Roughing it on the Colorado River

Colorado RiverWith a watershed running through 11 national parks over seven U.S. states, and boasting 1,450 miles of riverbed from its birthplace in the southern Rocky Mountains to its natural terminus in the Sea of Cortez, the Colorado River is a massive diamond in the rough whose storied geologic history includes carving the Grand Canyon itself. If you’re ready to join the flotilla of kayakers, rafters and canoeists who ply her waters, here are some tips to get you started.

Lots of Miles to Travel
The Colorado River features nearly 700 river miles in the U.S. alone, which means you have your pick of how long you’d like to be on the water. Depending on your put-in and take-out points, and the water level, two days of paddling plus one overnight on a river island may be just as doable as three weeks of paddling and overnights. Consider whether you’d like to build in time to explore other parts of the river, including tributaries and side canyons, and factor that into your schedule. Keep in mind that the longer you’re afloat, the more work you’ll put in to planning your trip, and the more weight you’ll have in gear and provisions.

Adventure for All Skill Levels
While the Colorado does offer plenty of stretches of lovely, drifting flatwater, an undeniable part of its appeal are the whitewater rapids. If you’re still wet behind the ears when it comes to river camping, check out easy kayak trails like the Wilbarger Paddling Trail, which can be done as a day trip or a slow-paced overnight; or the family friendly, 25-mile Ruby-Horsethief Canyons run and score a gorgeous primitive site through the Bureau of Land Management. On the other hand, if you’ve got the skills and experience, nothing beats the thrill of big water. Near Radium, CO, Cataract Canyon offers rapids from class II-IV, and Gore Canyon in Bond, CO, is home to the aptly named Gore Fest for its infamous downriver race through wild Class V Gore Canyon. And then there’s the Grand Canyon, which offers an endless buffet of features. No whitewater enthusiast needs to be told about legendary rapids Crystal or Lava Falls, but beginners beware: these are best left to professionals and the extremely experienced.

Colorado RiverPaperwork
Once you’ve determined the length of your trip and identified the section of the river you’d like to run, the next step is to secure any necessary permits with local governing agencies in order to lawfully complete your run. While skirting authority to pull outrageous stunts may be “illegal, wrong-headed…and glorious,” no amount of personal glory is likely to offset the headache of fines and heartbreak of a trip cut short for want of proper paperwork. Know before you go, and pay careful attention to sections of the river that may require multiple sign-offs from different governing bodies, such as launches from Diamond Creek in the Grand Canyon which require both a permit from Grand Canyon National Park and paid access fees to the Hualapai Tribe.

Life jackets save lives, so wear them. Additionally, be sure to check the flow rate of the section of river you intend to run, as both high flows and low flows can introduce new dangerous conditions and hazards, which may put the trip further from your comfort zone. Fifteen dams along the main stem of the Colorado provide regulation of flow rate and flood control, so the river does run less wild than it has in the past, but there are still sections where the flow rate can determine whether a particular rock garden is submerged or exposed, or where the best line through a hazard may lay. Self-rescue is always your most reliable bet on the river, so if the conditions appear overwhelming, better to be safe than sorry.

In addition to your watercraft of choice—be it a wooden dory, a canoe, inflatable raft, or a kayak—and all assorted oars and paddles, you’ll need to pack enough provisions for the length of your trip. That includes water! You’ll have plenty of it below you, but depending on the river’s conditions, it’s likely to be too silty for even the sturdiest filters. Waterproof dry bags are important for keeping your perishables fresh and your sleeping system from becoming soggy; and portable river toilets are a must for protecting the sanitation of a river bottom that sees millions of visitors a year.