Colorado’s mountains are diverse, and while many choose to traverse them with a backpack and trekking pole in hand, we’d much rather take in the sights from below — in the belly of a raft. But don’t think that just because you get to sit this is the easy way out; a trip down Colorado’s many rivers will have you winding through dramatic canyons, open valleys, and challenging whitewater rapids that will test your arm strength, not to mention your group’s ability to work as a team.
Many river outfitters are available throughout the state to get you on the water and keep you safe throughout the process, which is absolutely essential unless you’re a pro rafter. (These rapids are no joke.) Finding an outfitter is the easy part, though; the real challenge is deciding which river expedition you want to go on. To help you decide, here is the definitive list of all the rafting trips in Colorado worth embarking on.
The Arkansas River is the gem of Colorado whitewater, a rafting destination that brings in river enthusiasts from around the world. Canyons are the highlight, led by the steep cliffs of the Royal Gorge. Day trips range from half days to full days at most outfitters, meaning you’ll spend between three and six hours on the water. Multi-day excursions with camping and meals provided are available, as well, for those wishing to see larger stretches of the river. Stay in Salida where the river drives the town’s economy as well as its culture — you’re bound to pick up a few tidbits of rafting know-how just by conversing with locals over a brew at one of the numerous downtown pubs.
The Royal Gorge, Canon City
Rating through the Royal Gorge is a must-do for anyone coming to Colorado in the summer. It features steep drops and many technical rafting challenges, complemented by the 955-foot-high walls of the Royal Gorge Canyon and the Royal Gorge Bridge, which is suspended 1,053 feet above and connects the two sides of the canyon. This marvel of engineering looks very different when viewed from underneath — but you’ll be a bit too busy to Instagram it.
Browns Canyon, Buena Vista
Another popular Arkansas River route takes rafters through Browns Canyon between the towns of Buena Vista and Salida. The canyon is lush with life, and the rapids are passable throughout the summer months. They are also spread throughout the trip in a way that allows for ample time for both relaxation and high-intensity paddling, ideal for families and first-timers.
Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Colorado Springs
Bighorn Sheep Canyon is the perfect introduction to whitewater rafting. The trip contains up to Class IV rapids during peak season, but in general, it’s a more relaxed trip, allowing for smooth sailing, conversation, and plenty of time to hone your paddling skills. For those looking to pry knowledge about local wildlife, plant life, and mountain lore out of their guides without their stories being constantly interrupted by incoming blasts of cold river water, a half-day trip through Bighorn Sheep Canyon is a great opportunity to do so.
The Gunnison River is ideal for intermediate and high-level rafters as it snakes its way through central Colorado. High-rising canyons and open valleys create a rugged landscape that can be difficult to paddle but never hard on the eye; it’s one of the most picturesque parts of a state. Removed from the tourist trap that is I-70, the town of Gunnison makes for a relaxing hub for your pre- and post-river activities, with plenty of lodging available in nearby Crested Butte and Montrose, as well.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Gunnison
Floating through Black Canyon is an experience even seasoned rafters and daredevils need to adequately prepare for. The rapids are technical and consistent, though not impassable, and you’ll certainly want an experienced guide who has floated this stretch of the river before. The Canyon walls are so tight that parts of the area receive as little as 30 minutes of sunlight each day. The trip, which can be done as a half-day or full-day excursion, is challenging and a great workout, and it provides breathtaking views of a highly underappreciated part of the state.
Gunnison Gorge, Gunnison
A slightly more mellow option that’s still dramatically beautiful is a float through the Gunnison Gorge. You’ll pass by towering black granite walls and through some of the most celebrated trout water in Colorado with a protected National Conservation Area as the backdrop. This is a solid trip to stretch your ability and get comfortable working through technical rapids and quick water in a setting that is more forgiving than Black Canyon. Still, a solid guide is a must, particularly because the views are likely to pull your attention off the water quite frequently.
Popular for its proximity to Denver and the ease of use for families and rafters of all abilities, Clear Creek is among the most heavily trafficked waterways in Colorado. You can call Denver or Idaho Springs your base, but access is easy from anywhere in Summit County. There are a number of non-water activities like via ferrata, zip lining, and a ropes course in the area, as well.
Lower Canyon of Clear Creek, Idaho Springs
Lower Canyon of Clear Creek is a physically demanding ride through the river’s best rapids, one after the other, challenging river rats with the technical maneuvers necessary to stay afloat through long stretches of whitewater and turns. But the half-day trip is gorgeous and a great confidence builder for those who feel their skills have developed past what is necessary to raft down the more mellow stretches of the river. Being an expert rafter is not necessary, but being in decent shape is.
Upper Clear Creek, Idaho Springs
Upper Clear Creek is a challenging half-day trip that also allows for some excellent sightseeing. If you’re in decent shape and have a professional guide, this trip is doable even if you haven’t spent much time on the river. That said, you’ll want to make sure you practice proper oar work before pushing off. The water moves fast on this section of the river, driven by steep slopes and, at least early in the season, rapid snowmelt. Among the most notorious rapids along this eight-mile stretch is Outer Limits, a portion sure to test your ability, so come prepared to paddle hard.
The Colorado River offers a great chance to see a part of the Centennial State that many never take the time to see — west of the Continental Divide, through the vast Western Slope and eventually into the Grand Valley. Base yourself in Glenwood Springs or Grand Junction.
Upper Colorado, State Bridge
If spotting wild animals is your thing, Upper Colorado is where you want to be. You’re likely to spot bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and maybe even a bald eagle or two as you make your way down the Shoshone stretch of the river. It’s a half-day excursion from State Bridge, about 20 minutes north of Wolcott and I-70, if you’re not rushing it.
Lower Colorado, Palisade
The Lower Colorado stretch heading into the Grand Junction area is wide and mellow, more of a beer cruise than a technical challenge. This stretch sees a lot of locals and fewer river operators, but the passing through the orchards and vineyards outside of Palisade is among the most beautiful and relaxing ways to spend an afternoon.
Lodore Canyon on the Green River, Dinosaur National Monument
Lodore Canyon is essential for adventurers seeking to take in Dinosaur National Monument from a different angle than most will ever see. The multi-day trip (two to three days with overnight camping) leads you through three separate canyons filled with petroglyphs, wildlife, and some of the most beautiful rock formations this side of the Grand Canyon. Rafting the Green River is as much about taking in the sights as it is challenging yourself on hearty whitewater, so you’re unlikely to ever have a dull moment.
Roaring Fork River, Aspen
Famed for the glitzy, Hollywood-star-laden town of Aspen, this valley is also a hub for diehard outdoorsmen, and the Roaring Fork River is the rafting run of choice for many of them. The intensely challenging rapid known as Slaughterhouse put the Roaring Fork River on the map as a prime paddling destination, a stretch that takes smooth navigating and a keen sense of timing to get through — something you’ll be thankful your guide has as you make your way down. Besides the challenge, the soaring peaks provide an immaculate backdrop to the open green expanses of the valley as you make your way toward Glenwood Springs. Parts of the river are very lazy, giving you a chance to actually take it all in.