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River of Dreams

While there are likely to be coronavirus considerations for everything we do for a while, lots of outdoor activities can be quite easily adapted to ensure the safety of all involved. Whitewater rafting is one of them as families and small groups can be grouped together before experiencing the thrill of a raging river

Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

There are few places across the country that have the audacity to put themselves in the same league as Colorado when it comes to rafting. That’s mainly because Colorado not only has some of the best whitewater rafting anywhere, but it also has options for everyone, whether you’re a charged up thrill seeker or more of a dainty lilly dipper. Rafting is so popular that it helps to support several local economies, so much so that towns such as Buena Vista, Salida and Cañon City are often referred to as rafting towns.

A River Runs Through It

A mecca for white water rafters, the Arkansas River is, by pretty much all measures, America’s most popular river for whitewater rafting. Every year, around 175,000 guests traverse the more than 100 miles of rapids within the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA).

Jointly managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management, there are some seriously good sections contained with those 100 miles including Pine Creek (class V), the Numbers (class IV-V), the Narrows (class III-IV), Browns Canyon National Monument (class III-IV), Bighorn Sheep Canyon (class II, III-IV), and the Royal Gorge - “the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas” (class IV-V).

The authority on this river is the Arkansas River Outfitters Association. Celebrating 40 years this year, the AROA is a group of knowledgeable, experienced and certified professionals across dozens of outfitters.

Over in the western part of the state, the mighty Colorado River offers rafting opportunities out of Grand Junction. The Westwater Canyon stretch of river, about 30 miles from Grand Junction, is a jumping off point for lots of rafters. The 17-mile run has stretches of class III and IV rapids, including "Funnel Falls", "Bowling Alley", "Sock it to Me" and "Skull" as well as beautiful red rock canyons and cliffs that rise up over 1,000 feet. There are plenty of small beaches where you can stop for short hikes to fill out your day.

Up near Fort Collins, the Cache la Poudre River - Colorado’s only river designated “Wild and Scenic” - offers opportunities for beginners with class III rapids on the lower section of the river, while those who want a bit more adventure can try the class IVs of Mishawaka Falls.

Photo: NPS

Heading west, the section of the Yampa River that flows through Dinosaur National Monument is a jaw-dropping spectacle that perfectly illustrates what people mean when they say the American West. The headwaters of the Yampa are near Steamboat Springs and the river is one of the last free flowing rivers in the country (rivers that have largely been unchanged by human intervention). For a real adventure, put in at Deer Lodge and spend four or five days traversing the 72 miles to Split Mountain, Utah.

And that’s far from it. Where there is a river, there is a good chance of there being rafting of some kind available, from the Dolores and Animas rivers down in the southwest to the Taylor River near Almont. Then there is the Rio Grande, the Gunnison, and the Uncompahgre. Spoilt for choice is an understatement.

Finally, we don’t want to be harbingers of doom, but people do die on these rivers when they intended on just having a fun day on the water. There are various reasons, but this is wild nature and is to be respected at all times. Have fun but make sure you go home by taking sensible precautions, listening to every single word your guide says, and don’t do anything you aren’t comfortable with, your life could literally depend on it.

For some people, one adrenalin-inducing pursuit at a time just doesn’t cut it. Those people strap a bike to an inflatable raft and set out on an adventure.


Photo: Steve Fassbinder

The history of packrafting in general can be traced back to the 1940s, but it really took off in the 1980s. It was just a matter of time before someone strapped a bike to a raft. Today, one of the best packraft manufacturers, Alpacka Raft, can be found in Mancos.

Also in Mancos is Four Corners Guides. They offer a range of bikepacking, packrafting and bikerafting adventures. A good introduction to the latter is the day-long course that explores the single track and dirt roads of the San Juan National Forest or the city bike trails in Durango while learning basic paddling skills and how to pack your bike on your boat. If you want to go beyond the very basics, they also offer a three-day course that will see you learn the skills and then ride dirt roads and single track and paddle several miles.

Three-Day Bikerafting McPhee Loop Itineary

Optional pre-trip: Meet Steve at the Mancos Brewing Company at 3p.m. and ride the 10 miles down to Scullbinder Ranch, with Lizzy shuttling all gear in the shuttle. Dine at the Ranch, camp and/or stay in glamping tents. Spend the evening checking out the Ranch trails, packing for the three-day trip, eating dinner and watching the hummingbirds (we have 10-20 on any given night).

Day 1: Meet in Dolores around 8a.m, or caravan together to Dolores with FCG if you’re staying at the Ranch. Due to Covid, we are minimizing how much time people spend in the FCG Shuttle. Spend the getting gear ready . Ride 20 or so miles (this can be adjusted based on the experience, age, and capabilities of guests). Camp in the San Juan National Forest.

Day 2: Ride approximately 10 miles to the McPhee Reservoir put in. Spend a few hours learning how to pack your bike on your boat. Paddle 5 miles to the choice camp on the lake.

Day 3: Paddle remaining 2 miles to take out, and then ride approximately 7 miles of single track on the McPhee Overlook Trail and one mile of dirt road back to Dolores. We typically arrive back to town between 3-5, depending on the abilities, age, etc of the guests.

3-Day Intro to Bikerafting on McPhee Reservoir is level 3 and costs $1095

Rapids Classification

Class I: Moving water with a few riffles and small waves. Few or no obstructions. Perfect for nervous beginners.

Class II: Easy rapids with smaller waves, clear channels that are obvious without scouting. Some maneuvering might be required. Good for those who feel comfortable after Class I.

Class III: Rapids with high, irregular waves. Narrow passages that often require precise maneuvering. Class III rapids require more confidence and more physical strength, but are fine for most people.

Class IV: This is where it gets more difficult. Long and difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require more complex maneuvering in turbulent water.

Class V: Most of us won’t ever get on a Class V as the rapids are long, difficult and violent with constricted routes. These rapids present a real hazard to life if there is a mishap.

Class VI: These are basically unraftable by mortals. They’re extremely dangerous and should only be attempted by teams of bona fide experts.


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