Complete Guide to Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

Each spring, gravity and sunshine draw Colorado’s beloved winter snow down from the high country and into Colorado rivers for some of the country’s most amazing whitewater rafting adventures.

By: Staff Writer
Updated: March 26, 2024

With so many rivers and expert guides, rafting in Colorado fits people of nearly all ages and abilities, with trips ranging from just a few hours to multi-day adventures. And with all our different waterways, you'll have plenty of options to choose from, whether you want to paddle hard or take a more leisurely float trip. 

Here’s a rundown of Colorado’s most popular rivers for rafting — some just a short drive from Denver and others spread further across our scenic state. For more information, visit our rafting outfitter listings and the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

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Arkansas River

Cutting through central Colorado canyons and dropping 5,000 feet in the first 125 miles, the Arkansas is one of the nation’s most popular rafting rivers. From scenic and family-friendly Browns Canyon National Monument to boat-rocking Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge stretches, the Arkansas runs through beautiful geologic landscapes. Typical departure cities: Buena VistaSalidaCañon City

Colorado River

The Colorado River, divided by the upper and lower sections, runs a gauntlet of canyons and ravines that provide exquisite sightseeing intermingled within rapids and calms. Like the Arkansas, it’s one of the most diverse, with various stretches that serve up adventures for both the daring and more timid. Typical departure cities: Glenwood SpringsGrand JunctionKremmlingBreckenridgeState Bridge

Clear Creek

One of the most convenient rafting rivers to Denver, Clear Creek is located right off I-70. Once on the river, however, the interstate goes entirely unnoticed as paddlers drop through the steep and narrow bed. Half- and full-day excursions satisfy those looking for a Class IV day or families seeking a quick splash of scenic whitewater. Typical departure city: Idaho Springs

Animas River

Trips on the lower Animas River are often packaged with rides on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and nearby zipline tours. The upper Animas is an adventure, with challenging Class IV and V rapids that are considered among the toughest commercially rafted waters in the country. Typical departure city: Durango

Cache la Poudre River

This river propels boaters on rapid-strewn runs that provide challenges for intermediate or advanced abilities. Not only does this river offer some great runs, but rafting here is also as unique an experience as you can have on Colorado waters — the Cache la Poudre River is Colorado's first and only federally designated National Wild and Scenic River. Typical departure city: Fort Collins

Yampa/Green River

Winding through Dinosaur National Monument, this multi-day run floats you past fossils and archeological sites, Native American rock carvings, interesting geological formations and sandy spots perfect for overnight camping. Typical departure city: Steamboat Springs

Taylor River

Views of the jagged Collegiate Peaks mountain range oversee three sections of varying difficulty on the scenic and narrow Taylor River, which is also popular with fishers. Typical departure cities: GunnisonCrested Butte

Roaring Fork River

The upper section of the Roaring Fork, known as "Slaughterhouse," is packed with challenging rapids and is home to one of Colorado's few commercially rafted waterfalls. The lower section is popular with families and inflatable kayakers for its mellower floats. Typical departure city: Aspen

Blue River

Winding through Arapaho National Forest, the Blue River runs below the Gore Mountain range. The river is most popular in the early season, as it relies heavily on spring-snow runoff. Typical departure cities: Frisco, Breckenridge, Dillon, Kremmling

Gunnison River

Cutting a swath through the Uncompahgre Mountain Range, the Gunnison River muscles its way through some of the most unique and picturesque scenery in the United States, including the Gunnison Gorge, a red-sandstone and black-granite beauty with virtually guaranteed wildlife sightings. Typical departure city: Gunnison

Eagle River

One of the few free-flowing (un-dammed) rivers remaining in the West, the Eagle is fed largely from the snowpack on Vail Mountain. Because it relies on that snowpack, it is typically only run in spring and early summer when the snowmelt is at its peak. Typical departure cities: EagleWolcottEdwards

San Juan River

Flowing through some of the most spectacular canyon country on earth, the San Juan descends more than 400 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River. Rafting outfitters on the lower canyon offer three- to seven-day wilderness excursions. Typical departure city: Pagosa Springs

Rio Grande River

Paddling through the San Juan Mountains, Rio Grande River rafters experience relatively moderate floats, with relaxing Class II and III whitewater rapids perfect for families. Typical departure city: Creede

San Miguel River

Alpine forests, desert red-rock canyon walls and fast-paced water typify this diverse river through the San Juan Mountains. Its Class II and III rapids and amazing scenery make for great family trips. Typical departure city: Outside Telluride near Placerville

North Platte River

The secluded North Platte River flows through the Northgate Wilderness Area deep in the Medicine Bow Mountains. Often combined with fishing adventures, the North Platte's mountain setting also offers up prime wildlife sightings. Typical departure cities: Fort CollinsSteamboat Springs

Dolores River

The southwestern-most rafting river in Colorado, the Dolores is perfect for a multi-day wilderness trip. Over 50 miles, the river offers steady Class III and IV (on a one- to six-rating scale). Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep who live on steep embankments in Dolores Canyon. Typical departure city: Cortez

Piedra River

The Piedra River is one of Colorado's most scenic, running through towering ponderosa forests home to lots of wildlife. The upper portion is quite technical, with big drops and stairsteps. The lower section has even bigger drops for more excitement. The upper and lower are often combined into two-day rafting trips. Typical departure cities: Durango, Pagosa Springs

Uncompahgre River

Floating through Ridgway State Park, the upper Uncompahgre River is a great start for beginner or timid rafters amid San Juan Mountain scenery. A 15-mile section of the remote lower Uncompahgre turns up the excitement with Class II and III rapids throughout the summer. Typical departure city: Ridgway

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