Experience Arkansas River Whitewater Rafting in Salida & Buena Vista

With thrilling rapids, amazing scenery and plenty of wildlife-spotting opportunities, Arkansas River whitewater rafting is known as some of the best in the country. 

A photograph of a kid smiling widely, clad in a blue helmet, blue jacket and a life vest. They are on a whitewater rafting trip with their family on the Arkansas River in Colorado. Beside the kid are several smiling adults. There is water splashing up as they raft down the river.
Family-friendly rafting fun on the Arkansas River
A group of Arkansas River whitewater rafters stand by their inflatable blue rafts, clad in bright green helmets and orange vests. Guides are holding lines and demonstrating how to safety raft on the river, near Buena Vista. The river is rolling in front of them past a little green pasture and the sun is shining down.
A group getting excited for their guided whitewater rafting trip
A group of people dressed in blue safety equipment and holding yellow paddles sit on an inflatable grey raft as it flows down the Arkansas River near Buena Vista. The whitewater waves are mild. Behind the whitewater rafters are hills of craggy rock formations sprinkled with pine trees, all under a clear blue sky.
High waters on the Arkansas River
Three groups of whitewater rafters float down the Arkansas River in Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado. The water is semi-calm but with some waves, and one of the groups on an inflatable gray raft are nearing the end of the waves, holding yellow paddles. Slightly in the distance past some large rocks in the water are the other two groups on still water. Around the groups are thick groves of pine trees.
Rafting the whitewater rapids
Kayaking on the Arkansas River
Solo-kayaker on the Arkansas River
Three groups of neon-green-helmet-clad whitewater rafters sit on their blue inflatable rafts above the calm waters of the Arkansas River in Colorado. There is a large rock jutting out from underneath the surface and behind the rafters is a slight hill full of deep green vegetation and trees, beyond which is a tall hill spotted with greenery.
Rafters on the rapids
A group of six smiling middle-school-aged kids with neon-green helmets and orange safety vests sit on a large blue inflatable raft. They are all holding a raft as they prepare to be pushed into the calm waters of the Arkansas River behind them.
Kid-friendly whitewater rafting trip
A group of smiling and focused people dressed in blue safety equipment and holding yellow paddles rushes down the Arkansas River on a whitewater rafting trip. They are actively rafting on a gray inflatable raft at the top of the Zoom Flume rapid in Browns Canyon National Monument.
The top of Zoom Flume at Browns Canyon National Monument
A group of three people in tank tops and helmets race to get a raft across the Arkansas River Hooligan Race at FIBArk Festival in Salida. Their raft is disguised as a red truck with windows and decorative wheels, and the silver writing on the side says "SS Fun Truck." Behind them is a large group of spectators, some with their dogs and some in swimming suits, watching them race to the end.
Rafters at FIBArk Festival's Hooligan Race in Salida
A professional kayaker in a yellow-and-orange kayak is fully flipped upside down as they fly above the whitewater waves of the Arkansas River at the Buena Vista CKS Paddlefest. Behind them is a group of spectators along the side of the river, watching intensely. In the corner is a tall blue tent that says "Visitor information Colorado," and "ColorfulColorado.com." The sun is shining on everyone at the festival.
Pro-kayaker at CKS Paddlefest in Buena Vista

Check out our insider tips for planning your Arkansas River adventures in Salida and Buena Vista, whether you’re looking for a family-friendly Colorado whitewater-rafting experience or a ride that’ll get your blood pumping.

Whitewater Rafting in Salida & Buena Vista

Salida and Buena Vista sit in the heart of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Known for being home to some of the best rapids country, this stretch of river offers a mix of avenues suitable for all ages and skill levels. Here are some locally loved sections.

1. Milk Run

Looking for a whitewater-rafting trip for the whole family? Search no further than Milk Run. This section of the Arkansas is ideal for little ones and those just getting their feet wet in the world of Colorado rafting. The waters here are so calm that kids as young as 2 can come along on a family float trip. The short trip usually runs about an hour, and you’ll be treated to exciting (yet gentle) splashes and a wealth of stunning mountain views.

