Upper Eagle River/Dowd Chute
When rafting first gained popularity in Colorado, local public safety officials deemed the Upper Eagle River too dangerous to run during peak runoff. Eventually, savvy boaters proved them wrong, and the Upper Eagle remains one of the most iconic trips offered by local professional rafting companies. The continuous Class IV stretch of between four and six miles, depending on the put-in, delivers the best bang for your buck close to Vail (which means you don’t have to sit in a van barreling downvalley for an hour). It’s also a lot more intense than most people expect (guests are required to be at least 16 years or older)—especially if conditions are right to include Dowd Chute, a narrow gorge between Minturn and Avon that is known for its cold water and constantly shifting boulders, which keeps it challenging—even for the most experienced guides.
Where (put-in): Eagle-Vail or Minturn
When (season): May–early July
How (difficult): Class IV+ (Advanced)
As majestic as the Colorado River may be, whitewater purists could argue it’s best known for its vistas, not its rapids. And while Glenwood Canyon may not be on the same scale as the Grand, you also don’t need to win a lottery to raft it. Starting on the east end of the canyon at the Shoshone Rapids power plant and ending at a takeout on the west, in Glenwood Springs, this stretch allows guests to appreciate how tall and steep the canyon’s rock walls are. Generally, kids age 7 and older (and weighing more than 50 pounds) are welcome, but depending on flows, they might have to skip the first section, which includes Class III rapids, and join at Grizzly Creek, a put-in for a mellower section appropriate for whitewater-squeamish adults and kids who are younger and smaller. This trip hums when the river is slightly lower than it is at peak runoff in late June through early July.
Where (put-in): Shoshone
When (season): July–September
How (difficult): Class III
Who (guides): glenwoodadventure.com ($72/guest, $575/private boat of eight), lakotaguides.com ($135/guest), sageoutdooradventures.com ($149/guest), timberlinetours.com (from $135/adult, $105/kids 7–12, $95/kids 3–6)
Colorado River/Gore Canyon
Welcome to the gnarliest commercial whitewater trip in the state. Over an eight-mile stretch of the Colorado River that starts near Kremmling, boaters navigate seven rapids that are Class IV or V. Timberline Tours, which started guiding Gore Canyon in the mid-’70s and remains one of three companies permitted to run it (and the only one based in Eagle County), requires guests to be over 18 and in good physical condition. After a two-mile flatwater paddle to start before proceeding to the main event, everyone on the boat must demonstrate an ability to swim under the raft and then get back in unassisted while shooting a Class III rapid. River flows have to be between 800 and 1250 cfs. “Traditionally our Gore Canyon season starts around mid-August and runs to the end of September,” says Greg Kelchner, who founded Timberline Tours in 1971 and still runs the business at age 75. The guides who run Gore Canyon, says Kelchner, “are the cream of our crop.”
Where (put-in): Kremmling
When (season): Late August through mid-September
How (difficult): Class IV+ (Expert)
Who (guides): timberlinetours.com ($1,800/private boat of eight)
There was a time when almost anyone taking a whitewater rafting trip in north-central Colorado would float this stretch between Rancho del Rio and State Bridge. “That was the upper limit of whitewater navigability with tourists,” says Greg Kelchner of Timberline Tours. Now, the “Upper C” plays a similar but different role: that of the old standby. With ample flat stretches to let the mind wander along with Class II rapids that keep the four-mile run interesting late into the season, this trip has been a family favorite for generations. Bring your 5-year-old. And your grandma. And keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, ospreys, moose, and bears. Glenwood Adventure
(glenwoodadventure.com, $1,795/private boat of six) and Lakota Guides (lakotaguides.com, $365/adult, $315/kids 5–11) offer overnight options as well.
Where (put-in): Rancho del Rio
When (season): May–September
How (difficult): Class I–II (Beginner)
Must-do for Fossil Hunters
You might not expect to find a dinosaur hub in the Vail Valley, but thanks to local paleontologist Billy Doran, founder of Fossil Posse (fossilposse.com), not only can kids see ancient fossils, but they can then raft one of the world’s most famous rivers. That’s the magic of this Dinosaur Discovery trip, offered by Doran and Timberline Tours (timberlinetours.com, $149/guest). After a morning of digging up natural treasures and learning about dinosaurs at Doran’s museum, guests proceed to the Upper C for the action-packed second act.
Must-do for Oenophiles
Like mountain bliss and wine? Check out Timberline’s Wine Tasting & Rafting trip (timberlinetours.com, $149/adult, six guest minimum), offered on warm summer days and popular with everyone from Boomers to bachelorette parties. After an afternoon run on the Upper Colorado, guests dry off and head to 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott (4eagleranch.com) for vino and appetizers from Vines at Vail (vinesatvailwinery.com), a local winery that bottles and blends its own vintages from grapes trucked in from Sonoma and Napa vineyards. Sip wine crafted on-site while mingling over a game of bocce.