The Arkansas River is the most-rafted in Colorado and one of the most popular in the nation. And all up and down the upper Arkansas, from where the river spills from the mountains around Leadville to where it empties into Pueblo Reservoir, you’ll find the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Though most visitors experience the river on a guided raft trip, there are also a collection of six campgrounds and an immense amount of put-ins and parking areas where you can begin your adventure. But other activities such as fishing – the river is a Gold Medal trout fishery – hiking, swimming, private boating, and dispersed camping abound along one of the great rivers of the West.
During a particularly heavy runoff year, we’d booked a rafting trip through the Royal Gorge. But when the river is running too high, trips are diverted to Bighorn Sheep Canyon upstream. At first I was disappointed – what could be more thrilling than rafting the mighty Gorge in high water? But this proved a worthy alternative, with water so high normally placid stretches of river were a roller coaster of waves and holes. We stayed afloat, but it taught me that even the mildest river runs can become monsters in high water.
- The upper Arkansas valley in summer is home to several large events, such as FIBArk and the Colorado Brewers’ Rendezvous. The river gets crowded and campsites fill, so unless you’re going specifically for these events, come another time.
- For the most thrilling rafting experience, visit in late spring or early summer when the river is running high with snowmelt.
- If the campsites or full or you don’t want to shell out $18 to camp, there is plenty of free camping on U.S. Bureau of Land Management parcels along much of the river.
Recommended season(s): Spring – late summer for rafting, year-round for other activities.
—R. Scott Rappold