From beginners to advanced SUP enthusiasts, there are plenty of rivers to explore in Colorado. There are calm sections to float with your family, sections for beginners to work on technique, and exhilarating sections to challenge the proficient paddler. Listed below are some of the best sections around the state to get floating.
Before you hit the water.
Make sure you are prepared. Make sure you know what to expect on the section of river you have chosen. Many river put-ins have signs to tell you the class of rapid to expect or if there are any dangers you need to be aware of. There are plenty of online resources to check the river flow level and read up on the local rapids. Take advantage of them and make sure you are comfortable with the sections you run and the current water level. Even if you are aiming to challenge your skill level, know what you are getting into.
Choose your crew carefully. If you are SUPing on the river for the first time, take an experienced friend along who can show you how to navigate or at least run safety in a separate craft. Anything can happen on the river, bad swims, gear malfunctions, injuries, or weather rolling in and it's always safer to have someone to back you up. If you are ready to challenge yourself on a more difficult section, invite friends who know the area well and can give beta on the rapids and, most importantly, give encouragement when you need it most.
Pick the right gear. Depending on your skill level and what sort of river you are on, choosing the right SUP board is important. For calmly flowing water, either as a beginner or with kids, you may want a more stable board, like the Hala Rado. For a section with moderate waves or more technical maneuvering around rocks, you may want a board with a rocker in the front, like the Hala Atcha 96. Always wear a helmet and a whitewater rated PFD (Personal Flotation Device) when paddle-boarding on the river. On colder rivers, a drysuit may be convenient since you may be in the water (a lot), and having a small dry bag or waterproof SUP deck bag is handy to keep small essentials safe and dry. If you use a leash, make sure it is on a quick-release belt or carabiner, easily reachable, and practice with it beforehand to make sure you can detach in case of a snag.
SUP the Arkansas River
The Arkansas River is a hub of whitewater activity as it flows through Buena Vista, Salida and Canon City. Be aware that you'll be sharing the waterway with rafters, kayakers and fishermen. There are numerous great sections and below are the top 5 for paddle-boarders.
The beginner-friendly Milkrun starts in Johnson Village, just downstream of Buena Vista. Grab the correct site use passes, and enjoy the family friendly class II section as it winds its way through beautiful scenery and multiple small ripples to the take out at Fisherman's Bridge. Be aware that at higher flows, the small ripples turn into larger wave trains that can be fun if you are ready for a challenge but can be a scary swim for a new paddle-boarder if they are not prepared.
Another great beginner float starts downstream near Cotopaxi. Put-in at the Trading Post and float the class II scenic canyon to Lone Pine take out. This is a relevantly short and mellow section, but great for first time river paddlers and offers plenty of eddies to stop and rest.
For the paddle-boarder ready for more technical maneuvers and moderate waves, check out Salida East to Rincon. The put-in is convenient just south of Salida and the river is mainly roadside the entire way, making it accessible and safe if you get in over your head (pun intended). You'll find the class III section full of waves to test and grow your skills and at low water, plenty of rocks to practice dodging.
If you're ready for the full whitewater SUP adventure, head to Browns Canyon with its class III waves and technical boulder obstacles. Zoom Flume has rowdy waves all the time, but at higher flows can be pretty challenging for the SUP. Get ready to practice your swimming techniques. The rest of the canyon is more moderate and has plenty of big pools to enjoy the renowned scenery. This is a very popular section and in the summer can have extremely high usage. Be aware of river etiquette and allow faster groups to pass or communicate kindly if you want to get ahead of someone.
Farther downstream, near Canon City, is Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Salt Lick to Parkdale is a popular Class III rafting section, but it can also be a great challenge for the paddle-boarder. At moderate flows, the waves are smaller than Zoom Flume, but require more technical maneuvers. However, at lower water, the section becomes slower, just be aware of the shallow water and multitude of rocks that begin appearing.
The Colorado River
As one of the most famous river sections, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon is now one of the most endangered rivers in America. As the paddling community continues to grow, so should the conservation and awareness surrounding our waterways. Much farther upstream, the river still holds plenty of charm and sections perfect to run with a SUP, and great conversation starters for preservation.
There are many great areas to run on the Upper Colorado near Kremmling, but the best beginner friendly section is Rancho Del Rio to State Bridge. This class II section is mellow and great for families, and you may share it with fisherman, rafters and even some tubers.
Farther downstream, near Grand Junction, you'll find the popular Ruby Horsethief Canyon. This 25 mile multi-day trip is great for the beginner paddle-boarder. The calm class II rapids and beautiful canyon make for a great introduction into SUP and overnight trips. Bring friends with rafts to make carrying gear easier, and in case you get tired, or the dreaded W-word shows up. Do your research, permits are required on this section, and make sure to read up on leave no trace principles.
Back up towards Kremmling is the Pumphouse to Rancho Del Rio. While it is mainly mellow, there are two Class III rapids that should be taken seriously, especially during higher water. The popular hot springs are an extra plus on this section and the ability to shorten the trip by taking out at Radium or go slow and turn it into an overnight trip with multiple campsites to choose from.
Not for the faint of heart, but relevantly safe at low flows is Westwater Canyon with its deep water and challenging big water class III-IV waves. Technically in Utah, but very close to Ruby Horsethief and a fantastic whitewater section. Be prepared to run the whole canyon as there are no exits once you are in it and portages are hard or nearly impossible in some water levels. This is also a great option to turn into an overnight trip or tag team with a raft, SUP the flat water or ripples and jump into the boat for the major rapids.
Paddle-board the Poudre
The wild and scenic Cache La Poudre River is the closest whitewater to Fort Collins and a great option for weekend warriors or a longer drive up from Denver. The water remains cold most of the year, so appropriate clothing is recommended to prevent hypothermia. There are many short sections to try on the Poudre which have plenty of put-ins and take-outs to avoid the larger rapids.
The Filter Plant run is a swift class II+ section which is popular with beginner kayakers and rafters and at low water is also run by tubers. Enjoy the beautiful scenery on the short run and make sure to take out at Picnic Rock as there is a low head dam downstream.
If you're ready to take on consecutive class III rapids, try the Mishawaka Inn to Poudre Park section. It's a short but continuous run with multiple rapids to test your skills. It still has beautiful scenery despite being roadside. The easy access provides the option to run several sections in one day. One of those options could be the Bridges section, which is also class III but very short at only 1.9 miles.
Head to a Local Playwave!
One of the best controlled places to get on your paddle board is right in town. Many Colorado towns have whitewater parks with mellow float sections and fun and safe play waves to test your skills. It's an easy place to head after work, or if you are on a tight schedule and can't fit a longer river trip into your day. Try out river surfing while you're there, or rent a SUP demo from a local shop like Hala Gearspace, and find out which board suits you best.
SUP is a Fun New Way to Enjoy the River.
Challenge your balance, practice your paddling technique and take a SUP out on the river. The sport is growing quickly and you are bound to see more and more paddle boarders on the water. Try it out for yourself on one of the sections we mentioned, or if you have a different Colorado favorite, let us know in the comments! Stay safe, have fun, and SYOTR.
By: Jodi McConnell