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Best Whitewater Rafting in Colorado: The Top 11 Places to Raft

February 28, 2024
Rafting the Royal Gorge

Colorado has some of the most amazing rivers for whitewater rafting. With a career as a Colorado whitewater rafting guide, you get to know the areas and the rivers like the back of your hand because when you love rafting, you do it as much as you can. From gentle rapids to extreme Class V rapids, it’s an adventure like no other. Join us on a voyage as we explore 11 places that we consider the best whitewater rafting in Colorado!

The best whitewater rafting in Colorado (and our top choices)

Here's our list of the top rivers in Colorado, why we think they are great, what you need to know about rafting there, and how to get there. So, what’s holding us up… let’s jump in! Here's our raft guide curated list:

While you are planning a trip, don’t forget to consider the best time to whitewater raft in Colorado! This usually falls between April and September, but different rivers can have slightly different seasons. We’ve included this information for each trip so that you can factor that into your decision-making process.

Rafting the Arkansas River

1. Arkansas River

Region: Southern Colorado

Why we love it:
The Arkansas River offers a diverse range of day trips rafting from chill (Class Ⅲ rapids) to extremely epic (Class Ⅳ and Ⅴ). If you are at the right spot on the Arkansas River, you will get to raft the famous rapids of Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, The Narrows, and more. Not to mention, you will raft below the stunning vista of the Royal Gorge Bridge and cut through “The Royal Gorge Arch” which lies a thousand feet below the rim of the Gorge.

Best time to raft the Arkansas River:
The rafting season spans from April-September, but the best time to raft is in late May/early June when the river is at high water. Now that’s some intense rafting!

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Arkansas River?
The most extreme rafting trip on the Arkansas River is through the Royal Gorge, especially during May and June when you can experience up to Class Ⅴ during high water. So, if you want the most extreme rafting, that’s the time and the place!

Another popular rafting trip on the Arkansas is the Bighorn Sheep Canyon, undoubtedly one of the best rafting trips in Colorado for families. It still serves up rapids that can reach Class IV at high water, but offers a more moderate trip with a lot of Class II and III rapids.

Rafting the Arkansas:
If you are looking for the perfect guide down the Arkansas River in Colorado, Royal Gorge Rafting is a great option. They bring the expertise, excitement, and thrills into rafting this wild river. They provide river gear free of charge, so all you have to do is book your tour, and get ready for the time of your life!

Nearest Cities or Towns to get there:
Located in Cañon City, within 1-2 hours driving distance of major locations within Colorado including:
Colorado Springs - 1 hour
Salida- 1 hour
Denver - 2 hours
Breckenridge/Summit County- 2 hours
You'll want to plan your visit to spend extra time in the Royal Gorge for sightseeing the incredible gorge or other outdoor adventures like hiking, climbing, glamping, and ziplining.

Rafting the Colorado River

2. The Colorado River

Region: Central and Western Colorado

Why we love it:
The Colorado River is known for some of the most extreme rafting that Colorado and the U.S. as a whole can offer. Getting up to Class Ⅳ and Ⅴ rapids, this river offers crazy intense rafting for experienced rafters. You won’t want to miss out on these gnarly rapids. As another bonus, the Colorado portion of this river lives in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, guaranteeing some breathtaking mountain and canyon views.

Best time to raft the Colorado River:
Rafting season is from May- September, but the most epic rafting will be from mid-May to early June.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Colorado River?
If you are looking for extreme rafting, the Class Ⅳ and Ⅴ rapids of Gore Canyon are where you want to be. These are crazy—are you up for the challenge?!

Rafting on the Colorado:
Liquid Descent Rafting is located out of Idaho Springs, CO, and has options for all of your rafting needs—whether it’s slow and steady or fast and epic. They have remote routes with jaw-dropping views and an option to raft the Class Ⅴ rapids of Gore Canyon!

Nearest Cities or Towns to get there:
Glenwood Springs is one of the nearest cities which offers plenty of lodging options, as well as a variety of restaurants and other outdoor activities to enjoy.

Rafting the Animas River

3. Animas River

Region: Southwest Colorado

Why we love it:
The Animas River offers a truly breathtaking rafting experience. It's especially known for its crystal-clear waters, but with the stunning mountain scenery and thrilling rapids, it's no wonder this river is a favorite among both locals and tourists. The Animas River provides a variety of different sections to explore, catering to all levels of rafting expertise.

Best time to raft the Animas River:
The rafting season on the Animas River typically runs from April-September. The best months to go rafting here are June and July when the water levels are at their peak, providing exciting rapids for an adrenaline-filled Colorado rafting adventure.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Animas River?
The most extreme rafting experience on the Animas River can be found in the Upper Animas section. This section offers challenging Class IV and V rapids, guaranteed to get your heart pounding. It's a true test of your rafting skills and an adventure you won't soon forget.

Rafting on the Animas:
Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours multi-day rafting trip through the Upper Animas has over 100+ rapids and is considered one the most challenging trips in the US! There are options for 1-day trips that include the epic rapids of Silverton or Needleton.

