Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area

The snows that make Telluride a ski mecca melt in the spring, creating another attraction for enthusiasts that want to go hurtling down a mountain. The waters come tumbling down the slopes into the headwaters of the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers, beginning a westward journey onto the Colorado Plateau. Thrill-seekers trade in their skis for a kayak or raft and the adrenaline churns through their veins once again.

The Dolores - River of Our Lady of Sorrows

The Dolores no longer runs free from the San Juans to the confluence with the Colorado. McPhee Dam now sits by the town of Dolores. But below the reservoir, the Dolores continues to offer one of the greatest long distance floats in the Rockies. From Cahone, Colorado, to the Colorado River in Utah, the river runs about 200 miles. A leisurely floater could spend 10 days enjoying this route, including the spectacular Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area. Several stretches also make fabulous 2 to 3 day trips.

Cahone to Slickrock: The 2 to 3 day trip from the Bradfield Bridge east of Cahone to Slickrock runs 45 miles. Ponderosa Gorge begins early on, with Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, oakbrush and red sandstone blending in a contrast of colors. With rapids like Molar and Canine, expect some grinding whitewater, mostly Class II and III. But be prepared for worse. At Snaggle Tooth, the river drops away into a steep boulder-strewn cascade of Class IV-V.

Slickrock to Bedrock: The 58 mile, 2-3 day run between Slickrock and Bedrock passes through the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area. This pristine desert canyonland is home to peregrine falcon, wild turkey and bighorn sheep. River otters have been reintroduced. Floating the river is a lesson in geology. Twelve geological formations are revealed in the 1,110 feet between the riverbed and canyon rim.

Little Glen Canyon leads the way into this wild land. Slickrock Canyon is next, twisting into a cloverleaf as the river picks up speed. Bull Canyon enters from the right, churning up Class III whitewater. Spring Canyon and Coyote Wash enter further downstream, then the river rounds Muleshoe Bend and drops over Class III Corner Rapid. Below La Sal Creek, the canyon is more open down to the takeout at Bedrock.

Bedrock to Gateway: The 2 day run from Bedrock to Gateway passes through Paradox and Mesa Canyons. These two do not offer the narrow twisting turns of Slickrock, but the five miles through Paradox has plenty of Class III-IV rapids. Mesa brings only Class II rapids, but double the volume of water as it lies just below the confluence with the San Miguel. Highway 141 follows the river in Mesa Canyon, with plenty of spots for access.

Gateway to Colorado River: Thirty-two miles below Gateway, the Dolores hits the Colorado. This stretch serves up State Line Rapid, anywhere from Class III to V, depending on the water.. Take a good look before running through. A little further down, the river enters Gateway Canyon, with continuous whitewater a good way in. Leaving Gateway, it's about 13 miles of smooth water to the takeout at Dewey Bridge, a mile after entering the Colorado.

The San Miguel

The San Miguel runs 36 miles from Specie Creek to Naturita, with a putin/takeout at Norwood Bridge a third of the way down. Highway 145 follows the river above Norwood, proving a good opportunity to scout a tough one-day run between Specie and Norwood. The stretch below Norwood passes beneath white sandstone bluffs for the first 5 miles. Further down, the area around Horsefly Creek provides a good break for hiking and exploring several abandoned homesteads. Floaters down the San Miguel should pack their fishing gear - the trout may be biting.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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