Whitewater rafting is one of the most scenic and thrilling outdoor adventures that you can experience in Colorado, and the best thing is that you don’t have to go out of the way to experience it. If you’ve ever driven west from Denver along Interstate 70, you know it doesn’t take long before you begin to see colorful rafts filled with smiling paddlers navigating the sparkling mountain waters near the former mining town of Idaho Springs, about 33 miles west of the Mile High City.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter where you’re headed. Take one glance at Clear Creek that runs along the interstate for miles, and you’ll be looking for a spot to pull off, sign up and splash around. It’s one of those “take my money, please” moments. But the real clincher is the river’s easy floats for first-timers or families with children or seniors, and a grip of white-knuckle sections that are sure to get your adrenaline pumping.
While Clear Creek is the first river you’ll probably encounter as you head into the Rockies from Denver, it’s not the only one that’s close to that state’s major thoroughfare. Here are a few of the best river rafting experiences in Colorado that aren’t far from I-70 from east to west.
Even though you can see sections of Clear Creek from I-70, it’s surprisingly remote when you’re on the water. Along the many turns, you’re likely to encounter native bighorn sheep or beavers hard at work. And don’t let the “creek” label fool you. Here you’ll find some of Colorado’s most treacherous high-class rapids.
The whitewater season runs from April through early October, but the best runs at Clear Creek are typically from mid-May through late-August. There are several whitewater rafting companies that operate on Clear Creek near Idaho Springs that offer full-day and half-day trips for all levels of rafting. One of the more popular sections is called Gold Rush, an easier section that is suitable for beginners and families with children at least 6 years old.
Adrenaline junkies who want to push the envelope a bit should head to Clear Creek Lower Canyon for advanced Class IV and Class V rafting. Too much? Then try the Upper Canyon at Clear Creek, where you’ll find mild Class II sections leading up to quicker Class IV rapids.
If you’re looking for a quick detour, head 40 miles north of Interstate 70 on U.S. Highway 40 West and head to Winter Park. Winter Park is only about an hour and 15 minutes from downtown Denver. While it’s best known as a winter ski destination, there is some exciting whitewater rafting in the nearby Fraser River. The river forms in the Roosevelt National Forest near Winter Park and flows northwest to its confluence with the Colorado River near Granby and Silver Creek.
The Fraser River presents a beautiful 99-mile stretch that flows through picturesque Fraser Canyon. The waters are rated Class III and Class IV, and offers a nice challenge for intermediate and advanced paddlers. Less experienced rafters can also make this fun run if there is adequate water.
The Blue River near Silverthorne is another great whitewater rafting experience that’s right off I-70. The river forms in the nearby mountains and winds its way down from Idaho Springs to Breckenridge before dumping into Dillon Reservoir. From there, the river juts northward through unspoiled wilderness before meeting up with the Colorado River near the town of Kremmling.
To experience the best of the Blue, plan to hit the waters in May or June. The Upper Blue River north of Silverthorne has Class III and Class IV rapids. It’s a short, sweet trip that’s fast paced and is sure to get your blood pumping. There are half-day and full-day outings available. The Lower Blue River near Kremmling is milder, with Class II and Class III sections that are scenic and perfect for a family float or fishing day trip.
If you’re vacationing in iconic Vail this summer, check out the nearby Eagle River. The Eagle River is undammed, so water levels fluctuate from day to day, so each trip is a unique experience. The river runs along the interstate and flows directly through towns like Avon and Edwards.
The Lower Eagle River section is a nice, Class III section that is easy but does have a few exciting spots. It’s an ideal half-day run for a family with young kids or adventurous seniors. The Upper Eagle River is a little hairier, offering Class III parts and a few Class IV sections that will have you gripping your paddle a little tighter. But never fear: It’s still a good run for children as young as 6 years old.
To test your mettle, think Dowd Chute. The Class-IV-plus rated section serves up continuous rapids through an exceptionally narrow corridor that extends for about a quarter of a mile a mind-boggling elevation drop. It’s a dream half-day run for hardcore rafters who are at least 16 years old and have the guts to give it a go.
It’d be downright silly if we didn’t include the Colorado River in a list of top whitewater rafting spots in Colorado, wouldn’t it? The grand waterway that carves the Grand Canyon down in Arizona is one of America’s most famous rivers, and is a must-try if you’re headed to the mountains of Colorado.
The Colorado River is 1,450 miles long, and there are several sections in the state that you should consider, from Breckenridge to the Western Slope. The river spills through various canyons with stunning scenery, spanning both wild rapids and slick, easy sections, making it an ideal fit for all experience levels. Popular jump-off points are in Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.
Start with a family float down Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs. The tight canyon walls and bluebird skies provide a vivid backdrop for a fun day on the river. Glenwood Springs is an entertaining town with lots to do for an overnight getaway. Gore Canyon near Kremmling is expert-only and more intense, with fierce whitewater rapids that will put a smile on any seasoned rafter’s face.
At Glenwood Springs, catch Highway 82 and head toward Aspen. Along the way, you’ll pass the town of Carbondale and the beautiful Roaring Fork River. The river runs along the highway for most of the way to Aspen.
If you can divert your trip about 40 miles off I-70, it’s totally worth it. The top part of the river near Aspen has the ominous Slaughterhouse upper section, one of the West’s finest, most intense whitewater sections you’ll encounter. The rapids are extreme, the waterfalls are epic, and the payoff at the end is completely worth it.
From Aspen to Carbondale and down to Glenwood Springs, you’ll find some nice lower sections of the Roaring Fork River that are better for families and those who just want a fun, exciting outing. There are many different half-day and full-day treks from which to choose. Afterward, don’t forget to take a dip in the renowned natural hot springs in Glenwood.