The Best Skiing in the U.S. Right Now…

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Means Epic Whitewater Rafting this Spring

As of early February, snowpack in parts of the Rockies this winter is well above average, which means while skiing at Aspen, Steamboat and Jackson Hole might be your best bet this season, come May, spring runoff from the Rockies should translate into ideal rafting conditions on classic western rivers like the Yampa, the Green and the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon. Travel writer Everett Potter explains…

Steamboat Powdercats

The next time you’re standing in your K2’s atop Aspen Mountain, ready to make a descent down Copper Bowl, temper the adrenalin for a minute. Instead, mentally transport yourself into the future, many months ahead, to a rafting trip down the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon.

The reason for the mental exercise is that much of the fresh snow under your skis will become foaming whitewater in Class III-V rapids on the Colorado. It begins its journey as snow melt from Aspen Mountain, as well as from neighboring Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass Mountains, making its way down to the legendary Roaring Fork River, which got its name from the formidable sound of rushing whitewater that it can barely contain every spring.

Whitewater Rafting in Cataract Canyon

The Roaring Fork runs in torrents through Aspen, flowing northwest down the valley, past Woody Creek, where the late great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson raised hell. It gains velocity, picks up the waters of the Frying Pan at Basalt and the Crystal River near Carbondale before joining the mighty Colorado in Glenwood Springs.

But it’s not just the Colorado River that benefits from Rocky Mountain runoff. The snows of other great Western ski resorts spawn, if you will, spring and summer whitewater pleasures. Take Steamboat Springs, famed for its champagne powder and cowboy ski culture. Every winter there’s still a Winter Carnival on Main Street where skijoring – getting towed on skis behind a horse – is a test of your mettle. It’s the rare day when you don’t spot Olympian and Steamboat mascot Billy Kidd out for a few runs in his trademark Stetson. Follow his tracks, if you can, and then fuel up with an American Wagyu Burger at Hazies on the mountain top, with a panoramic view of the valley on the side. Then reflect upon the fact that much of that white stuff outside the window will wind up in the Yampa River and flow westward. Those waters run wild from May through July, producing Class III and IV whitewater for rafting trips clear to Dinosaur National Monument at the junction of the Green River, before that river in turn enters the Colorado.

Yampa River Rafting

The northwest benefits as well. Get a pair of twin tips and ride the tram to the top of Jackson Hole some morning. If the snow is deep, and you’ve got the right stuff, take a literal leap of faith off Corbett’s Couloir. Land it, carry on through Ten Sleep Bowl, over to Cirque and down Snag Tree, and then pound it down Gros Ventre. Repeat a variation on this route as many times as your legs will let you. Finish the day with a cold one at the Mangy Moose and ponder that Jackson’s flakes – and there are 459 inches of them in a good year – will wind up in the beautiful Snake River. The Snake cuts through Idaho, picking up runoff from Grand Targhee in Wyoming and some of the 320 inches of snow melting from Brundage Mountain in McCall, Idaho. It becomes a whitewater rafting holy grail by the time it reaches Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America at nearly 8,000 feet.

If you’re reading this through foggy goggles at Aspen, Steamboat or Jackson, it might be tough to visualize yourself wearing shorts, T-shirt and Tevas on a wild ride down some mighty Western river. Just think of it, during a year when the interconnectivity of our Western eco systems is on everyone’s mind, as the ultimate in recycling.

Photos: Steamboat Resort courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats; Cataract Canyon rafting, OARS; Yampa River rafting, OARS.

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