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Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

a group of people riding on the back of a boat in the water

On average, the season for whitewater rafting in Colorado is from May through late September. Dates can vary between locations and years depending on the amount of snow and rain the area received. Rushing Class III to Class V rapids are more likely in the earlier parts of spring and summer as snowmelt and rain are more frequent. The rivers tend to become milder for relaxed floats toward August and September.

Part of the allure is to raft the same river at different locations and enjoy completely different experiences. There are sections of the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs that are unrivaled for families with young children; others such as the Westwood Canyon near Grand Junction are better suited for families with kids over twelve.

The Roaring Fork River near Aspen and the Eagle River by Vail offer exciting runs for anyone seeking robust Class III and Class IV rapids. The Animas River near Durango embodies the true nature of southwest Colorado. Through the south-central areas of the state, the Arkansas River passes through Salida, Canon City, and Buena Vista, all of which have a multitude of access points to the river.

Fort Collins and Estes Park have a fun scene for young adults and whitewater rafting on the Cache La Poudre River in the Front Range region. Near Denver, you can take I-70 about 30 minutes west to Idaho Springs for a day trip of rafting Clear Creek.

Glenwood Springs (Colorado River)

Nestled in the thick of the Rock Mountains at the confluence of the Colorado River and Roaring Fork River, you can find the city of Glenwood Springs. Glenwood Springs is about four hours west of Denver on Interstate 70. This quintessential Colorado destination welcomes every type of traveler: independents, families, couples, and groups of all sorts. With so much to do here, it’s no wonder the half-day trip on the Colorado River with Whitewater Rafting, LLC is their most popular choice. The three-hour trip puts in at the Shoshone Rapids in Glenwood Canyon. For the next 9 miles, you will navigate Class III to Class IV rapids such as the famous Maneater and Tombstone. The half-day trip is a hit with families who have kids ages 5 and older or those who want to whitewater raft but aren’t up for a whole day of it.

If you need more than just three hours, Whitewater Rafting, LLC has you covered. The full-day trip is a six-hour trip that includes everything in the half-day journey and then some. Depending on water conditions, you can cover anywhere from 14 to 25 miles. You may even have the chance to raft the lively whitewater of the Roaring Fork River. Halfway through, you can enjoy a lovely picnic riverside while soaking up the warm Colorado sun and take time to relax in the natural hot springs before ending your journey with a wild splash through the south canyon rapids.

Do you have a curious, eager and adventurous 2-year-old? Well, this is for you. Unique to Whitewater Rafting, LLC are trips suitable for kids as young as 2. The Short and Mild Trip is a fun hour-and-a-half float through Class II rapids. Your little ones can safely enjoy the river, and no one is left behind, or soaked.

While whitewater rafting is one of the most popular activities in the area, many other activities are much loved by the locals and tourists alike. The Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is a chart-topper for all ages, no doubt. This mountaintop theme park is filled with rides, cave tours, and more. Couples will enjoy relaxing in world-class spas or strolling through Glenwood’s charming downtown. There’s no shortage of outdoor adventures with rock climbing, off-roading, and ziplining, to name a few. No visit to Glenwood Springs is complete without a dip in any of the renowned hot springs that initially made the city what it is today.

Aspen (Roaring Fork River)

The crystal clear water of the Roaring Fork River carves its way past Aspen as it flows down towards Glenwood Springs. Sourced from Independence Lake, the nearly 6,800-foot elevation decline makes this literally roaring river particularly popular among whitewater enthusiasts looking for white-knuckled thrills. As the whitewater peaks during May-July, people seeking out an adrenaline spike head to the famous Slaughterhouse section of the river. The Class IV rapids rush through technical boulders and a six-foot drop. Fair warning, this section is not recommended for anyone who is not an experienced rafter, and certainly no children.

As you go upriver towards Glenwood Springs, the river begins to subdue. Aspen is about a four-hour drive from Denver on Interstate 70, depending on weather conditions. In the summer months, Aspen can be accessed in about three hours by taking the Independence Pass over the Continental Divide.

Near Aspen, the Woody Creek, Toothache, and Cemetery sections are excellent for beginner to intermediate skill levels or families. The rapids range from Class II to ClassIII with nice floats in between. As you splash down the waterway, you are likely to see plenty of wildlife. Many bald eagles, osprey, mule deer, and others have been sighted here. Stories have been told of the birds fighting the fishermen over a fresh catch.

