One of my favorite activities in the summertime is whitewater rafting. From thrilling Class IV trips to relaxing Class II floats, we’re centrally located between 3 rivers, which makes for fantastic options for all ages.
But what are these “Classes” I speak of, you ask? Well, they’re basically the way river folks describe how the river is flowing and what to expect of your trip. There are five classes for the river for commercial rafting. Here’s how I’d like to think of the classes:
Class I – There might be a current if you’re patient.
Class II – Splashy waves on a wide, open river, but more of a float trip
Class III – This is what people think of when they think of whitewater. You’ll be getting wet. You’ll be paddling. You’ll be laughing. Fun for the family, typically ages 6+.
Class IV – Time to be a good viking. The rapids will be big. They’ll be intense. They’ll be closer together. Your guide will be relying on your viking paddling power. There could be some drops and large waves. Your safety talk will be much more in-depth. SO FUN! I love Class IV.
Class V – GAME ON. Class V is only for experienced rafters, and depending on the stretch of water and the company you raft with, they might make you test out before going on the Class V section. There’s huge rapids, possible wave trains, waterfalls, and you very well could swim. It’s an expert boater’s adrenaline-laced dream!
There’s technically a Class VI as well, but if a stretch of river is labeled as Class VI, it is unrunnable. People will try to run it, typically in modified rafts. Imagine Wile E Coyote going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Class VI.
Hopefully this helps you understand classes of river, but if you’d like to read up more, Paddling.com has a great article. https://paddling.com/learn/classification-of-rapids-water-level-and-canoeists/
Now, onto our rivers!
There are 3 main sections of the Eagle River. The Eagle River is fed entirely by snowmelt and typically begins running at rafting levels early to mid-May, and runs through mid to late-June. It’s colder in temperature, so your raft company will provide you wetsuits and neoprene booties, as well as a splash jacket, PFD (personal flotation device) and helmet.
- Lower Eagle – The Lower Eagle section is Class III and fantastic for ages 6+. It winds from Wolcott to Eagle, and has rapids interspersed throughout the trip.
- Middle Eagle – Middle Eagle is a Class III/IV section, which runs from Eagle Vail to Edwards, right through the heart of the Vail Valley. The most exciting part of the trip is towards the end, called the Edwards Mile, full of Class IV rapids!
- Dowd Chute – Dowd Chute is the most up-river section run commercially, going from Minturn to Eagle Vail (possibly into Avon, depending on the river conditions and speeds). It’s action-packed and lots of fun for rafters ages 16+!
Just like the Eagle, there are 3 main sections of the Colorado River which are commercially rafted in our area. The Colorado River is dam controlled, so it is warmer than other rivers and flows year round. There’s even a group of kayakers who run it each New Year’s Day! Your guide company will provide neoprene booties if you need water shoes, PFDs, as well as helmets for Class III+. I wouldn’t recommend a wetsuit or splash jacket for the Colorado River–you’ll get too hot!
- Upper Colorado – Lovingly called the Upper C by locals, there are multiple parts of this stretch your company may run. The most popular is from Rancho del Rio to Statebridge. You may hear other locations like Pumphouse or Two Bridges, but you don’t have to worry about it. It’s all called the Upper C. The Upper C is a wide section of the Colorado River, slowly meandering from the Colorado River headwaters towards California…eventually. It’s Class II and perfect for the whole fam damily. Typically, there is not so much an age restriction but a PFD restriction–your youngest must be able to fit into their smallest PFD, approximately 35-40 lbs. It’s a mellow stretch, with some “bumpity bump” waves, but gentle enough for the little ones and/or seniors on your trip. For these trips, you may also have the option of renting a paddleboard or “duckie” (an inflatable kayak) for older kids or adults who want more on an adventure on this family friendly trip.
- Shoshone Rapids – Arguably the most popular stretch for Vail Valley guests, the Shoshone section of the Colorado River is located within the stunning Glenwood Canyon. The first two miles of the trip is Class III rapids, great for older kids and families. It then mellows out at an area called Grizzly Creek for the next 8 miles, giving you a beautiful scenic float through the rest of the canyon and into Glenwood Springs. If you have a small kiddo with you, there’s sometimes a possibility of your young one skipping the Class III section with a parent or guardian and then getting picked up at Grizzly Creek for the duration, just ask your raft company! There’s also a trip where you can do the Shoshone Rapids, take out at Grizzly Creek, and do the rapids two more times. These trips are called the 3-Peat, Triple Thriller, etc. and can be booked for extra excitement!
