White water rafting is a favorite pastime in Colorado. The season lasts from April through October, centering around when the warmth melts the snow on the mountains (May and June, mostly), raising water levels and, subsequently, the speed of the current.
Colorado has about 30 main white water rafting areas, so a nearby river and professional outfitter is not hard to find. Popular rafting cities include Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Vail, Fort Collins, and southwestern cities like Durango and Buena Vista. Depending on where you go, you can find any level of difficulty, from Class I to Class VI (which is rarely attempted). Make sure to do your research before picking a guide and certainly don't attempt white water rafting Colorado's rapids on your own.
The Colorado River is one of the state’s (nay, the country's) most famous rivers. First off, this massive, 1,450-mile-long river stretches through seven different states and two more in Mexico. It's the one responsible for cutting the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
This is one of the best white water destinations in the U.S. While the most famous stretch is in the Grand Canyon, itself, rafting the Colorado in Colorado is also a must-try. The river spills through different canyons with jaw-dropping views, spanning both wild rapids and slick, calm stretches, making it a good fit for all levels of experience. Breckenridge, Grand Junction, and Glenwood Springs are popular jump-off points.
The Arkansas River has a crazy 5,000-foot drop within a 125-mile span, but don't let that scare you. This popular river is appropriate for anyone, boasting Class I to Class V ratings. Its proximity to Denver makes it easily accessible, too. The views here are downright incredible, especially where it meets the Royal Gorge.
For a Royal Gorge adventure, Echo Canyon River Expeditions claims to be the leading white water destination resort in central Colorado. The 40-plus-year-old company 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 glamping tents or luxury cabins at Royal Gorge Cabins. 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.
Clear Creek stands out for its convenience. It’s close to Denver, right off I-70, the highway that leads to the ski resorts of Vail and Breckenridge. But though it’s close to the highway, it feels remote. You’ll likely run across the resident bighorn sheep and beavers during your adventure.
Clear Creek Rafting Co. offers 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 former mining town of Idaho Springs for a good starting point.
Roaring Fork River
Roaring Fork River is a super-convenient stopover from Aspen or Carbondale and it packs major adventure. The top part of the river is called Slaughterhouse, (a pretty ominous nickname, and 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 at 12,000 feet above sea level on the stunning Independence Pass. You can also set off farther downstream for a milder ride. Kayaking is popular in the lower waters.
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 (meaning “big river” in Spanish) is the nation’s fifth largest river, stretching 1,760 miles in Colorado alone. It runs through the scenic San Juan Mountains all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The “upper box" portion of the river is best for experienced rafters—Classes III through IV—but the lower stretch is much milder and more family-friendly. A popular launching point is the small, historic city of Creede. As with many mountain towns, this was founded as a mining town.
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 right past the ski village's 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—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 dams and diversions. The Yampa is just over 260 miles long, and you can find rafting trips for all levels of experience, including some major challenges for the adrenaline junkie.
While you can easily find an outfitter just by walking through downtown Steamboat, one highly recommended way to arrange a rafting trip is through Moving Mountains' concierge services.