Rafting Colorado: Big Water Awaits - Page 2

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Rafting Colorado's Green River
Dropping into the Lodore Canyon on the Green River  (courtesy, Chris Noble/Holiday Expeditions)
Whitewater Ratings
Our guide to whitewater rapid ratings will help you understand the difference between Class I and Class V, an important thing to know before chosing a rafting trip.

Among the rivers with extreme high-water potential is the mighty Arkansas, the primary drainage vehicle for the largest of Colorado's eight river basins. As of April 1, the Arkansas basin's snowpack was 147 percent of average. A month earlier that number stood at 162, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a spring flood warning, saying there was an 80 percent chance the state's busiest river would crest its banks.

"Safety is number one," answers raft company owner Bradford, when asked what goes through his mind when he sees numbers like these. "Right now we are getting ready to retrain some of our guides who have never seen these kinds of water levels. We'll put them all through extra preparation and have them take a swift-water rescue course."

Don't let Bradford's trepidation scare you. Even during high-water years, Colorado offers a full spectrum of commercial rafting choices, ranging from tranquil, family-fun float trips on the Colorado or San Juan, to non-stop adrenaline adventures down the Upper Animas, select sections of the Arkansas, or through legendary Gore Canyon.

On the Arkansas alone there are day trips for almost every comfort level, which is a big reason why the river accounted for nearly half of Colorado's 539,222 commercial river use days in 2007. The Arkansas begins its journey eastward to the Atlantic from high in mountains around Leadville. Here lies renowned Class IV-V whitewater runs such as Pine Creek and the Numbers. Expect continuous action and be ready to paddle. These trips are not for the faint of heart or those looking for a lazy day.

Below Buena Vista is Class III Browns Canyon, which Bradford labels a perfect introduction to whitewater.

"To put it in perspective, Browns Canyon drops about 35 feet per mile," he explained. "The Numbers is about 75 feet, and Pine Creek drops 200 feet in less than a mile. That means things are happening a lot faster, so we are getting out of the boat and scouting from shore. Everybody is wearing helmets and wetsuits. This year there will be times when the water is so high up there that we'll have to stay away, but that's okay because there are so many other options."

Indeed, no matter what kind of water floats your proverbial boat, Colorado has it. In the Colorado River basin choices range from the über-expert Class V Gore Canyon run with its multiple big drops, to the scenic all-ages Class II float trip that puts in at the Pumphouse Recreation Area. The Colorado basin is also home to the famed Big Sur surf wave, which, if it appears, lies a half mile upstream of the Cameo Dam, 20 minutes east of Grand Junction.

In the northwest corner of the state is the Yampa and White river basin, which had 110 percent of average snowpack on April 1, and is home to some of the state's best multi-day raft trips.

"The Yampa is a ‘bucket list' kind of trip," explained Amie Mollack, lead guide for Grand Junction-based Adventure Bound River Expeditions, which runs four- and five-day trips there and on the nearby Gates of Lodore section of the Green River. "But since it is not dam controlled, the season is usually over by July. If you get up there you should consider yourself pretty lucky."

Trips on the Yampa are marked by a full range of rapids, including class V Warm Springs, which formed when a flash flood in the early 1960s pushed several boulders out of a side-stream and into the river, creating a treacherous choke point. But the Yampa's true highlight is its scenery, a mesmerizing mix of high sandstone cliffs and yawning beachheads that provide spectacular campsites.

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