8 of the Best Rafting Trips Near Denver

9 Min. Read
Yampa River rafting in northeastern Colorado | Photo: Taylor Miller
Yampa River rafting in northeastern Colorado | Photo: Taylor Miller

The Top Colorado Rafting Trips from the Front Range

With 158 named rivers, over 100,000 river miles, and ecosystems ranging from high alpine to pine forest to sandy desert, Colorado has a lot to offer rafters. Whether you’re looking for a mellow, family-friendly float or an adrenaline-filled whitewater adventure, you don’t have to go far to access the fun—some of Colorado’s best rafting trips are within just a few hours of Denver. Whatever kind of rafting floats your boat, the Centennial State offers access to a stretch of river to match it. 

Multi-Day Rafting Trips in Colorado

1) Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument

Nearest Town: Elk Springs, CO 

Best For: Famous rapids, spectacular campsites 

The Yampa River has the distinction of being the largest free-flowing (undammed) tributary of the Colorado, making it perhaps the closest one can get to time-traveling to the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This trip combines stretches of relaxing flatwater with splashy wave trains and rapids—all of which can be easily scouted—and one trickster, the deceptively cozy-sounding Warm Springs, which is among the biggest whitewater drops in the U.S. The rapid didn’t exist until heavy flooding in 1965 distributed giant boulders across the river, so nature’s power is on full display here. The area’s human history leaves a lasting impression, too: OARS founder George Wendt witnessed (and managed to survive) the formation of the Warm Springs rapid, making for one epic adventure. There’s also older history in the canyon, from outlaws’ cabins to evidence of indigenous inhabitants to fossilized remains from millions of years ago. Below its confluence with the Green River, this trip shares the 26-mile stretch from Echo Park to Split Mountain with the Gates of Lodore run. 

Green River through Gates of Lodore rafting.
One of Colorado’s best multi-day rafting trips, the Green River through Gates of Lodore offers stunning desert scenery. | Photo: John Webster

2) Gates of Lodore | Green River 

Nearest Town: Vernal, UT*

Best For: Extended wilderness experience; phenomenal scenery & side hikes

There’s nothing quite like waking up to the songs of canyon wren and sipping coffee as the sun begins to warm the soaring canyon walls. And on the Gates of Lodore stretch of the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument, that’s pretty much what’s on your docket—well, that and a few exciting rapids made famous by Major John Wesley Powell’s disastrous experience on his 1869 expedition. You’ll want to stretch the run out over as many days as possible to take full advantage of the ridiculously scenic campsites (often with access to side-canyon hikes), cattle-rustler camps, and even the occasional petroglyph or fossil. To minimize impact (and keep the canyons feeling like a wilderness experience), just 300 permits are issued for both the Green and Yampa runs through Dinosaur for launch dates between May 8 and September 8—so make friends with someone who’s feeling lucky, or sign on for a commercial trip and leave the permitting to the pros. 

*While Vernal is the nearest actual town, this trip starts across the border in a remote area of western Colorado.

Rafting in Westwater Canyon under blue skies and white clouds
Enjoying wide open skies on Westwater Canyon. | Photo by James Kaiser

3) Ruby Horsethief & Westwater Canyon | Colorado River

Nearest Town: Fruita, CO

Ruby Horsethief and Westwater are often run together as part of a longer trip, but make no mistake—these runs each have their own distinct flavor. 

Best For: Family-friendly float 

Ruby Horsethief is largely flatwater, except at very high water, when big hydraulics form in the Black Rocks area. The float encompasses two canyons; Ruby is named for its red walls, while Horsethief earned its name on account of a former resident who reportedly purchased stolen horses in the safety of the remote canyon. When water levels are chugging along, the run can be done in a day, but it’s more fun to take the scenic route and make a long weekend of it. Camping is by permit at designated campsites only; there are 33 spacious sites between the put-in at Loma and the take-out at Westwater. This trip is ideal for families—it’s mellow enough that it’s often run on stand-up paddleboards, and many campsites offer extra perks like hiking from the Mee Canyon sites or rock-hopping at Black Rocks. The Utah-Colorado border is marked on a cliff on river right near the end of the run; it’s way more fun to enter a new state on the river than in a car. 

Best For: Challenging whitewater in a remote setting 

Westwater, which begins at the take-out for the Ruby Horsethief run, is a whole different beast. Its 11 named rapids vary from Class II to IV. The stretch offers unique challenges at any water level, and while it’s best run during the warmest time of the year (April to June, typically), the ancient Vishnu schist—only seen above ground here, in the Black Rocks section of Ruby Horsethief, and many miles downstream in the Grand Canyon—provides a shady respite from the heat. 

