Riding the Rapids: Whitewater Rafting the Arkansas River

    A play-and-stay raft trip through the Royal Gorge blends adventure and comfort. Plus where to ride the rapids all over the Arkansas River in what promises to be an epic summer.

    Echo Canyon
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rating

    Let’s get one thing straight: The summer of 2019 will be epic on Colorado’s waterways. The wettest winter on record in the Lower 48 and a cool, damp spring have left the Rockies holding snow from historic late-season storms. And that means rivers across Colorado are going to be running high. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect year to get on the river, this is it.

    So with a not-to-be-missed summer ramping up, it was time for me to knock off a Colorado bucket-list item: rafting the Royal Gorge. I would be in the capable hands of Echo Canyon Adventures for a “play-and-stay” combo of rafting and lodging in the affiliated Royal Gorge Cabins. Adventure and comfort all in one.

    rafting through towering Royal Gorge
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rafting

    After meeting at Echo Canyon’s base outside Cañon City, six of us loaded into our 13-foot boat. There was our guide, Craig, and another guide, Lillian, who joined to get reacquainted with the river. Two guys from Chicago were planted in the middle of our raft. My brother-in-law and I were placed in the front, presumably so we could act as splashguards for the Chicagoans.

    River guides talk about CFS (cubic feet per second, or how much water is flowing downstream) the way diehard skiers talk about inches of powder. Rafting talk usually spills into a jumble of CFS numbers—800, 2,000, 4,500—and their associated perils or pleasures.  “You guys are in for a treat today,” Craig told us as we set off into the river. “We were at 805 this morning, so the river is going to be mellow. In a couple weeks when we are running at 2,500? Then things are gonna be … a little rowdy.”

    rafting with drenching whitewater spray
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rafting

    Craig looked downriver with that far-away stare all guides probably practice when the rest of us aren’t around. “Think of a cubic foot of water as a basketball,” he said, lazily working a paddle through the water. “So 800 CFS … that’s a lot of basketballs.” I imagined millions of basketballs all bouncing and careening down the riverbed. Then I saw myself bouncing and careening down the river if we flipped the boat.

    There was reason for my concern. The Royal Gorge is one of the roughest stretches of the Arkansas River. Class IV and V rapids string together in the depths of a 1,200-foot deep canyon. In some sections of the Gorge there is no safe bank to swim to. If you fall out, your only options are to claw your way back into a raft or ride it out alone to calmer water. The first option comes highly recommended.

    rafting a quiet stretch of the arkansas river
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rafting.

    As we splashed and churned along, our guide Craig calmly called out each feature of the river by name. He was clearly seeing the faces of old friends and enemies in the boiling rapids. Some of these features have whimsical, inordinately cheery names like Sunshine Falls, which can be life-threatening in high water. Others rapids, like Boateater and Vortex seemed more aptly named.

    For us, Vortex lived up to the hype. Another boat had stalled just above the drop, and despite our furious paddling, the current brought our rafts together in a buoyant, squeaking thump of rubber. Our raft deflected off and eased into a spin. I was now looking straight at the oncoming granite wall. “Back left!” Craig yelled. Before I could dig my paddle in the water, the nose of our boat hit the Gorge wall with a grinding scrunch. The river whipped the back of our raft around, completing the spin. We were now going backward down Class IV rapids. Craig didn’t seem to mind. You could almost hear him laughing over our screams.

    In the end, 800 CFS turned out to provide the playful day promised. We all stayed in the boat and were only thrown into the center of the raft a couple times. The river was just high enough to toss us around and get us a little wet—and solidly whet my appetite to come back for more when the flow was higher.

    As we slapped our wetsuits back across the counter at the rafting office, I realized I was ravenously hungry and hadn’t eaten lunch. Thankfully, a plate of delicious, spicy pork tacos were only steps away at Echo Canyon’s 8 Mile Bar & Grill. Lunch by the wall of open doors went down in a flash as the next batch of rafters got ready for the late afternoon run. They looked like seals walking around in their wetsuits, black and sleek and slightly out of place on dry land.

