white water raftin

White Water Rafting Vail CO

Colorado is home to some of the best white water rafting in the world. And the Vail area offers an amazing variety of rafting adventures, from friendly-family float trips that lazily meander through scenic canyons to adrenaline pumping, big water river carnage. White water rafting in Vail, CO is second to none.

All of these river trips are available thanks to Mother Nature. When spring comes and the warm temperatures melt the snowy peaks, it dumps tons of water, for weeks at a time into the local rivers. This rush of water, is what makes white water rafting near Vail so incredible. Keep in mind, due to the nature of run off (when the snow melts) the best rafting is in spring and early summer and rafting in snow melt waters can be quite chilly so dress accordingly. As the summer progresses the water temperature warms up but the river level decreases and becomes harder to boat.

Vail is the ideal place to base your rafting or kayaking adventure from. It boasts its own Whitewater Park in the center of town and there are additional whitewater parks in nearby Eagle, Co and Glenwood Springs, CO. Rafters can enjoy Class I to Class V river trips on Gore Creek, the Eagle River, the Colorado River, and even the Arkansas River.


See Also: Best Dry Bags for Rafting


White Water Rafting in Vail, CO


Local Rivers


The Upper Colorado River

(including The Upper C and Gore Canyon)

The Colorado River needs no introduction, this magnificent river meanders through the western United States traveling through central Colorado as it heads towards the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and Lake Mead. This river is the lifeblood of the American West, without it, there is no Colorado.

The Upper C  This stretch of the Colorado River boasts a local’s favorite section of water called the “Upper C”. This is an easy, mellow float trip with light rapids, the scenery is beautiful & quintessentially western. The Upper C section is suitable for the entire family. This area is perfect for rafting, duckies, tubing, fishing, swimming, wildlife viewing and just soaking up the sun.

Pumphouse If you want to add a little more excitement put in at the Pumphouse access just above the Upper C. This section includes 2 exciting, steep canyons, with class III rapids, including Eye of the Needle and Yarmony rapids. This river adventure offers spectacular views and a lot of adrenaline, enjoy this remote stretch of the Colorado River.

Gore Canyon showcases the power of the mighty Colorado River headwaters. The Class V Gore Canyon flows through the north-central part of the state, and provides the ultimate challenge in commercial rafting in Colorado. Located in a remote wilderness canyon, this section is only for the most serious and experienced paddlers. Chaos and carnage is the name of the game on these trips.

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Lower Colorado River

(through Glenwood Canyon)

This popular stretch of river flows through the prettiest canyon in Colorado. The dramatic steep canyon walls of Glenwood Canyon offer a picturesque setting to smash through class III rapids, as well as a pretty float trip down to Colorado and then float through a jaw dropping class II section into the heart of historic Glenwood Springs. This is a perfect trip for those looking for some excitement. On this section of the Colorado River you will find lots of fun, history, geology and breathtaking scenery around every bend.

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Eagle River

(includes Dowd Chutes, Lower Eagle)

The Eagle River’s claim to fame is that it is one of the last of undammed rivers still left in the west. It is fed purely by snowmelt from the local, rugged mountains including world renown Vail Ski Mountain and Beaver Creek ski mountain.
This river enjoys big time action an includes Dowd Chute, the Upper Eagle section and the Middle Eagle Section and stretches from Minturn, CO through Edwards, CO. This is the perfect section to paddle thundering rapids, sticky waves and big holes. Enjoy big rapids like Minturn S Turns, The Chute, River Run Rapid, Owl Rapid, The Edwards Mile, and many more. The Eagle River boasts some of the best rafting in the state while it’s running, but don’t miss it, because it is short-lived, lasting from May through early July.

Dowd Chutes An intense, class IV rapid near Vail that offers really exciting early-season whitewater rafting. The water levels here are not dam-controlled and fluctuate according to weather conditions and spring runoff. It can be HUGE. This is a physically demanding whitewater rafting trip, where all participants MUST paddle..hard and all rafters must be in excellent health and be strong swimmers.

Lower Eagle A big, moderately intense, family-friendly stretch of water that runs from Edwards to Eagle, CO. The river winds through a 2,000 foot canyon that features towering Cottonwoods, willows and pine trees. This is one of the best early season Class III rafting trips. Beautiful scenery, lots of wildlife sightings and easy access, just minutes from Vail and Beaver Creek makes this section a no-brainer to run. This fun, splashy whitewater rafting trip is ideal for those for adventure at a moderate activity level.

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Gore Creek

Gore Creek is a 6-mile stretch of river located right in Vail, Colorado’s backyard. This river is a classic local adventure that travels through the heart of this mountain town. This snow melt-fed stretch of whitewater is an early-season pleaser, that’s full of fun, splashy rapids and beautiful views including the majestic Gore Range peaks, waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, Vail ski Mountain and the beautiful homes of the local rich and famous. Gore Creek a fun, family-friendly trip where you can see wildlife as well as the hustle and bustle of Vail Village.