Colorado Rafting Day Trips

A group of paddlers navigate rapids on a Browns Canyon rafting trip in Colorado.
Browns Canyon rafting | Photo: Noah’s Ark Whitewater

4) Browns Canyon | Arkansas River

Nearest Town: Buena Vista, CO

Best For: Quintessential Colorado rafting experience; shortest drive from Denver area 

Designated a national monument in 2015, breathtaking Browns Canyon stretches between Buena Vista (pronounce it BYOO-na VIST-a to sound like a local) and Salida—and it’s widely considered the best Class III run in the state. Rapid names like Pinball and Zoom Flume sum it up nicely: this is an exceptionally fun, family-friendly run. Its relatively high altitude (ranging from 7,300 to about 10,000 feet above sea level) and towering granite walls mean it’s home to wildlife unique to the mountain ecosystem; keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, bobcats, and pine marten. Browns itself makes for a perfect half-day trip, and the national monument designation means the stretch of Arkansas River through the canyon is quiet and roadless; the only sign of modern times is the railroad running along river left. 

5) Royal Gorge | Arkansas River

Nearest Town: Cañon City, CO

Best For: Big water in a classic setting

For a thrilling introduction to Arkansas River paddling, look no further than the Royal Gorge, considered one of the finest whitewater runs in North America. It’s hard to believe something this close to the bustling city of Colorado Springs could feel so remote, but Class IV and V rapids have a way of taking center stage—and the plunging 1,200-foot walls, which occasionally narrow to less than 30 feet apart, don’t hurt, either. Elk and bighorn sheep are often spotted from the river; bald eagles occasionally soar overhead, along with the iconic Royal Gorge Bridge, which spans the canyon a dizzying 956 feet above the riverbed. For those who want to skip the biggest water, a half-day run through Bighorn Sheep Canyon (just upstream) means splashy Class III rapids and plenty of gorgeous scenery.

Colorado rafting day trip on the Arkansas River.
Rafters paddle an exhilirating stretch of the Arkansas River. | Photo: AVA Rafting

6) Pumphouse to State Bridge | Upper Colorado River

Nearest Town: Kremmling, CO

Best For: Easy logistics; a little something for everyone in your group

With abundant wildlife, soaring Rocky Mountain views, an easy-to-access hot spring, and a smattering of Class II and III rapids, “the Upper C,” as it’s affectionately known, has a lot to offer. Access the put-in for the run at Pumphouse, where there’s a developed campground. This also happens to be the take-out for Gore Canyon, one of the rowdiest continuous stretches of Class IV and V whitewater in the west—but from here to State Bridge, it’s smooth sailing. Shortly after getting on the water, you’ll enter a deep canyon, followed by one of just two significant rapids on this run, Eye of the Needle (at most water levels, it’s much more forgiving than its name implies). Stretches of flatwater make for great swimming on a hot day, and don’t miss Radium Hot Springs, an unmaintained pool about three miles downstream from Pumphouse on river left, which gives a perfect view of a popular cliff-jumping spot across the river. 

7) Canyon Run | Clear Creek

Nearest Town: Idaho Springs, CO

Best For: Rowdy rapids less than an hour from Denver

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Clear Creek is by no means a wilderness experience. The upper runs, starting in Lawson, parallel Interstate 70; the “Canyon Run” or “Kermits,” as the most advanced section is often called, is never more than a stone’s throw from US Highway 6. But if it’s adrenaline-pumping whitewater and a classic “creeking” experience you’re after, this is it—and the roar of the rapids drowns out most of the traffic sounds, anyway. Known for its swift current, hyper-technical rapids, and incredibly narrow channels, this section of the Creek has nonstop action; it’s one Class IV rapid (often with sinister-sounding names, like Double Knife and Hell’s Half-Mile) after another for most of the six-ish-mile run. The upside of the frontcountry setting is that it’s incredibly convenient to get to the put-in or shop in Idaho Springs—just don’t let the proximity to the road trick you into thinking you’re not in for an adventure.

A group of rafters on the Cache La Poudre River near Denver.
Rafting the Cache La Poudre River near Denver. | Photo: Rocky Mountain Adventures

8) Cache La Poudre River

Nearest Town: Fort Collins, CO

Best For: Wild, scenic, and super convenient

Colorado’s only nationally designated Wild & Scenic River is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Fort Collins, a quirky college town just north of Denver. The Cache La Poudre (locals pronounce it “CASH-ay la POOD-er”), often just called the Poudre, boasts rapids ranging from mellow class II to thrilling Class IV+, depending on the season. Swift, clear current, narrow channels, and far fewer boaters than many Colorado rivers make this feel like a wilderness experience, and the lush ponderosa forest—a far cry from the desert landscape you’ll find in the western part of the state—feels very classically Colorado. For a rowdy run, sign on for a Mishawaka trip; for a quieter experience, the Lower Canyon is where it’s at. 

Portrait of Emma Walker and her dog on the river

Emma Walker

Emma Walker is the author of the book "Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors." She earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as a raft guide, avalanche educator, and backpacking instructor around the American West.

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