Cart 0

The Ultimate Guide to Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

 
 

Overview

This guide to Colorado whitewater rafting will not only familiarize you with rafting in Colorado but will also help you in choosing the best whitewater rafting trip for you, your friends, and family. With our professional assistance and this guide, we can help you make the right decision.

Learn the Colorado rivers available for rafting, the cities that offer departures, the classification system in place to determine difficulties of rivers, the terminology that will help you along the way, and some river safety information that will prove to hold true for the rest of your rafting career. Rafting in Colorado is easily booked through a commercial rafting outfitter, or with your own boat, gear, and permits.  


 

Colorado Whitewater Rafting Rivers

Below you will find a comprehensive list of the rivers for whitewater rafting. A short description of each Colorado river is available, as well as the cities and locations that you will depart from for your rafting trip. This information is designed to help you plan your Colorado rafting adventure in its entirety. Whether you decide to book your rafting trip with a commercial rafting outfitter or have the ability to navigate these rivers on your own, this list will be one that you return to over and over again for your future Colorado whitewater rafting trips.

Just before the list of Colorado Rivers is an in-depth description of the International Scale of River Difficulty created by the American Whitewater Association. All river runners are recommended to read and understand these classes and understand the dangers within each class.


Colorado River Rafting Difficulty Levels

The International Scale of River Difficulty was created by the American Whitewater Association to classify rivers across the globe in terms of difficulty within six categories, or classes. These classes usually change dramatically with the rising and falling of the water levels in early season high water (snowpack melt) and late season low water (lack of snow to melt) and can even vary during the season based from rainfall and other natural causes.     

The guide below is merely that: a guide. Every river rafter, kayaker, canoer, stand up paddle boarder, fisherman, and otherwise should prepare themselves properly for each section of river they choose to navigate. Please, understand that this class system has varying degrees of differentiation along each section of river and each individual rapid along with the influence of Mother Nature, which can create unpredictable hazards and sometimes lethal conditions.

River Classification System

Class I – This is the easiest within the whitewater system. The water is mostly flat, slow currents with an occasional wave or two with no severe river features to obstruct the way. The risk to swimmers in these waters is minimal and a self-rescue situation is easily manageable. This classification is considered a nice float in flatwater.

Class II – This is the milder side of whitewater rafting and requires no scouting of the river. The water presents very small rapids spread amongst the flatwater sections with very few river features to obstruct a clear passage. The risk to swimmers in these waters is, again, minimal with a manageable self-rescue and with little to no group assistance needed. This classification is considered a nice float in very small whitewater.  

Class III – This is the “middle of the road” when it comes to whitewater rafting in Colorado. Perfect for families and large groups to enjoy time together on the river, the water has multiple, irregular small to medium waves. Present are some river features that force maneuverability with more narrow passages, and usually contain rocks, strainers and strong eddies within the small rapid sections that are easily avoided. The risk to swimmers in these waters is moderate with potential injuries being rare. A self-rescue situation is manageable, but group assistance may be needed to avoid long swims and other injuries to the swimmer. This classification is considered great summertime, splashy whitewater with very little to fret.

Class IV – This is a difficult stretch of whitewater and should only be navigated by a professional guide or an experienced whitewater recreationalist. While predictable, the water has intense, powerful rapid sections with large waves and multiple hazardous river features especially rocks and large holes. The river features are often dangerous and present narrow passages requiring precise river navigation under pressure. Scouting rapid sections is highly recommended as there can be must make moves in specific sections. The risk to swimmers is moderate to high and injury is likely as the water conditions make a self-rescue situation quite difficult. Group assistance is the key to mitigating serious injury and equipment damage/loss. This classification is considered challenging and quite tiring for everyone on the raft.

Class V – This is the extreme level of whitewater rafting in Colorado and is only for the highly experienced paddler and guide. The water is tumultuous with long, violent rapids and several hazardous river features usually close together with little to no break in between. This class requires high fitness levels and even higher skill levels. Here, the steep gradient of the river drops quickly and sometimes changes directions within those drops through tight passages with dangerously frequent river obstacles, including but not limited to unavoidable holes, waves, and other obstructed river features. The risk to the swimmer is dangerous and is very difficult even for the highly trained professional. Self-rescue is very limited and almost always requires group assistance with the proper equipment, experience, and well-practiced rescue skills. This is considered a thrilling, high-intensity whitewater rafting adventure with a very high-risk potential to all involved.  

Class VI – This is unrunnable whitewater for the recreationalist boater. Only professional teams of experts should attempt this river classification after close inspection and after taking all precautions. The water presents large waterfalls, unavoidable river features with extreme risk to all involved. The consequences to error are severe and rescue could prove impossible on all levels. This classification is considered life-threatening.