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Arkansas River

(Includes The Numbers, Pine Creek and Browns Canyon)

The Arkansas River is a two-hour drive south from Vail, so although it is not in our backyard, we would be remiss if we did not mention this popular and famous whitewater rafting behemoth that is only 150 miles away. Many of our local guides operate rafting trips down this unforgettable river, if you have the time and the inclination, this is not a river to be missed.

The Numbers section is a demanding, class IV stretch of river that is the experienced rafters’ favorite rapids. Non-stop whitewater with spectacular views of Colorado’s highest 14,000 ft. peaks and 7-miles of crystal clear water and fast currents makes this an unforgettable trip.

Pine Creek  A 12-mile, Class V run and is the ultimate in extreme whitewater. you will find some of the steepest commercially rafted waters in the United States here. Big and technical is the name of the game here. Mandatory “scouting” session from shore is an absolute must, as conditions are always changing in this section.

Browns Canyon The Class III, 10-mile Brown’s Canyon is one of the nation’s most famous whitewater rafting experiences in the western U.S. Enjoy the pool-drop type rapids, views of the stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range and Collegiate Peaks as you paddle through this remote stretch of river. Exciting for all ages this is an ideal family-friendly rafting adventure.

Find yourself rafting renowned rapids like Zoom Flume, Pinball, Widow Maker, Toilet Bowl, Meat Grinder, and Raft Ripper while paddling through the stunning and dramatic Brown’s Canyon National Monument.


What Class of Raft Trip is Right for You


Whitewater is rated on a scale of increasing difficulty from Class I (easiest) to Class VI (not commercially viable due to safety). This system provides an easy way to gauge the technical difficulty of a river.

Class I (Easy): Class one (I) means that this section of river is low-risk with a fast-moving current, small waves and few obstructions that are easily avoided and would be easy to swim out or self rescue.

Class II (Novice): Class two (II) means this is a straightforward rapid with wide-open channels and medium-sized waves. Some maneuvering is required but experienced paddlers can easily avoid any obstacles. Swimmers are seldom injured. Scouting is not necessary. Oar Boats can paddle Class II

Class III (Intermediate): Class three (III) rapids feature moderate, big irregular waves with strong eddies and currents. Narrow, tight passages will require complex maneuvers and good boat control by paddlers. Major hazards are easily avoided. Scouting is recommended for inexperienced paddlers. Self-rescue is usually easy and injuries to swimmers are rare. All rafters must paddle on this class of water and oar frame rafts are not recommended.

Class IV (Advanced): Class four (IV) rapids are very powerful and turbulent, but predictable with big, unavoidable waves strong holes and/or narrow passages. Fast and reliable eddy turns and precise boat handling are required to navigate safely through. Scouting of this turbulent, fast-moving water is necessary, and rapids may require “must-make” moves above dangerous hazards. Athletic paddling is needed, and there is a moderate to high risk of injury to swimmers. Self-rescue is difficult, so skilled group assistance may be requires.

Class V (Expert): Class five (V) rapids are extremely long, obstructed, or violent routes with lots of risk. Expect large, unavoidable waves and holes, or steep, congested chutes. Eddies may be small, turbulent, difficult to reach, or non-existent. Athletic, high-intensity paddling, proper equipment, extensive experience, high level of fitness and accomplished rescue skills are essential for survival. Scouting from shore is highly recommended, but may be difficult. Swims are very dangerous, rescues are difficult and there is a significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. Class V is the upper limit of what is possible in a commercial raft.


Unique Raft Trips


Raft trips usually come in Full-Day or Half-Day packages, Full-Day trips usually include a lunch or snack. These trips are fun and fantastic and a must-do activity when you are visiting the area. However, you can up your adventure by combining rafting with another activity for a full day of fun. Many options are available and combinations include rafting with horseback rides, zip lining, fishing and mountain bike tours.

River outfitters offer cool specialty rafting trips too, some favorites are:

Dinosaur Rafting Trips

A unique adventure that combines two thrilling activities, rafting and dinosaurs! Timberline Tours, teams up with the Fossil Posse to offer a prehistoric journey back through time to when the dinosaurs roamed the Colorado River Basin. Kids and adults will discover real dinosaur footprints and dig for bones and other dinosaur remnants like real archaeologists! Includes transportation, rafting, lunch and Fossil Posse Camp.

Wine Tasting Rafting Trips

If you have a ” taste for adventure” you will love this combination. Wine Tasting trip and river rafting. The adventure starts with a guided rafting trip on the Upper Colorado River, for fun, splashy whitewater rapids, wildlife sightings, and beautiful views. After your trip on the river, you head to 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott, CO to taste delicious wines handcrafted by the local Vines at Vail Winery. Must be over 21. Offered by Timberline Tours.

