Chaffee County is home to the most popular whitewater river in America. With over 175,000 people guided down the Arkansas River, and that’s just rafting. It’s also a common destination for kayaks, duckies, stand up paddleboards and canoes. Stretches with difficulty rated from class 2 to class 5 (out of 6) offer something for every skill level. The upper sections of the Arkansas include, from north to south: Pine Creek (class 5), the Numbers (class 4), the Fractions (class 3-4), the Milk Run (class 2), Browns Canyon (class 3), Lower Browns Canyon (class 2), Big Horn Sheep Canyon (class 3) and the Royal Gorge (class 4).
May to September is the most popular time for river sports. High water, the most exciting for floating, generally occurs in late May and last through most of June. Whitewater festivals in river towns welcome the spring runoff. CKS Paddlefest takes place every Memorial Day weekend in Buena Vista. Royals Gorge Whitewater in Cañon City happens in late-June. FIBArk (First in boating on the Arkansas) brings Salida to life every year in mid-June, and has been going strong since 1949.
Rafting is the oldest and most popular way down river. Rafting offers a unique challenge to other river sports because of its group dynamic. No matter ability levels, guests must work together with their crew and guide to navigate rapids.
With 47 permit holding companies; there are plenty of options for guide services. Only a few companies offer guided trips down the class 5 Pine Creek, and those are limited to experienced rafters. Most companies offer half or full day trips, while a few offer multi-day expeditions. Adventurers interested in going unguided can rent gear from Colorado Raft Rental in Buena Vista.
Thanks to the diversity of beginners’ sections in a close area, the Arkansas is a great place to learn to kayak. New kayakers should start at Colorado Kayak Supply (CKS) on Main Street in Buena Vista. There you can find information on lessons and gear, and tips on where to go. The first lesson will be learning a combat roll.
Inflatable kayaks, also known as duckies, are a hybrid between a kayak and a raft. Duckies allow users to go downstream without being strapped in, so no roll needed. This means you can advance to more challenging stretches of water quicker. Hiring an instructor gives you pointers for how to maneuver the boat through the rapids and how to get back in if you fall out. Guides will also help you gather yourself and your gear should you capsize. A few companies, like Surf Salida and Colorado Raft Rental, rent duckies so you can try your luck on your own.
Stand Up Paddling is the latest and greatest way to float. In 2013 it was the outdoor activity with the most first time participants in the US. There’s a few different ways to enjoy SUPing in the Arkansas River Valley, the first is taking an inflatable out on a lake to get a feel for maneuvering and balance. The next option is surfing in the play waves either on a soft or hard board. Both styles of surfing can be done by paddling in, but with a hard board you can swim in and catch the wave like ocean surfing- no paddle needed. SUPing can also be done down river.
Canoes are less popular on the river, although white water canoeing is possible with the right equipment. To go downriver, recreationists will need their own equipment. However, Twin Lakes Canoe & Kayak Adventures offers rentals for use on Twin Lakes. The Arkansas River Valley offers something for everything skill level both on and off the river.
In a valley surrounded by public land, visitors can almost always find a place to camp. Sites near the river or close to town fill up fast during the peak season. Buena Vista, Salida and Cañon City are the towns along the river to find all the provisions you’ll need. Whether it’s stocking up for camping, checking out the breweries and distilleries, searching out live music or opting for hotels and restaurants, all three towns show off their nightlife in the summer.
Guides and instructors come from all over the country to live and play in the area for the summer, and become the most memorable part of many guests’ experience. For “professional” paddlers, their summer looks like an extended vacation- camping, working and playing on the water and enjoying the area. Many employees stay for a season before chasing water somewhere else. Enthusiasts have to enjoy the water while it’s there, with high water only last a few weeks, and the season only three to four months.
Two dammed tributaries of the Arkansas, Clear Creek and Lake Creek, allow for a consistent 750 cubic feet per second until the releases stop on August 15. To find guides, lessons or rental equipment check with the Buena Vista and Salida Chambers of Commerce- Buena Vista: 719.395.6612, BuenaVistaColorado.org, Salida: 719.539.2068, SalidaChamber.org.
AHRA and Browns
Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) manages the 100+ miles of commercially rafted river between Granite and Cañon City. The AHRA is a collaboration between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and local municipalities. All permitting required for boating or camping riverside can be purchased through AHRA informational booths at put-ins and take-outs. The AHRA manages all boating, fishing and camping along the Arkansas from Leadville to Pueblo. For more information, visitors can stop by their headquarters at Sackett and G in downtown Salida.
Browns Canyon is the most popular of all sections of the Arkansas, in part because of its scenic nature. Browns Canyon was designated a National Monument on February 19, 2015. The 21,586-acre monument is the culmination of over 35+ years worth of efforts. Browns Canyon was first designated a BLM Wilderness Study Area in 1979, and was later included in The Colorado Wilderness Act of 1991, which did not pass. In 2005, the Browns Canyon Wilderness Act failed because it would limit hunting in the canyon. Another failed attempt to legislate a monument came in 2013. The designation in 2015 was made possible by President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.
While hiking and horseback riding are allowed in the monument, the Arkansas River is the simple, scenic and advenurous way to experience Browns Canyon National Monument.