2. Browns Canyon National Monument

This rafting trip is ideal for all skill levels and ages, including kids, adult beginners or advanced rafters who want to stay overnight near the river. Craggy granite cliffs that animals like bighorn sheep call home rise on either side of the river, offering a magical solitude you just don’t get with other whitewater experiences. The section of the Arkansas River known as the Browns Canyon National Monument offers plentiful sweet features (think staircases, falls and eddies), plus tours ranging in length from a few hours to multiday camping trips — just imagine falling asleep to the sound of that river running — so you can stretch out the fun as long as you’d like.

3. Pine Creek

Touted as one of the most challenging sections of the Arkansas, Pine Creek is the place to go get your heart pounding if you're an expert-level thrill seeker on the rapids. The river narrows significantly here, creating the Class V Pine Creek Rapid. This natural amusement-park ride spans more than a mile of distance and is loaded with big drops as it plummets more than 200 feet in that space. Immediately after clearing Pine Creek, you’ll dip into another complex Class V section called the Triple Drop, giving you even more whitewater-rafting action.

4. The Numbers

This hardcore section of the river has so many rapids that people gave up on naming them and just numbered them instead. There are seven or eight total major rapids (depending on who you ask), making for 7 miles of fast-moving, nonstop-paddling good times for advanced adrenaline fanatics. As with Pine Creek, this is one of the most advanced portions of the river, with big waves, drops and wild currents.

Want to try out the whitewater in a different way? Take some kayaking lessons or an inflatable kayak tour. Find kayaking outfitters in Salida & Buena Vista

When to Go Arkansas River Rafting

Timing is key when booking a rafting trip, as snowmelt dictates the flow of the river. Water levels are important because they impact the type of rafting experience you’ll have. 

Late May–Late June

Waters are typically at their highest this time of year, which means thrill-seekers will be treated to plenty of wild rides. Think big waves, fast currents and lots of that churning whitewater magic.

Late June–Mid-August

This is the sweet spot for beginner or family rafting trips on the Arkansas, as water levels are low enough to provide milder paddles, but still high enough to prevent encounters with technical obstacles. The exception to this is more challenging sections, like Pine Creek and The Numbers, which are ripping and ready to provide plenty of action to expert rafters during these times.

Guided Colorado Rafting Trips

Unless you’re a pro, you should definitely take on the rapids of the Arkansas River with an experienced local outfitter. Aside from the fact that it’s just safer to hit the water with someone who knows how to navigate currents or where tricky wave pockets might be hidden, guides can enhance your time on the river. Here’s how:

  • They can help you plan your ideal outing. Maybe you’re looking for a chill family float trip with riverside camping, or perhaps a ride that balances challenging paddle sessions and serene drifting. Outfitters can craft a whitewater-rafting vacay that ticks all the boxes on your wish list. 
  • Most provide the gear you need and — depending on the length of your trip — will hook you up with meals, campsites and more. 
  • Best of all, guides really amplify the enjoyment factor by pointing out wildlife and teaching you about the area’s geology and history — including cool local lore — as you paddle along.

Find whitewater-rafting outfitters and guides in Salida and Buena Vista

Arkansas River Rafting Festivals

The Arkansas River’s whitewater is such an integral part of the culture and history of Salida and Buena Vista that residents celebrate it annually with two local festivals. 

Memorial Day weekend is synonymous with whitewater at Buena Vista’s CKS Paddlefest. Get ready to whoop it up on the water with kayaking, river surfing and SUP competitions. Dry off with live music, trail-running races and a disc-golf tourney. 

Each June in Salida, FIBArk takes over the Arkansas for three days of expert-level whitewater competitions and wild races like rafting rodeos with paddlers decked out in costumes. Known for being American’s oldest whitewater festival, FIBArk ups the fun ante with bike and foot races, live music, craft brews and a parade.

Check out whitewater parks in Salida and Buena Vista

Explore trout fishing on the area’s Gold Medal waters

Learn more about Salida & Buena Vista