White water rafting is a thrilling and scenic warm-weather sport in Colorado. The season lasts from about April through October, centering around when the sunshine melts the snow on the mountains. It spills down the slopes and into the rivers, raising water levels and the speed of the current.
Colorado has about 30 different main areas to go white-water rafting, so a nearby river and professional outfitter is not hard to find. Popular rafting cities include Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Vail, as well as Fort Collins, and southwestern cities like Durango and Buena Vista.
Yet with so many options, it can be hard to narrow them down. Here’s a closer look at the six best places to go white-water rafting in Colorado, depending on what you are looking to experience.
Before You Go
Before you set out on a white-water rafting tour, here are a few important things to know:
- Anyone can do it. You don’t have to just be an adrenaline junky. There are rivers for all levels of experience and courage, even families with kids.
- Pick a certified outfitter with good reviews and a lot of experience. Don’t try to go at it alone, and don’t just pick the first vendor with a tube you see on the banks.
- You can pick from a variety of different trips, from half-day to multi-day adventures with camping and other outdoor activities.
- The fastest rapids are typically in May and June, when snowmelt is highest, but it changes every year and by each river—even from spot to spot on the same river.
- Know the definition of the different classes, from Class I (the easiest) to Class VI (these are so wild and dangerous that they’re rarely attempted).
- Wear a swimsuit and/or quick-drying clothes. You have to wear a life vest. Some outfitters can rent you a wetsuit to help manage the cold water, even in summer. Dress for the weather, with waterproof sunscreen and water shoes or sneakers that will stay on your feet. You may want to pack dry clothes to change into afterward.
The Colorado River is one of the state’s most famous rivers. First, this massive, 1,450-mile-long river stretches beyond Colorado, through seven different states and two more in Mexico, while crossing 11 national parks.
This is one of the best white-water destinations in the country. While the most famous stretch is in the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado in Colorado is also a must-try. This diverse and exciting river spills through different canyons with jaw-dropping views, spanning both wild rapids and slick calm stretches. This makes it a good fit for all levels of experience.
The Arkansas River is one of the most popular places to go rafting in Colorado and in the entire country. The river has a crazy 5,000-foot drop in a 125-mile span, starting near the Continental Divide. The Arkansas is easy to access, too, since it's not far from Denver. This popular river is appropriate for anyone; it has a Class I to Class V rating, depending on where you go.
The views here are incredible. The river winds through the canyon, and the stretch through the Royal Gorge is beautiful.
For a Royal Gorge white-water adventure, a reputable company to talk to is Echo Canyon River Expeditions, which claims to be the leading white-water destination resort in central Colorado. It’s one of the oldest and biggest tourism companies in the Royal Gorge area. The 40-plus-year-old company was named one of the top adventure resorts in the country by the U.S. News & World Report. It offers all kinds of rafting adventures, from family floats on smooth waters to adventurous rides, as well as places to stay and eat.
For a full getaway, stay in the new glamping tents and luxury cabins of the Royal Gorge Cabins (opened by the expedition company). These are the first ever luxury accommodations located close to the famous gorge and river; the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is only about four miles from the cabins.
The Dinosaur Experience (another popular stop in the area, with a ropes course and kids’ dig area) is next door. Also nearby is The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey if you need a little warming wine to soothe your adrenaline. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad and historic Canon City are also fun things to add to your river trip.
Clear Creek stands out for its convenience. It’s close to Denver, right off I-70, the popular mountain highway that leads to the ski resort towns of Vail and Breckenridge. Although it’s close to the highway, it feels remote. You’ll likely run across wildlife along the way, especially bighorn sheep and beavers.
Due in large part to its convenience, it is one of Colorado’s most popular rivers to raft, according to the Clear Creek Rafting Co. This company offers Clear Creek day trips from mid-May through mid- to late-August. You can find all levels of rafting here, from beginner patches appropriate for kids to adventurous challenges up to class V and some of the toughest rapids you might dare conquer, despite the water’s humble and disarming “creek” designation.
Head to the sleepy (but gradually waking), former mining town of Idaho Springs for a good starting point. Clear Creek flows for about 66 miles through the Clear Creek Canyon.
Roaring Fork River
There are a few reasons we love the powerful Roaring Fork River for rafting in Colorado. First, it’s a convenient adventure if you’re visiting Aspen or Carbondale, two popular Colorado mountain towns. Second, it brings big adventure; the top part of the river is called Slaughterhouse, a pretty ominous nickname for a reason. These rapids are extreme. But the payoff is worth it. Here, you will find one of the state’s rare commercially rafted waterfalls.
Roaring Fork starts super high, at 12,000 feet above sea level on the stunning Independence Pass.
Looking for a milder ride? Set off downstream farther. The mellower water is lower. In this stretch, you can also kayak. The water is notably clear.
In total, Roaring Fork winds about 70 miles and drains into the Roaring Fork Valley, ending in Glenwood Springs. Wrap up your water adventure by taking a dip in Glenwood's famous natural hot springs.
Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande River (which means “big river” in Spanish) is such an important river in the nation that it feels extra special to get to know it firsthand in a raft. In fact, it’s the nation’s fifth largest river, stretching 1,760 miles in Colorado. The Rio Grande begins in south-central Colorado and flows all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico.
In Colorado, it runs through the scenic San Juan Mountains. The “upper box" portion of the river is best for experienced rafters, with classes III and IV. But the lower stretch is milder. Generally, that’s the popular rafting region, where you can find family floats and pretty chill class II and III rapids.
A popular launching point is the small, historic city of Creede. As with many mountain towns, this was founded as a mining town. Silver was the score here.
If you are visiting the cheerful mountain town of Steamboat Springs in the summer, a tour down the Yampa River is essential. The Yampa River runs through Steamboat Springs, past restaurants and bars, and it even winds through the exciting Dinosaur National Monument. As the name implies, this area is packed with dinosaur remains that you can see in the rocks, and you can find petroglyphs of yesteryear, too. It's a white-water trip with an ancient bend.
Another thing that makes the Yampa so unique is it is one of the last, free-flowing tributary rivers on the Colorado River and the only free-flowing river in the state, which means it isn’t obstructed by big dams and diversions. The Yampa is just over 260 miles long, and you can find white-water trips for all levels of experience, including some major challenges if you crave the surge of adrenaline.
A memorable tour is a rafting trip through the Dinosaur National Monument’s canyons, although it’s just as fun to raft directly through town. The onlookers eating dinner or sipping a beer on the banks will cheer you on.
You can simply walk through downtown Steamboat to locate an outfitter, but in the busier season, you will want to plan ahead and book online.
One highly recommended way to arrange your rafting trip is through the Moving Mountains' concierge services, who can connect visitors with vacation rental properties and help with vacation planning in the area.