 

Colorado River – Upper and Lower Sections

With its headwaters in the Northern Central part of Colorado from La Poudre Pass Lake, the Colorado River is the gem of Colorado white water rafting in the state with its big waters. Beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park, accessible just outside of Kremmling, Colorado, the Colorado River flows across meadows, through canyons, and finds valleys with plush unmatched scenery. The Upper Colorado and the Lower Colorado, as they are known, offers Class I-IV+ whitewater for all levels of adventure seekers. The river flows through Gore Canyon from Kremmling and onto the Little Gore Canyon, Lower Gore Canyon and eventually into Glenwood Canyon in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which is an adventurous vacationer’s dream trip with its many hot springs, vapor caves, hiking, biking, spas, and of course, family-friendly whitewater rafting. As the river continues from Glenwood Springs, it descends West towards Utah with well-known sections such as Ruby-Horsethief Canyon and Westwater Canyon, which is popular with private boaters throughout the west.

Departure cities include: Glenwood Springs, CO, Grand Junction, CO, Kremmling, CO, Breckenridge, CO, State Bridge, CO


 
 

Delores River

The Delores River resides in an arid and rugged part of Southwestern Colorado west of the San Juan Mountain Range, Telluride, Colorado and Durango, Colorado. The river rises in Tin Can Basin in the San Miguel Mountains and flows through Ponderosa Gorge, Slickrock Canyon, Mesa Canyon and more where the high-country desert remains its backdrop with magnificent ponderosa pine trees, steep cliff walls and beautiful orange and red rocks. The Delores offers Class II-IV whitewater rafting trips for a limited time during the rafting season but never disappoints its visitors.

Departure cities include: Cortez, CO


 
 

Eagle River

The Eagle River resides in Central Colorado just outside of Vail, Colorado deep in the Rocky Mountains. Being one of the only free-flowing rivers in Colorado, it rises from the Continental Divide and flows northwest past Minturn, Colorado, and Avon, Colorado and eventually turns West flowing past the cities of Eagle, Colorado and Gypsum, Colorado into the Colorado River in Dotsero, Colorado. The river offers beautiful mountainous Class III-IV whitewater with an early and limited rafting season for small river watercraft.   

Departure cities include: Eagle, CO, Wolcott, CO, Edwards, CO


 
 

Green River

The Green River is located in a pristine part of Northwest Colorado. Flowing South through the Dinosaur National Monument, the Green River remains one of the most beautiful rivers in Colorado. One of the Green’s most notable sections of river in Colorado is the Gates of Lodore, which offers Class II-III whitewater in an isolated multi-day impressive whitewater rafting trip before heading into Utah and emptying into the Colorado River.  

Departure cities include: Steamboat Springs, CO


 

Gunnison River

The Gunnison River is located in the Central West part Colorado and stretches from Almont, Colorado nearly to Grand Junction, Colorado. Formed by the confluence of the Taylor River and East River, the Gunnison River flows in a West-Northwest direction with many tributaries adding to its amazing waters before dumping into the Colorado River just Southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado. With Class I-V+ whitewater across its 165-mile stretch, the Gunnison River offers mild whitewater rafting trips for families along with extreme whitewater and thrilling Class IV-V whitewater through Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge and world-class gold medal trout fishing on the lower section of the Gunnison River.   

Departure cities include: Gunnison, CO


North Platte River

The North Platte River is located in Northern Central Colorado West of Ft. Collins, Colorado and East of Steamboat Springs, Colorado near the town of Walden, Colorado. Being one of the last free-flowing white water rivers of Colorado, the North Platte River flows in a northern direction from Colorado into Wyoming through the Northgate Wilderness Area. Offering solid Class II-IV whitewater, the North Platte is a well-hidden gem of the north, giving its visitors a scenic adventure with frequent wildlife sightings and splashy, fun rapids with a welcoming wilderness isolation.

Departure cities include: Fort Collins, CO, Steamboat, CO



Piedra River

The Piedra River is located in Southwest Colorado and is formed by the confluence of the East Fork and the Middle Fork deep in the San Juan Mountain Range in San Juan National Forest. The Piedra flows past the towns of Piedra, Colorado and near Arboles, Colorado before dropping into the now drowned confluence with the San Juan River of Navajo Reservoir near the New Mexico state line. The Piedra delivers Class III-IV+ whitewater, recommended for the experienced river runner, in a beautiful, plush forest backdrop abundant with wildlife. The Upper Piedra and Lower Piedra both have their own benefits between the geological stashes, dense forests, steep, narrow chutes all adding to the whitewater rafting experience.