Nearest Cities or Towns to get there:
Durango is the nearest city to the Animas River. Surrounded by the majestic San Juan Mountains, Durango offers plenty of outdoor activities, restaurants, and accommodations to make your rafting trip even more enjoyable.

Rafting on Yampa River
Photo: Owen Richard

4. Yampa River

Region: Northwest Colorado

Why we love it:
The Yampa River flows through diverse environments, including scenic canyons, high desert landscapes, lush valleys, and the Colorado Rockies. The river offers a thrilling whitewater rafting experience with varying difficulty levels, making it perfect for every rafting enthusiast.

Best time to raft the Yampa River:
The rafting season on the Yampa River typically runs from May to July, but the best time to raft is in May and June, when the snow melts, creating the highest water levels. Rafting during these months guarantees an exciting and fast-paced ride down the river.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Yampa?
Warm Springs Rapids is the biggest section of whitewater on the river, making it one of its most extreme runs. With Class IV rapids, it’s a sick stretch of rafting!

Rafting on the Yampa:
OARS has multiple great options for rafting the Yampa River. They have options between 1-5 day trips, each offering an excellent experience at whatever length of travel you prefer.

Nearest Cities or towns to get there:
Steamboat Springs is the nearest town to the Yampa River, just a short drive away from the starting point of most rafting trips. Steamboat Springs is a popular resort town offering plenty of accommodations and dining options for those looking to extend their journey beyond the river.

Rafting the Piedra River
Photo: Mild to Wild Rafting

5. Piedra River

Region: Southern Colorado

Why we love it:
The Piedra River is often overlooked by many whitewater rafting enthusiasts. However, it's a hidden gem and offers some of the best whitewater rafting in Colorado. The river boasts crystal-clear waters, steep drops, wildlife, and scenic views.

Best time to raft the Piedra River:
The Piedra River rafting season usually runs from May through July. Unlike many other rafting trips, the Piedra’s rafting peaks in late May.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Piedra?
The most extreme rafting adventure on the Piedra River is the Upper Box section, where you'll find class IV and V rapids. This section offers a challenging and adrenaline-pumping experience for experienced rafters.

Rafting on the Piedra:
Durango Rafting offers a great one-day trip through the Upper Box of the Piedra River. This trip includes the Lone Pine and Limestone rapids, a break for a riverside lunch, and beautiful views of the natural parklands.

Nearest Cities or towns to get there:
Durango is one of the nearest cities to the Piedra River just one hour away. If you have a little extra time in Durango, you can visit Mesa Verde National Park, chase some waterfalls, and more!

Rafting the Cache La Poudre River

6. Cache La Poudre River

Region: Northern Colorado

Why we love it:
We love the Cache La Poudre River for its towering cliffs, interesting rock formations, aspen trees, ponderosa pines, native grasses, and diverse rafting options. With chill rapids and rapids up to class IV, you can enjoy the best of every level of rafting.

Best time to raft the Cache La Poudre River:
The rafting season on the Cache La Poudre River typically runs from May to August, with the peak season being June and July. This time of year is when the river is at its highest and offers the most thrilling rapids.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Cache La Poudre?
The most extreme part of the Cache La Poudre River is the Upper Mishawaka Falls. This section features class V rapids and requires advanced paddling skills. Only experienced rafters should attempt this section of the river.

Rafting on the Cache La Poudre:
We recommend Rocky Mountain Adventures for a rafting trip on the Cache La Poudre River. They offer multiple trips down the Upper Mishawaka Falls rapids, allowing you to pick the perfect length for you and your group.

Nearest Cities or towns to get there:
The nearest big city to the Cache La Poudre River is Fort Collins, Colorado, approximately 45 minutes away. This is a great place to stay the day before your trip with lots of lodging options and activities to do in the area.

Rafting the Dolores River

7. Dolores River

Region: Southwest Colorado

Why we love it:
The Dolores River offers a truly remote and scenic rafting experience. As you navigate through deep canyons and towering cliffs, you'll feel like you're a world away from civilization. The river also provides excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing, with the chance to spot bighorn sheep, eagles, and even black bears.

Best time to raft the Dolores River:
The Dolores River has a relatively short rafting season, typically from late April to early July. These months are when the snowmelt from the surrounding mountains creates the optimal water flow for a thrilling and enjoyable rafting adventure.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Dolores?
The most extreme rafting stretch on the Dolores River is undoubtedly the Ponderosa Gorge. This section includes the notorious Snaggletooth rapid and class III - V rapids. Only experienced rafters should attempt this exhilarating journey, as it requires skill and precision to navigate the powerful whitewater.

Rafting on the Dolores:
We love Wilderness Aware Rafting's 3-day Ponderosa Gorge trip. With class III-IV rapids, this trip offers an unforgettable adrenaline-pumping experience, surrounded by towering pine trees and beautiful red cliffs. This trip shows you the best of these extreme rapids.