- Gore Canyon – Gore Canyon is one (if not THE) hardest commercially run stretches of river in the United States. It’s Class V and home to a large paddle festival each year, called Gore Fest. Typically, it only runs for a few weeks late August to early September. The rapids are heart-pounding. You’re not just a good viking, you’re a Valkyrie. If you’re an experienced paddler, this is a bucket list trip! Expect large drops, waterfalls, obstacles, and a steep gradient. It’s powerful. It’s technical. And you’ll need to be in great physical condition. There’s a reason why multiple river outfitters call it the “Ultimate Whitewater Adventure.”
The Arkansas River is a little further away from the Vail Valley, but is the most popular river for whitewater rafting in Colorado. It’s located in the high-country, with the headwaters beginning at the feet of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. It’s definitely worth the drive! When my guests book trips on the Arkansas River, I typically suggest driving themselves and then exploring on their way to the boathouse or on their way home, since the drive there is one of the most gorgeous in our area! The Arkansas River can be colder in early season, so your river outfitter will provide you a wetsuit and neoprene booties, as well as a splash jacket if you want it, PFD, and helmet.
- Brown’s Canyon – You cannot drive to Brown’s Canyon, you can only access it via river or by foot, which makes for a picturesque Class III rafting trip with fun rapids throughout the duration. It’s different from Shoshone because the rapids aren’t only located at the beginning of the trip–you’ll have thrills throughout the entire stretch, with breaks in between to swim or enjoy the scenery.
- Numbers – Numbers is, hands down, my FAVORITE stretch of river I’ve ever done! It’s Class IV, great for families with teens or all adults, and you’ll be paddling the entire time (and laughing even more)! Your guide will be relying on you to be the power to barrel into waves, with rapids closer together and more technical than Brown’s Canyon. And, at the end, you may even have time to try out the Swiss Cheese Rock.
- Pine Creek – This Class IV/V stretch of river is a step up from Numbers, with technical and intense rapids for guests who are adrenaline junkies! Guides who lead this trip typically have at least 5 years of rafting experience under their belts and have extensive knowledge on how to read the river. Pine Creek is a guide favorite, and popular with guests who have prior experience rafting Class IV rapids.
And there you have it! Our rivers!
One of the Vail Valley’s original rafting companies, Lakota Guides has experienced guides who have been with the company for many, many years, top notch equipment which is replaced regularly, and a happy-go-lucky atmosphere. Don’t let the bad jokes and beards fool you, however–they take safety seriously and go above and beyond what is required by law in regards to training and swift water certifications. They are also home to the US Men’s Whitewater Rafting Team!
The other OG of Vail’s Whitewater Rafting companies, Timberline Tours also boasts tenured guides and fantastic equipment. They also employ many international guides, who get to spend their time rafting year round! They have extra training than what is required by law, and place safety as the #1 priority (followed in a close second by having fun!). They have wonderful children’s programming, including their Fossil Posse raft tour.
Whitewater rafting is an activity which will go rain or shine, so it’s typically better to go in the morning. Colorado weather can be tricky to predict, and since this activity books up quickly, take advantage of the afternoon thunderstorm trend and go before lunch.
Each company, be it the two I recommend or an additional one you find on your own and do your own research on, has their own cancellation policy. Make sure you are aware of this–they will tell you before you book, and it will also be on your confirmation email. Cancellation policies in the Rockies are very strict and you may not be able to get a refund within their cancellation policy). If you are travelling with multiple families, check and see if you can pay separately at the Boathouse or if you need to provide multiple credit cards at the time of booking.
Don’t forget to tip your guide if you had a great time! I suggest 18-25%, or you can do $15-30 per person. Your guides will be very appreciative! As the saying goes, it’s like a hug but without the awkward body contact!
DO NOT BRING YOUR VALUABLES ON THE RAFT! Including your phone. 🙂
WHAT DO I WEAR?
Dress as if you’re going to the beach! On the raft, you’ll want to wear a bathing suit. If you want to wear a shirt or shorts over your swimsuit, make sure it is an athletic material and NOT cotton. Once cotton gets wet, it stays wet. No bueno! Depending on the stretch of river and time of year, you may be given a wetsuit to wear over your swimsuit.
Don’t forget footwear! All footwear must be waterproof/water-resistant with an enclosed toe. If you don’t have this or want to get yours ruined, most companies have Neoprene booties you can wear.
Sunscreen is a must! In the Rockies, the sun is strong and you will burn faster. Pro tip: put your sunscreen on before you arrive so it has time to be absorbed and won’t wash off as quickly. Protect your eyes too, and wear sunglasses, croakies recommended.