Whitewater Rafting in Colorado: Best Routes and Tips


Colorado boasts some of the best white water rafting in the United States, with over 20 rivers offering thrilling rapids and stunning scenery. From beginner-friendly float trips to adrenaline-pumping Class V rapids, there’s something for every level of adventurer in the Centennial State.


  • Colorado offers a wide range of white water rafting experiences for all skill levels.
  • Safety and preparation are crucial for a successful and enjoyable Colorado rafting trip.
  • Colorado’s best time to go river rafting depends on seasonal water flows and weather conditions.

Understanding the Rapids: Classifications and What They Mean

Rapids are classified on a scale from Class I to Class V, with Class I being the easiest and Class V being the most challenging. The classification system helps rafters choose the right trip based on their skill level and experience.

  • Class I: Easy, smooth water with small waves and few obstructions
  • Class II: Novice, straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels
  • Class III: Intermediate, moderately difficult rapids with high, irregular waves
  • Class IV: Advanced, intense rapids with powerful waves and tight passages
  • Class V: Expert, extremely long, violent rapids with highly congested routes

Some of the most popular rapids in Colorado include Browns Canyon (Class III-IV) on the Arkansas River, Gore Canyon (Class V) on the Colorado River, and Numbers (Class IV) on the Arkansas River.

Preparing for Your Adventure: Safety and Training

Safety is paramount when whitewater rafting. Essential gear includes a properly fitted life jacket, helmet, wetsuit, or drysuit (depending on the water temperature) and appropriate footwear.

Before hitting the rapids, it’s important to receive proper training from a qualified instructor. Many Colorado rafting companies offer safety briefings and basic paddle techniques to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Choosing a reputable rafting company is crucial for your safety and peace of mind. Look for companies with experienced guides, well-maintained equipment, and a strong safety record, like the Colorado Rafting Company or Raft Masters.

Choosing Your Experience: Trip Options and Duration

Colorado offers a variety of rafting experiences, from half-day excursions to multi-day expeditions. Day trips are perfect for those short on time or looking for a taste of the action, while multi-day trips allow for a more immersive experience and the opportunity to explore remote sections of the river.

Popular river rafting routes for beginners include the Upper Colorado River near Kremmling and the Arkansas River near Buena Vista. For more experienced rafters, the Cache la Poudre River near Fort Collins and the Animas River near Durango offers thrilling Class IV and V rapids.

Many rafting companies offer the ability to customize your experience based on your group’s preferences, such as combining rafting with other activities like ziplining or horseback riding.

When to Go: Best Times for White Water Rafting in Colorado

The best time for white water rafting in Colorado depends on seasonal water flows and weather conditions. Peak season typically runs from May to September, with the highest water levels occurring in May and June due to snowmelt.

  • May-June: High water level, colder temperatures, more challenging rapids
  • July-August: Lower water level, warmer temperatures, more suitable for beginners
  • September: Lower water level, cooler temperatures, fall foliage views

Weather can also impact rafting conditions, with rain and snowmelt causing water levels to rise and creating more challenging rapids.

Where to Stay: Accommodations and Camping

Colorado offers a range of lodging options near major rafting destinations, from rustic cabins and vacation rentals to luxury resorts and hotels.

Camping along the river is a popular choice for a more immersive experience. Many rafting companies offer overnight camping trips, providing all necessary gear and meals. When camping, be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and respect private property and designated camping areas.

Plan Your Trip: Logistics and Booking

To plan your white water rafting trip in Colorado:

1. Choose your desired location and difficulty level

2. Select a reputable rafting company

3. Decide on trip duration and dates

4. Book your trip and pay any necessary deposits

5. Arrange transportation to and from the rafting site

6. Gather necessary gear and clothing

Some rivers may require permits or specific regulations, so check with your rafting company or local authorities before your trip.

Beyond Rafting: Other Activities and Attractions

Colorado offers a wealth of outdoor adventures beyond white water rafting. Many rafting companies offer package deals that combine rafting with activities like:

  • Ziplining
  • Horseback riding
  • Mountain biking
  • Hiking
  • Fly fishing

The state is also home to numerous cultural and historical sites, such as Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

After a day on the river, take advantage of Colorado’s many relaxation and recovery options, such as hot springs, spa treatments, and yoga classes in resort towns like Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs.


What is the best time of year to go whitewater rafting in Colorado?

The best time for white water rafting in Colorado is typically from May to September, with peak water levels occurring in May and June due to snowmelt.

Are there age or health restrictions for white water rafting?

Age and health restrictions vary depending on the rafting company and river section. Generally, children must be at least 7 years old and able to swim to participate in rafting trips. Some companies may have weight or health restrictions for certain sections of the river.

What should I bring on a white water rafting trip?

Essential items to bring on a white water rafting trip include:

  • Swimwear or quick-drying clothing
  • Water shoes or secure sandals
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Water bottle
  • Camera (waterproof or in a protective case)

Your rafting company will provide necessary safety gear like life jackets and helmets.

How do I choose the right rafting company for my experience level?

When choosing a rafting company, consider factors such as:

  • Guide experience and training
  • Safety record and equipment maintenance
  • Trip options and customization
  • Reviews and recommendations from previous customers

Look for a company that caters to your skill level and offers trips that align with your interests and comfort level.

Can I go white water rafting in Colorado if I can’t swim?

While knowing how to swim is strongly recommended, many rafting companies allow non-swimmers to participate in beginner-level trips with proper safety gear and instruction. However, some companies may require a minimum swimming ability for certain sections of the river. Always check their specific requirements and safety protocols with your chosen rafting company.


About the author

Ransom Patterson

My expertise in Colorado life extends beyond just residing here; it’s also about living actively within the community. I spend my time cycling through Denver’s trails, experimenting with local cuisines, and immersing myself in the local music scene. These activities give me a unique perspective on the cultural and outdoor offerings of Colorado. This hands-on approach allows me to provide insider tips and personal recommendations that resonate with both locals and visitors alike.