Nearest Cities or towns to get there:
The nearest access to the Dolores River is Dolores, Colorado, about 10 miles east of the river. This charming small town offers various amenities, including accommodations and dining options. For those looking for a more extensive city experience, Durango, Colorado, is about an hour's drive away.

Rafting the Gunnison River
Photo: Visit Montrose, CO

8. Gunnison River

Region: Southwest Colorado

Why we love it:
The Gunnison River starts from the high mountains and continues through the valleys, canyons, and mesas until it meets the Colorado River. It’s known for its steep and rocky canyon walls that create an unforgettable scenic adventure. This trip is an ideal blend of extremely epic and relaxing.

Best time to raft the Gunnison River:
The rafting season on the Gunnison River is usually from late May to September. The best time to raft it is from mid-June to early July, which offers a balance of good water flow and favorable weather.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Gunnison?
The most extreme rafting on the Gunnison River is through the Gunnison Gorge. This challenging section features narrow channels, large drops, and technical rapids that will surely get your adrenaline pumping.

Rafting on the Gunnison:
We highly recommend Gunnison River Expeditions for a guided trip down the Gunnison River. Their 2-day rafting trip includes camping along the riverbank and hearty meals.

Nearest Cities or towns to get there:
The nearest town to the Gunnison River is Gunnison, a charming mountain town with a rich mining history. It's a three-hour drive from Denver or one hour from Montrose.

Rafting the Eagle River
Photo: AVA Rafting & Zipline

9. Eagle River

Region: Central Rockie

Why we love it:
Due to its large drop in elevation, Eagle River is one of the best rivers to raft in Colorado. The river offers a great mix of exciting rapids and beautiful scenery, with stretches of calm waters in between. It’s also close to Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, making it a great summer activity for visitors.

Best time to raft the Eagle River:
The Eagle River has a short rafting season, usually starting in late May or early June and ending in July. The best months for rafting are June and early July.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the Eagle?
The Dowd Chute is the most intense section of the Eagle River and some of the extreme whitewater rafting in Colorado, featuring a lot of Class IV rapids and steep drops. This is a challenging section that requires experience and skill to navigate.

Rafting on the Eagle:
We recommend booking a trip with Timberline Tours, which offers an epic half-day trip on the Eagle River. This Colorado rafting trip covers the Dowd Chute and is perfect for thrill-seekers looking for an exciting challenge.

Nearest Cities or towns to get there:
The Eagle River is located near the towns of Vail and Avon, which are both within a short drive of the river. Vail is a popular resort town with plenty of accommodations and activities, while Avon is a quieter town that offers a more laid-back atmosphere.

Rafting the San Juan River

10. San Juan River

Region: Southwest corner of Colorado

Why we love it:
The San Juan River offers a unique rafting experience as it starts in the San Juan Mountains and passes through a scenic canyon featuring thrilling Class III and IV rapids. It also provides a chance to explore the region's rich history and geology, with stunning red rock formations and ancient Puebloan ruins.

Best time to raft the San Juan River:
The San Juan River is best rafted from late spring through early summer, typically from late May to June when the snowmelt is at its highest, creating the best rapids.

What is the most extreme rafting experience on the San Juan?
The most extreme stretch of rafting on the San Juan River is the East or West Fork, high above Pagosa Springs. This location boasts Class III – V rapids.

Rafting on the San Juan:
Wild Expeditions offers many trips with half-day, 3-day, 4-day, and 7-day options. On these trips you’ll get great meals, some hikes, swimming in the river, and some awesome rapids!

Nearest Cities or Towns to get there:
The closest major city to the San Juan River is Durango, Colorado, a little under 3 hours away.

Rafting the North Platte River

11. North Platte River

Region: North Central Colorado

Why we love it:
The North Platte River has pristine waters and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. On this trip, you also might encounter elk, bears, deer, and even a moose! It’s a great river to enjoy, sightsee, and raft!

Best time to raft the North Platte River:
Rafting season on the North Platte River typically runs from May to August, when water levels are ideal for an enjoyable and safe rafting experience. The best months to raft are June and July when they reach high water.

What is the most extreme rafting adventure on the North Platte?
While the North Platte River is known for its calm and peaceful waters, some sections offer a thrilling challenge for more experienced rafters. The most extreme rafting experience on the river is found in the Northgate Canyon section, where Class III and IV rapids will test your skills and adrenaline.

Rafting on the North Platte:
Wilderness Aware Rafting offers an excellent 1 or 2-day rafting trip through the Northgate Canyon and Medicine Bow Mountains. This trip provides some adventurous rapids that will surely get the blood pumping!

Nearest Cities or Towns to get there:
The North Platte River is conveniently located near the town of Walden, Colorado, which serves as a gateway to the river. Fort Collins is the nearest big city, approximately 90 miles south of Walden, offering plenty of amenities and attractions for visitors before or after their rafting adventure.

Looking for more information and tips for the best whitewater rafting spots in Colorado? Check out more posts on our blog.

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