The river crashes down a churning channel of froth and foam, pummeling boulders and slamming cliffs. A rubber raft aims straight for the turbulence. Entering in the mayhem, the boat bucks and buckles like a Brahma bull. Water flies, waves crash and paddle-wielding passengers scream in delight. This is what they paid for – a wild ride down the rapids of Colorado’s Arkansas River.
“The Arkansas is the most popular whitewater river in the world,” says outfitter Bill Dvorak, Colorado’s first licensed outfitter. “We have 145 miles of runnable water. We can float all the way from Granite to Canon City.”
Arkansas River trips range from half-day excursions to overnight campouts, and its rapids vary from mild splashers suitable for beginners to heavy-duty adrenaline pumpers that require guts, stamina and know-how to negotiate. Pine Creek, a rollercoaster-meets-water-park section upstream of Buena Vista, falls into the latter category.
“I’m pretty selective about who I take there,” says Dvorak. “We have to know their abilities because once we’re in, we just have to go.”
Downstream lies the Numbers, a slightly less-intense section where rapids bear numerals, not names. It’s continuous, read-and-run whitewater all the way. An easier stretch called the Narrows lies below.
The most popular section of the Arkansas is Browns Canyon south of Buena Vista, which outfitters rate as moderate over most of its distance. Despite rapids bearing threatening monikers such as Pinball, Widowmaker, Big Drop, Zoom Flume, Raft Ripper, Toilet Bowl and Seidel’s Suck-hole, this is a great run for first-timers.
The whitewater ends below Royal Gorge, where thousand-foot walls hem the river and the world’s highest suspension spans the cliffs overhead. Here, burly rapids are separated by breathers of calm current.
Safety on the river is of prime importance, and most guides have years of experience, including extensive training in first-aid and swift-water rescue. Trips will be canceled or moved if the river is flowing too high or too low.
“You’re about 20 times more at risk on a golf course than you are on a commercially outfitted river trip,” says Dvorak. “This can be a great family experience.”
If You Go
17921 Hwy 285
Nathrop, Colorado 81236
Contact the Colorado River Outfitters Association, 303-229-6075 or croa.org, for a listing of other outfitters offering trips on the Arkansas and other Colorado rivers.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, www.LookingForTheWorld.com.