After the snow melts and the sun begins to warm everything up, Colorado’s many rivers begin to take the spotlight. From calm flowing waters to roaring Class V rapids, there’s no shortage of options from which to choose. Enjoy half-day, full-day or multi-day excursions whitewater rafting along these rivers. With all the possibilities to pick from, we’ve highlighted a few of the best rivers around the state.
Every spring the snowmelt from Steamboat Springs and surrounding areas sources the free-flowing Yampa River. Owing to the fact the river is undammed, the waters run high and untamed. Between the months of May and July, the river reaches its peak, delivering robust Class III and Class IV rapids. Whitewater rafting on this river is an excellent choice for enthusiasts, thrill-seekers and families. Just note, this river is best for kids over 8 years old.
Spanning 250 miles across northwest Colorado, the Yampa River fosters many stunning sights and experiences that cannot be seen in a single day. This makes for popular multi-day (usually ranging from four to five days) rafting excursions. From the moment you get on the water, you will find yourself in awe of the orange, purple, pink and grey canyon walls that reach the sky.
Flowing through the historic Dinosaur National Monument, this is a section you do not want to miss. Spend the evenings camped out on the river bank. Once the sun sets, you're likely to get a one-of-a-kind view of the Milky Way. The stars shine so brightly, they reflect off of the sandstone walls of the canyon creating a camping experience like no other.
Whitewater rafting down the Colorado River is accommodating to all ages and levels of experience. Out of Glenwood Springs, you can find access to many areas of the river that are suitable for kids. Rapids range from Class II to Class III, and the trips are full of scenic views the whole family will enjoy. There are half-day and full-day trips available to choose from, too.
For the experienced, thrill-seekers that want something with a challenge, Gore Canyon near Kremmling is a must. Famous for its Class V rapids, you can put all your skills to the test.
Glenwood Springs is home to an exhilarating adventure park where you can tour caves, scream with excitement on the thrill rides, or take it easy and enjoy the delicious food served up by the park’s own restaurant.
Clear Creek is ideal for those who want to push themselves to the next level. About 30 miles west of Denver’s downtown area, Clear Creek is the closest whitewater rafting choice to the city. Some sections are easier with Class II and Class III rapids for beginners and kids age 7 and older. Late May to mid-July is the peak season for the Class IV and Class V rapids. This is the prime time to experience what the river is famous for, testing your skills with tight turns, steep drops, and roaring rapids.
One of the many perks to this river is there are many companies that run sections of it, providing plenty of options to fit your plans. Yes, even for those on a tight schedule and need that adrenaline fix. After a day full of adventure, kick back and sample some of Denver’s many locally brewed beers and fresh farm-to-table dishes.
If you’re looking for a place to enjoy whitewater rafting with smaller crowds, Cache La Poudre River is the go-to. The Poudre River is protected and regulated for commercial use, maintaining the river’s “wild and scenic” designation, and eliminating excess traffic. Most whitewater rafting trips down this river start out in Fort Collins, conveniently located near Denver, Boulder, and Estes Park. All-ability level rafting can be found here.
The Lower Poudre has thrilling Class III rapids and is a top choice for beginner rafters and children seven and older are able to join in the fun. For more experienced rafters, and adrenaline-junkies, Upper Poudre and the Mishawaka Falls sections have Class III and Class IV rapids. Outfitters for these sections recommended children to be at least 13 years old.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a short drive away and an eye-catching area to take in more of Colorado’s scenic wildlife, stunning mountain peaks, and waterfalls.
The Arkansas River is Colorado’s most popular river for whitewater rafting as it provides opportunities for the whole family. The best areas for families with children are around Brown’s Canyon National Monument and Bighorn Sheep Canyon. The Brown’s Canyon section of the Arkansas River is located between the two cities of Nathrop and Salida with a peak season from May to September. The rapids here are rated between Class II and Class III, the average rule-of-thumb is that children are at least seven years old to raft these waters.
Bighorn Sheep Canyon, about an hours’ scenic drive from Colorado Springs, is another superb option for beginner rafters or those with children.
Whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River brings people from all over, and one of the most popular sections of the river that does this is the Royal Gorge. Taking on this part of the river is not for the faint of heart, and requires some mastery and savvy techniques to navigate the Class IV and Class V rapids as you wind through the narrow canyon. This section is named after the historic suspension bridge, the Royal Gorge Bridge, where you will experience it from 956 feet underneath.
If you get swept away by this engineering marvel, there are many other ways to experience it after your rafting trip. A visit to the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is an impressive way to spend some time exploring the bridge through various other thrilling ways such as rock climbing and ziplining. Lodging options are available in the park, or in Cañon City. The park also has its own restaurants, or you can bring a picnic.
Running through downtown Durango is the Animas River. This lower section is the easier of the two flowing through the man-made rapids in Durango Whitewater Park. Further north, near Purgatory is the upper section where the river starts. Here, you will find an electrifying thirty miles of uninterrupted Class IV and Class V rapids. This is the longest stretch of continuous Class IV/V rapids the United States has to offer. It’s a good idea to leave anything of value at home or in your hotel for this voyage - including kids.
The city of Durango has a lot to offer for families, outside of booming waters. The Narrow Gauge Railroad, where you can hitch a ride on a completely restored steam train. Drive north of Durango and spend the day exploring the San Juan National Forest.
The Piedra River is located 20 miles west of Pagosa Springs and 40 miles east of Durango. Soak up the southwest Colorado sun and vibe as you paddle through riveting whitewater among the alpine forests, and one-thousand-foot canyon walls. An excellent choice for families with kids, or first-time and beginners. Even the well-versed rafters will get butterflies from this river.
The Piedra River is sectioned into two parts, the Upper Box and Lower Box. The Upper Box offers Class II through Class IV rapids that are best for beginners, and kids 12 and older. For those with more experience, dare to tackle the Lower Box which has multiple intense drops with Class IV and Class V rapids (ages 16 and older). Think you have what it takes to overcome the Upper and Lower sections of the Piedra River in two days? Start at the Upper Box on day one and spend the evening camping riverside under the beautiful Colorado night sky. On day two, throw yourself into the thrills of the strong rapids, and finish it out with a smile and well-deserved bragging rights.