    After lunch I headed across the highway to the Royal Gorge Cabins. At first, I wasn’t sure how luxury cabins fit into a rafting trip. As soon as I saw the oversize stone shower and rack of fluffy white towels, I decided they paired quite nicely.

    Royal Gorge Cabins
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rafting

    It was early evening by the time I settled down by the fireplace under an absurdly fuzzy blanket. It was time to do nothing more than stare out the patio doors at the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Even with a touch of late spring chill in the air, it was hard to remember I had ever been soaked in freezing river water. Later, after watching the stars come out from the hammock in the yard, I headed into town to hunt up a local brew and late dinner.

    For both of these needs, the microbrew scene in Cañon City rose to the occasion. The World’s End Brewery opened in February and already anchors the increasingly lively west end of Main Street. World’s End is only a few months old, but it has that been-there-forever feel of a proper local watering hole. Your beer may come in a clear plastic cup, and the outdoor picnic tables are low on pretense, but the beer is high on quality. I can vouch for the Bible-black King’s Kona Stout in particular. 

    family rafting arkansas river
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rafting

    Late the next morning, at one minute to my 11 a.m. checkout, I reluctantly tossed my bag in the truck. I had soaked up all the fun and relaxation I could, and it was time to hit the road. Across the highway at the 8 Mile Bar & Grill, the garage doors were going up, and tables were being wiped down. Soon, another day’s crew of rafters would come rolling in to enjoy this epic summer on the river.  Before turning east, I hesitated; maybe there was time for another run through the Gorge before I headed home.…

    rafting the royal gorge in high water Echo Canyon Rafting
    Photo courtesy of Echo Canyon Rafting

    Rafting the Upper Arkansas

    With its scenery, accessibility and rollicking rapids, the Arkansas is Colorado’s most popular whitewater river, and it’s got fun for everyone. Here’s a breakdown of its major sections for rafting.

    The Numbers

    Difficulty: Class IV and V
    Best for: Experienced rafters
    Who to Call: River Runners, whitewater.net
    Be Ready for: “Nonstop crushing through waves. You need some stamina,” says Tavis Hochard, River Runners general manager.
    Top Feature: Rapid #4—Try not to get sucked into the drainage ditch, and look out for the aptly named Big Nasty rapid.

    Browns Canyon

    Difficulty: Class III and IV
    Best for: Everybody!
    Who to Call: Noah’s Ark, noahsark.com
    Be Ready for: “There will be a trip for everyone in Browns Canyon this year. Browns is the classic Colorado rafting experience, but as water levels rise, it will suit more adventurous, physically-fit rafters,” says Chuck Cichowitz, president of Noah’s Ark.
    Top Feature: Stair 7—In high water, Stair 7 pits you against a wave taller than the length of your raft.

    Bighorn Sheep Canyons

    Difficulty: Class I, II and III
    Best for: Families and first-timers
    Who to Call: Royal Gorge Rafting, royalgorgerafting.net
    Be Ready for: “Upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon is going to still be great for families, even at high water, but [in high water] the lower rapids like Sharkstooth and Spike Buck are going to look totally different than you have ever seen them,” says Matt McDonough, head boatman at Royal Gorge Rafting.
    Top Feature: Spike Buck—A long, sceneic, rolling wave train that’s a lot of fun for families.

    The Royal Gorge

    Difficulty: Class IV and V
    Best for: The adventurous or experienced
    Who to Call: Echo Canyon Rafting, raftecho.com
    Be Ready for: “You are going to be winning the river lottery for 60 days straight this year,” says Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions. “Usually we see a quick peak, and things trail off. We should be enjoying great water all summer.”
    Top Feature: “Everyone is so fixated on the named rapids,” Neinas says.  “The entire river is going to come to life with standing waves and rogue holes that aren’t even named.”