Aspen has a booming and growing restaurant scene that is loyally championed from fine five-star dining to a five-star local brewery. In between meals, drinks, and whitewater, Aspen’s culture thrives around outdoor activities, especially hiking, and it’s no question as to why. Fresh mountain air under clear blue skies and breathtaking forests are just the invitation to keep anyone outside. There are several trails at the Grottos, the popular Rio Grande Trail, and hiking trails on Aspen Mountain (or Ajax as the locals call it). Indoor activities are numerous, such as art museums, shopping, and historic sites dedicated to preserving the city’s fascinating history of silver mining and skiing. Gondola rides are a unique way to get sky-high views of the area and all its splendor.

Vail/Beaver Creek (Eagle River and Gore Creek)

The Eagle River may not be recognized like the Colorado or Arkansas rivers are for whitewater rafting. Still, locals and regular tourists will argue it is the best river in the state of Colorado. Part of the appeal is the short peak season, lasting from around May through June when the Eagle River runs rampant with Class IV rapids. Less than 90 miles from Denver, Vail and Beaver Creek make for an excellent weekend getaway or a longer vacation.

High Country Activities take you on a four-hour trip through the Middle Eagle section. The snowmelt from the mountains equates to uninterrupted action-packed rides guaranteed to be unforgettable. Experienced rafters can opt for the Dowd Chute trip, famous for its tight and aggressive waters challenging even the best pros.

Nearly all outfitters running on the river only provide half-day trips, finding this to be the most enjoyable. If you want to make a whole day out of rafting on the Eagle River, planning multiple half-day trips with snack breaks at some of Vail or Beaver Creek’s local eateries is an ideal way to fill your time.

Families with kids as young as eight can still get their whitewater fix during peak season. One of Eagle River’s many tributaries, Gore Creek, is more accessible and befitting for those who have not made a living out of rafting. Timberline Tours’ trip on Gore Creek hits bold Class III rapids.

The half-day trip runs directly through Vail Village (don’t forget to wave to any passersby). As you paddle through the Gore Range peaks, look out for the area’s wild residents, notably moose, deer, bears, or more.

Like many cities in Colorado, Vail and its neighbors are commonly associated with being winter destinations. After the snow and ice melt, the flowers bloom, rivers wake up, and new activities open. Test out your aerial skills on the rope or zipline courses around the mountain. A popular option is early morning golf at one of the most premier courses in Eagle or Beaver Creek. If you have the time, there is a multi-day hike from Vail to Aspen. Why would you want to do this? Because your hiking partner is a llama. (Yes, you read that right.)

a person riding a jet ski in the water

Grand Junction (Colorado River)

Grand Junction is where the Gunnison River and Colorado River meet. Even though the Colorado River runs just south of downtown, the real action happens when you travel approximately 30 miles downriver to Westwater Canyon. Acclaimed for being the “West’s Best Whitewater Trip,” if you’re in the area, this unquestionably should be at the top of your to-do list. Westwater Canyon straddles the Utah-Colorado border. The whitewater run technically takes place on the Utah side of state lines, so when heading that way, expect to see border signs.

Making this 17-mile run through Class I to Class IV rapids can be done through a guided service with reputable outfitters such as Rimrock Adventures, located in Fruita and Moab Adventure Center in Moab, Utah, or you can brave it on your own. Choosing to raft the canyon on your own will require you to obtain a permit. Daily limitations on permits do exist, which can be found here.

Rafting adventures in the canyon can be booked for full-day to multi-day around May through September. Full-day trips average around 10 hours and cover 17 miles and 11 famous rapids. When you aren’t negotiating your way through the rapids, keep your eyes open for eagles soaring above. Before tackling a series of rapids, stretch your legs with a short hike on the trails once used by Native Americans who left behind pictographs, and explore historic wild west cabins such as the Miners Cabin.

Grand Junction has a lively social scene in its downtown area. Main Street is charming and just the place to spend the day wandering in and out of the charismatic shops and galleries. The area’s culture revolves around locals, and art plays a prominent role. There are more than 100 pieces throughout the downtown area made by local artists that are worth viewing. Antique stores, boutiques, and places to gather all the gear you need for your next adventure are all in one place. End the day with a flight at a brewery and dinner on the patio of any local farm-to-table restaurant.