Departure cities include: Durango, CO, Pagosa Springs, CO


Rio Grande River

The Rio Grande River is located in South Central Colorado and is one of the two principle rivers in the Southwestern United States along with the Colorado River. As the name implies, this stretch of river is the fourth, or fifth depending on how its measured, largest river of North America. The Rio Grande offers Class I-IV whitewater in a classic mountainous backdrop and never seems to disappoint its visitors. Rafters on this stretch of river will not only have access to great white water rafting, but also views of the San Juan Mountain Range and the Creede Caldera.     

Departure cities include: Creede, CO


Roaring Fork River

The Roaring Fork River is located in Central Colorado on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, starting above Aspen, Colorado on Independence Pass before draining into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. With nearly 30 miles of runnable river, the Roaring Fork River offers Class II-V whitewater, ranging from beginner to advanced right in the middle of the Colorado high country. The Roaring Fork is also deemed award-winning, gold-medal trout fishing waters with amazing wildlife sightings, including bald eagles and their nests, whitetail deer, bear, and more. Great for families, this river offers more than just a great cool off during the hot Colorado summer months!  

Departure cities include: Aspen, CO, Carbondale, CO, Glenwood Springs, CO


San Juan River

The San Juan River is located in Southwestern Colorado near the town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado in the San Juan Mountain Range. The San Juan offers Class II-IV whitewater in a variety of trips ranging from half day trips to full day trips and even extended trips running multiple days. Eventually draining into the Colorado River, the San Juan River flows through some of Colorado’s most sought-after canyon lands. With natural hot springs and a deep forested canyon along its course, this river is nothing short of spectacular.    

Departure cities include: Pagosa Springs, CO


San Miguel River

The San Miguel River is located in Southwest Colorado and flows just outside of the town of Telluride, Colorado in a remote landscape of mountains and canyons. The San Miguel River runs along the south slope of the Uncompahgre Plateau and eventually meets the Delores River on its way to Utah. Offering Class I-III whitewater, the San Miguel has the perfect combination of splashy and playful whitewater rafting along with stunning beauty of Southwestern Colorado. The river runs its guests through amazing granite and sandstone canyons, alpine forest, as well as the harsh high-country desert along its 80+ mile journey.  

Departure cities include: Telluride, CO, Placerville, CO


South Platte River

The South Platte River is located in Central Colorado, more well-known as Colorado’s Front Range, and flows towards the northeast before meeting up with the North Platte River. The South Platte is a principal source of water for eastern Colorado and actually runs well into urban Denver, Colorado with the Rocky Mountains and the Denver skyline as its backdrop. Offering Class II-III whitewater, the lower section features an urban whitewater rafting experience through Denver with a few whitewater play parks in its path while the upper section holds advanced kayaking runs along with family-friendly floats in a raft. Also popular with campers and fishermen alike, this stretch of river is often sought after for its milder approach to white water rafting.  

Departure cities include: Denver, CO, Littleton, CO, Englewood, CO, Deckers, CO


Taylor River

The Taylor River is located in Colorado’s Central West region, rising near Castle Peak in the Elk Mountain Range near the Continental Divide. With most of the river lying in the Gunnison National Forest, the Taylor offers Class II-IV whitewater with amazing alpine views of the Collegiate Peaks. After the Taylor Park Reservoir, the Taylor River is considered one of Colorado’s fastest rivers, feeding continuous Class III-IV whitewater rafting, or a milder Class II in the lower sections, to any white water rafter willing to take his or her fill.   

Departure cities include: Gunnison, CO, Crested Butte, CO


Uncompahgre River

The Uncompahgre River is located in Southwest Colorado, stretching from Ridgway, Colorado to Delta, Colorado on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. An eventual tributary of the Gunnison River, the Uncompahgre River also travels near the towns of Ouray, Colorado, Montrose, Colorado and Olathe, Colorado through the Uncompahgre National Forest, Uncompahgre Gorge, and Uncompahgre Valley in the San Juan Mountain Range. It’s Class II-IV+ waters offer a steep technical beginning flowing into more relaxing whitewater rapids downriver. Often compared to the sights in Switzerland, the Uncompahgre River cuts through the beautiful Colorado rock and picks up many hot springs waters on its scenic river adventure in Colorado.     

Departure cities include: Ridgway, CO


Yampa River

The Yampa River is located in Colorado’s Northwest region with its headwaters residing in the Park Range near the town of Yampa, Colorado. The Yampa passes by towns such as Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Milner, Colorado and Hayden, Colorado before joining the Green River inside Dinosaur National Monument at Echo Park. The Yampa River offers Class II-IV whitewater rafting waters through a series of valleys, meadows, farms, ranches, and several majestic canyons chalked full of wildlife, scenic views, and inspiring rock formations. With a remote ending once approaching the Green River and exciting, action-packed whitewater through Cross Mountain Gorge, this river presents a little something for everyone. This is a section of river worth seeing.

Departure cities include: Steamboat Springs, CO