Colorado Springs Whitewater Rafting – What To Expect

If you find yourself exploring Colorado’s front range, you will certainly want to include Colorado Springs rafting. Seeking some thrills along the family road trip or looking for a place to cool off under the relentless summer sun? Enter the Arkansas River. This whitewater oasis boasts a diversity of river qualities with rapids ranging from Class I - V. And it’s less than an hour from town.

The Arkansas River

The headwaters of the Arkansas begin up near Leadville, CO, where Tennessee Creek and the East Fork of the Arkansas come whitewater rafting Along its nearly 1,500-mile journey to the Mississippi, the river takes on a variety of character. From placid meandering flat water to rip-roaring Class IV rapids, the Arkansas has something for every type of boater.

Getting There

Colorado Springs is a great launch point. If you’re flying into Denver, it’s just over an hour's drive south on I-25. Fort Collins is only an hour further. From Grand Junction, you’re looking closer to a five-hour drive, which is still relatively reasonable for a summertime road trip. There is plenty of hotel lodging in both Colorado Springs and Cañon City, but if you’re looking to camp there’s a plethora of sites—good for tents and RVs—right along the river. Some popular campsites include Vallie Bridge, Point Barr, and Ruby Mountain campgrounds.

You’re reading this for the Colorado whitewater rafting, but if someone in your group is more of a land lover, there is plenty to do in and around Cañon City. The Arkansas River Walking Trail runs through the center of town and provides a lovely stroll through parks like John Griffin and Centennial. Numerous other trailheads exist right on the city’s outskirts like Temple Canyon, Eagle Wing, and Tunnel Drive. If you feel like spending a day indoors, check out the Cripple Creek Museums or the Fremont County Arts and Theater.

Bighorn Sheep Canyon Rafting

Long coveted as the area’s most popular float, the rafting in Bighorn Sheep Canyon is second to none. Depending on your timeframes, you can make a trip as short as a half day or enjoy it over multiple days. This stretch of river is known for long scenic sections of flatwater interrupted by intermittent whitewater. The upper part of the canyon starts at the town of Salida and flows 19 miles to Vallie Bridge. The lower jogs northeast near Cotopaxi and continues 23 miles to the Parkdale Access where the Royal Gorge begins. There are over 20 named rapids in this stretch, and all are relatively manageable at all but have the highest flows. At Class III, this is a great stretch for families and people who have never rafted before looking for exciting whitewater with time to recover between rapids. The slower stretches are also renowned for their trout fishing.

It’s uncommon to run the entire canyon in a single day. Most folks break up sections into day trips, or make it a multi-day adventure and stay on the water. There are campsites along the way (check for reservations ahead of time) as well as scenic lunch spots scattered throughout. Make sure to look for bighorn sheep, especially in the morning. In the upper part of the canyon, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Wilderness Area present themselves to the south. When you enter the lower reaches, the McIntyre Hills Proposed Wilderness area is on the river right.

Royal Gorge Rafting

For thrill-seekers, this is your section. But make no mistake, Royal Gorge whitewater rafting has serious hydraulics with consistent no-joke rapids. That said, for those who are no strangers to the crashing wave or deep holes, this may provide the most fun you’ve ever had on a river.

whitewater rafting navigating rapidPut in at the Parkdale Recreation Area, just east of where County Rd. 3 intersects Highway 50. Paddle just over ten miles to Centennial Park in Cañon City. Flows can range from as low as 300 CFS to as high as 7,000 CFS. At higher water, rapids become exceedingly difficult (but just as fun!). Above 2,500 CFS, rapids jump from Class III-IV to III to V. Rapid names like Sledgehammer, Wall Slammer, and Boat Eater should give you a good idea of what you’re getting into.

The whitewater starts after a leisurely mile float in and after a series of successive Class III rapids, you’ll encounter the first major crux: Sunshine Rapid. Make it through this and consider it a victory. Downstream, the river necks down to just 50 ft. wide as the canyon walls tower 1,000 ft overhead. This constriction is responsible for some of the gorge’s most notable whitewater—cresting waves, swirling eddy lines, and a tight pinch known as Squeeze Box. Aptly named, this section is called the Narrows. Over the next five miles, you’ll encounter eight major rapids that are sure to scratch your adrenaline itch no matter your tolerance.

Cottonwood Canyon Rafting

A question that lingers in the back of many a traveler’s minds is, “Sure, whitewater sounds fun, but where do I start?” Well, friends, the Cottonwood Canyon float is the trip for you. This section is between the upper and lower portions of Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and while the scenery is just as stunning, the rapids are tamer. The Cottonwood Float offers a taste of adventure without the terror. It’s great for families with young kids or grandparents that want to get out on the water and experience some excitement while keeping their risks to a minimum.

For this section, put in Vallie Bridge and float to Cotopaxi. Along the way, three rapids are all learner-friendly. Not to mention some great swimming holes. The six-ish-mile float only takes an hour and a half on the water. If you’re new to the boating scene or have group members that aren’t up for bigger water, try this section. If this feels too easy, try the lower stretches of Bighorn Sheep before heading to the Royal Gorge whitewater rafting section.

Book a Whitewater RaftingTour Today

Arkansas River Tours offers a variety of trips for all of these sections. Their expert guides are experienced in taking folks of all ages down the river safely. Give them a call, book online, or stop by their office in Cañon City to get your Colorado Springs rafting tour book today.

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