Steamboat Springs (Yampa River)

Nothing resets and replenishes our bodies and minds, quite like spending a few days away from technology and city lights. More remote than other resorts and three-and-a-half hours’ drive from Denver, Steamboat Springs provides just that. Add in a multi-day trip rafting through canyons and wilderness on the Yampa River, and you will return to every-day-life a whole new person.

Depending on how many days you want to go out for and what class rapids you prefer, many outfitters offer trips along multiple sections of the river that are sure to suit your needs. The majority of the river is relatively calm, with Class II to ClassIII rapids, high canyon walls, and inspiring scenery.

The Cross Mountain Gorge section is the most intimidating. Here the river changes from its relaxed vast open flow to 13 miles of fast-moving, Class IV and Class V rapids amidst narrow, jagged canyon walls. Some trips may end here, or they may continue onward. If the Cross Mountain Gorge hasn’t worn you out, keep on if you can, and claim your reward for the intoxicating views of the looming sandstone canyon walls of Dinosaur National Monument.

Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours has options for trips down the Yampa through Dinosaur National Monument that last for four days or five days. They also offer specialty and private trips. Here you will get to take advantage of the smooth float waters and soak up the scenic views of land with stories to tell. Nights are just as breathtaking; with the lack of city lights, you will be in awe of the Milky Way views you will have to fall asleep under!

Steamboat Springs brings a lot to the table when it comes to things to do. Hot air balloon tours over the Yampa Valley give a new perspective to touring around. Relax at the spa or in the hot springs. There are roller coasters and chairlift rides that kids are sure to get stomach-turning thrills from. Find the inner wild-west in you, and go horseback riding in the Colorado wilderness.

Durango (Animas River)

The Animas River carves through the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, offering hundreds of suitable whitewater rafting miles. Durango, six-and-a-half hours’ drive from Denver in Colorado’s brilliant Southwest, is the perfect location to raft the Animas River. Options for trips range from half-day to multi-day trips. Throughout the entire river, you can find every class of rapid imaginable. The Lower Animas is primarily rated for Class II-III rapids, while the Upper Animas boasts solid Class IV-V rapids.

4 Corners Rafting offers several length trips along both the Lower and Upper Animas. All trips include the Whitewater Park and Smelter Rapids. The Lower Animas trips can be made in two or four hours. The Upper Animas trips are great for all adult groups looking for a thrill that lasts from full-day to multi-day trips. The overnight journey takes you through 25 miles of Class IIIto Class V rapids over two days in a remote and scenic location.

Late May to early August Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours has an epic trip for the adrenaline seekers. This Class IV and Class V rapids run is available in full-day, two, three, or four-day trips. This stretch goes through the iconic southwestern Colorado wilderness, including the coveted remote escape from the daily hustle and bustle. Completing a journey on the Upper Animas River always concludes with a bold sense of undeniable accomplishment and bragging rights.

Durango is a Southwest city full of history. Just west is the Mesa Verde National Park, where you can view over 5,000 archeological sites. Molas Pass at sunset comes with the most breathtaking all-around views of the San Juan Mountains. Jump back in time, dine at saloons, take the steam train, and go horseback riding through San Juan National Forest. There are great places to eat, such as the 11th Street Station, where you can choose from many food truck options. Several locally-owned restaurants are all around and well worth the visit, too.

a man riding a motorcycle down a river

Cañon City (Arkansas River)

The Arkansas River has played a significant role in Colorado’s history. Today It has become one of the most famous rivers for whitewater rafting in the entire country. There are several notable access points and locations for rafting, with Cañon City being at the top of the list. The team of guides at Raft Masters is dedicated to giving you an experience of a lifetime on this famous river. There are several trip options for all experience levels and time frames.

Their most popular trip is a half-day float through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Rapids rate from Class II-III making it suitable for families with children and beginners, while providing the opportunity to keep an eye out for Bighorn Sheep riverside. Half-day and full-day trips through the renowned Royal Gorge are available, too. The full-day includes lunch before heading into the technical rapids of the narrow twenty-five-feet wide and 1,100-foot deep gorge.

