Keep in mind I haven’t ran anything in Colorado. My list of things to do contains Clear Creek, The Poudre, Yampa and more. Being that I’m in Southwest Colorado, I’m mainly experienced with our local runs. Here’s my list of top Colorado rivers that I’ve ran.
#1 Arkansas River
I went to Fibark once and fell in love with this river. There are many reasons why I consider this as first place. It’s a very dynamic river, ranging from class 3 with a lot of boogy water to class 5 (Numbers and Royal Gorge). All the runs are very accessible and shuttles are easy.
The Arkansas can be a very fast and busy river with good elevation drop and speed. Beginners will do fine on Browns Canyon and experienced boaters should get a kick out of any major section of the Ark Valley.
#2 The Piedra
Southwest Colorado’s best kept secret (ssshhhhh!). The Piedra is a wild ride. There’s two boxes and usually (unless snow prevents it) it’s only the lower box to get ran. It is a commercially outfitted river, but it’s incredibly rare to see any commercial trips on that river. In fact, there have been times where our boat was the only boat on the river.
There are three back-to-back class 4-5 rapids at the start of the lower box. It’s an adrenaline rush with a lot of elevation drop. The river features and technically is somewhat comparable to the Upper Animas.
If you were really hardcore about it, you could actually run this as an after work run. The sun might be going down as you get off the river, but at least it’s fast moving and you can make good time if you’re trying to.
#3 Animas River
Seeing how technically it’s the same river, I’m combining the “Upper Animas” and the “Townrun”
I’m incredibly biased on this river as it’s my town run. It’s nothing for me to lap the town run multiple times a day. I’ve also ran the river down to Bondad.
Like the Arkansas, the Animas is a very dynamic river. The town run is a fun class 3+. Since they did work on Smelter, the river now has a boat flipper you want to avoid. This makes the town run a lot more interesting than it was a couple years ago.
The Upper Animas is very technical and comparable to the Piedra and Numbers section of the Arkansas. The Upper contains an unrunnable section and because of that, you must take the train out for your shuttle. Because of that fact, I’m more partial to the Piedra when compared to the Upper. It’s an easier day run that doesn’t require the use of a train and hiking out.
#4 Dolores River
“The river that will never flow again”. It’s a shame that the reservoir doesn’t do at least one guaranteed release on a specific weekend. That would give the boaters a chance to actually get on this river. With the droughts we’ve been having, I don’t see this river running any time soon.
The town run has a decent surf wave. The secret with the town stretch is to unrig the boat on the island right next to the surf hole and just keep hitting it. I’ve “camped” (paco pad and sleeping bag under the stars) on that island before without getting harassed.
#5 Pagosa Springs San Juan River
I think the Colorado section of the San Juan is insanely underrated. Pagosa Springs has done a great job building up their surf park right by the hot springs. The hole doesn’t look like much, but it’s incredibly sticky. I’ve had many boats stuck there and swam it a couple times (no flips!).
Below Pagosa Springs it gets a lot more scenic and the shuttle is easy.