How to Get Into Rafting in Colorado
Rafting trip with professional guides and outfitters, Monumental Expeditions. Photo Credit, courtesy of: Monumental Expeditions.
From exhilarating, heart-pounding whitewater adventures with water flying in your face as the boat plunges through rapids, to gentle floats through stunning canyons, Colorado’s rivers are one of the Centennial State’s most stunning features. So what are you waiting for? Here’s your guide to getting into rafting in Colorado. Presented by Monumental Expeditions.
If you’ve never been rafting, and you don’t own your own gear, it’s best to go with a certified and experienced guide and rafting outfitter. The rafting outfitter will provide most or all of the gear that you need for your rafting trip.
- Wetsuit – This foamed neoprene outer layer is optional, but often a good idea, as the river water is very cold and the air temperature along the river is often cooler than the air above. You can always zip it down if you get hot, but if you get cold and don’t have one, you’re out of luck.
- Splash jacket – Another good idea, especially for whitewater trips, because you will get splashed.
- Helmet – Because rocks are hard and heads are not.
- Personal flotation device – AKA, a life jacket, because sometimes rafts capsize.
- Paddle – Because the guide does the steering and the passengers provide the muscle.
- Dry bag – For longer trips, to keep lunch, phones, and other items from getting soaked. Bring valuables on the river at your own risk.
- What you should bring – Sunglasses, sunscreen, sandals or water shoes, a bathing suit, and drinking water.
So you’ve decided to try rafting. Well done! Now it’s time to decide where to go. The Arkansas River is the state’s most popular river (and in some years, it’s the most rafted river in the country), for its wide variety of trips and proximity to the Front Range. Here are the four most popular trips:
- The Numbers: North of Buena Vista, this route has seven Class IV rapids that are fun all summer and downright hair-raising in early summer when the river is running high. Note that rapid classification can change with water level.
- Brown’s Canyon: Wilderness beauty abounds on this float through Browns Canyon National Monument, designated in 2015. It is considered a beginner/intermediate trip, but has its own challenging rapids and technical sections. The put-in and take-out are both between Buena Vista and Salida.
- Bighorn Sheep Canyon: This family-friendly float runs along U.S. Highway 50 downriver from Salida, with scenic beauty and the potential to see the namesake sheep. It ends right before the river narrows and enters the Royal Gorge.
- Royal Gorge: Not for the faint of heart, this thrilling whitewater trip will make you feel like an expert. The Arkansas is fast, with 1,250-foot cliffs on either side.
These runs can be combined for full-day or even multi-day trips with most outfitters.
Other popular rafting destinations include Clear Creek, just 30 minutes from Denver, which runs from Idaho springs to Golden; the Animas River, which spills out of the San Juan Mountains into Durango; the Colorado River through stunning Glenwood Canyon; and the Cache la Poudre in the northern Front Range.
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- Class I-V: Rapids are classified by difficulty and danger.
- Class I is moving water with few obstructions or waves.
- Class II is easily-navigated rapids with small waves that require some maneuvering.
- Class III rapids have high waves and narrow passages that require knowledge and skill.
- Class IV is for long, difficult rapids that require skilled maneuvering through turbulent rapids and tight passages.
- Class V rapids are extremely difficult, through long and very violent rapids.
- CFS: Short for cubic feet per second, it’s the way river flow is measured.
- Strainers: River obstructions such as fallen trees, undercut rocks and other debris that allow water to flow through but will catch a swimmer with potentially fatal consequences.
- Eddy: A river feature that forms downstream of an obstruction. The water in an eddy flows in the opposite direction of the river.
Plan your trip based on what kind of experience you’d like. Looking for thrilling whitewater? Mid-May through late June in most years offer high water. At these high flows, even if you aren’t up for an expert trip through the Royal Gorge, even tamer runs can be thrilling.
Every trip begins with a safety lesson, so pay attention, especially when they talk about what to do if you or someone else goes overboard.
If you do fall in, stay calm. If you’re still close to the raft, try to get back on. If you’re too far, extend your legs straight in front of you to point downstream. When you reach a patch of calmer water, swim to the shore or to the nearest raft.
Never take off your PFD until you’re on dry land.
Most of all, listen to your guide. He or she does this for a living, several times a day, so they know the river really well and can give you the best instructions for your particular trip.
If you decide river sports are to your liking, then your first rafting trip is only the beginning. Try booking a more difficult trip with a commercial outfitter. Or rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to enjoy the river in different ways. Many towns like Buena Vista, Salida, and Pueblo along the Arkansas have man-made whitewater parks where you can test your skills in a relatively safe setting.