Raft Masters also offers packages with their trips, such as the Whitewater to Wine package, where you get a VIP tour and tasting of the Holy Cross Abbey Winery. Get to explore the Royal Gorge Bridge from all angles with the boat and bridge package. Enjoy a Colorado staple riding the historic railroad before an afternoon of whitewater excitement.

Cañon City It is about two and a half hours from Denver. It is home to some unique and fascinating sites to visit, starting with the Museum of Colorado Prisons exhibiting over 100 years’ worth of prison history. Kids will get a kick out of the Dinosaur Experience that has life-size replicas of famous dinosaurs that once roamed through Colorado. The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park itself has several activities such as ziplining at speeds up to 55 miles per hour and tours of the engineering anomaly of the suspension bridge itself.

Salida and Buena Vista (Arkansas River)

Salida and Buena Vista are about two hours south and west of Denver. There, the Arkansas River again provides wonderful rapids. With the Arkansas River’s massive size, there’s no question it would be listed more than once (or possibly twice) as a hotspot for whitewater rafting. Just because it’s the same river doesn’t mean the rapids are all the same! American Adventure Expeditions can guarantee you stress-free booking with all of their multiple options for trips.

Browns Canyon is a popular option for intermediate-level runs, with its exhilarating Pinball, Big Drop, and Seven Stairs rapids. Adrenaline junkies will love the Numbers section of the river. Infamously the most difficult to raft section, you will be challenged with fierce drops, narrow canyon walls, and all-action, fast-paced rapids.

After conquering these waters, satiate the appetite you built with delicious barbecue in American Adventure’s own Riverside Beer Garden.

Estes Park and Fort Collins (Cache La Poudre River)

The first river in Colorado to ever be designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, the views and sites are guaranteed to be impressive as you raft these whitewaters. Wildlife is abundant along the river, and you never know what (or who) might be peeking through the trees or diving for a fish from above! As a protected river, it is much less populated with traffic than others, a significant perk for some who are interested in a more remote rafting trip. The Lower Poudre is beginner-intermediate friendly with class II-III rapids. If you need more of a challenge, the Upper Poudre is narrow and rocky, with near-continuous class IV-V rapids. Rocky Mountain Adventures in Fort Collins has been guiding people down the Cache La Poudre since 1993. With over 20 years of experience, they offer a number of trip options along the lower and upper sections of the river and the testing Mishawaka section.

Estes Park is about an hour and a half from Denver. Fans of Stephen King will want to stop or stay, if you dare, at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, an inspiration for his book The Shining. The haunted hotel is still fully operational and offers tours several times during the day. The loved downtown area boasts hundreds of shops with handcrafted goods, boutique clothing stores, and gear for your next outdoor venture. You can find great places to get a bite to eat and a cold drink before heading off to your next stop.

An hour and a half north of Denver, Fort Collins is the craft beer capital of Colorado and the third most haunted city in the United States. If you aren’t having fun here, it might be your own fault. Aside from that, it is arguably one of the most charming towns in the state as well. Locals suggest taking the day and brewery hop with all the breweries in the area, trying flights of their most popular crafts. There’s also a beer and bike tour you can book that takes you to each. Hiking trails are spread out all over, and the Rocky Mountain National Park is a lovely scenic drive away.

a man in a raft on the water

Rafting Near Denver (Clear Creek, South Platte)

A quick 30-minute drive outside of Denver will bring you to the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, where you can find some of the best whitewater rafting in the region. Clear Creek runs parallel with Interstate 70 and will likely taunt you to pull over for a swim on your way to Idaho Springs. This option is excellent for making a day trip out of, as the town itself has plenty of things to do and see as well. KODI Rafting provides trips curated to each skill level.

The third-day option is suggested for first-time and beginner rafters to experience bold rapids with a yearning for more by the end. The half-day trip runs Class II to Class IV rapids past granite cliffs and a float through Idaho Springs. This option is available in intermediate and advanced levels.

The season for rafting on Fraser River in Winter Park is short, but if you can catch it, it’s totally worth it. It only lasts from May through June, but rafters and kayakers favor the classic Colorado whitewater Class III and Class IV rapids.

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