventure Company: http://www.theadventurecompany.com/
Browns Canyon Rafting: https://raftbrownscanyon.com/
Breckenridge White Water Rafting: https://www.coloradorafting.net/
Clear Creek Rafting: http://clearcreekrafting.com/
Colorado Adventure Center: https://www.raftingcolorado.com
Echo Canyon: https://www.raftecho.com
Geo Tours Rafting: https://www.georafting.com/
Lost Paddle Rafting: http://www.lostpaddlerafting.com/
Performance Tours: https://performancetours.com
Raft Masters: http://www.raftmasters.com/
Rock Gardens Rafting: https://www.rockgardens.com/
Royal Gorge Rafting: http://www.royalgorgerafting.net/
Wilderness Aware Rafting: https://www.inaraft.com