Night Vision Raft Trips

Come and experience the river after dark! This raft trip combines the technology of night-vision goggles with the amazing Colorado night skies. This is the only night vision rafting trips in the country – it is truly one-of-a-kind. The trip begins with a stargazing lesson from a local astronomer. Rafters don their night vision goggles and enjoy the view while the guide does all the paddling. See nocturnal wildlife and enjoy the sounds and smells of the river at night. A truly memorable experience. Offered by Lakota Guides.

Ziplining Raft Trips

Defiance Rafting Company is located on the banks of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon at No Name. They are perfectly situated to offer an on-site zip line and guided aerial course and then hop into boats right on the banks of the river for a scenic float trip through the canyon. Lunch is included at their on-site restaurant. Everything you could want, all in one place.

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Local River Outfitters


Timberline Tours

Timberline Tours is the largest, most experienced, longest-running outfitter in the Vail area. They offer guided whitewater rafting adventures that range from family friendly float trips to adrenaline-pumping whitewater adventures. This outfitter is famous worldwide for its extraordinary skills and service and they set the standard for safety and fun on local rivers since 1971.

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Lakota Guides

For more than 30 years, Lakota Guides has offered premier guide service in the Vail valley. They offer outstanding whitewater rafting adventures as well as, jeep tours, horseback rides, hiking, ATV tours, and ranch cookouts at their 5,500 square-acre private ranch. Lakota offers raft trips for every level of experience, including quality equipment and experienced guides and an emphasis on safety.

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Defiance Rafting Company

Located on the banks of the Colorado River, Defiance Rafting Company couldn’t be closer to the water. And whether you are looking for big water thrills or a relaxing float trip, when you’re searching for adventure, you’ve found it with Defiance. They cater to kids with their Happy Paddler program that makes sure your little adventurer’s first time on the water is a positive, fun-filled experience.


Sage Outdoor Adventures

Sage offers high-end river trips from Class I to Class V. They manage a beautiful 6,000 acre mountain ranch located less than 20 minutes from Vail in Wolcott, CO and two full-service river outposts in Vail, Eagle-Vail, Wolcott, Dotsero and Granite, CO. They also offers side side off road ATV Tours, Horseback Riding, Fly Fishing, Sporting Clays and Snowmobiling.

Sage Outdoor Adventures has a whitewater Pro Race team that competes nationally and internationally in whitewater races and competitions. They are pros that know what they are doing on the river. They offer pickup and transportation from your hotel in the Vail valley for whitewater adventures on the Colorado River, Arkansas River, and Gore Creek. Come and get ready to enjoy the thrill of a lifetime with Sage.

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Colorado River Center

Colorado’s only full-service rental and rafting facility is located on the banks of the Upper Colorado River and lets you rent your own raft or kayak.

Enjoy a scenic, relaxing, fun-filled float on the beautiful Colorado River. Rent your own raft and set off on your own or book a tour and enjoy a GUIDED family-friendly raft trip if you prefer.

The Colorado River Center at Rancho Del Rio offers a full day of FUN for the whole family. Located on a large beach on the banks of the Colorado River, it provides a ton of river activities your family will love like raft rentals, shaded patio area, kids playground, lots of photo ops, swimming at the beach area, gift store, fishing and lunch at the onsite BBQ restaurant. They also have awesome riverside cabins so you can raft all day and spend the evening at the riverside cabin for an unforgettable vacation highlight!


Colorado River Outfitters Association

CROA represents approximately 50 licensed professional Colorado river rafting outfitters who provide outstanding outdoor adventures for families and individuals of all tastes and abilities. Their mission is to promote rafting in Colorado as well as providing a calm voice on legislation and other developments that affect the commercial rafting industry, the health of local rivers and Colorado’s tourism economy as a whole. If you want to know more about rafting in Colorado, these are the guys to ask. Their website also features water reports and in-depth descriptions of many Colorado rivers.


What To Expect Rafting


Will I Get Wet

Yes, chances are you will get wet. If you are on a float trip expect some light spray if you are anything above a Class II you can expect to get soaked, so you should dress for the occasion and only bring things that can, in fact, get wet and dry quickly. (see what to wear below) Getting wet is part of the fun and adds to the thrill and excitement of your rafting adventure. If its hot and safe to do, your raft guide will usually let you jump in and swim at some point during the trip, so be prepared. There is also always a chance of getting thrown from the raft as you barrel down the rapids so you MUST know how to swim.

Do I Have to Paddle

If you are in an oar frame boat you can usually sit back and relax while the guide does all the work, however, if you are in a frameless, inflatable raft, expect to paddle. Don’t worry, you will receive instructions on how to paddle. The training may consist of a video or the guide will go over important points at the river put in. They will also tell you how to carry the raft to the water, teach basic paddle strokes and important vocal commands.


What is Provided

Most river outfitters provide the following, but it’s always best just to double-check.

  • Wetsuit
  • River Booties
  • Splashtop
  • PFD (life jacket)
  • Helmet

What To Bring

  • Swimsuit (wear it, some trips there are no changing rooms)
  • River Footwear: Most outfitters will provide water booties but if you would prefer your own bring neoprene booties, sport sandals that strap on, tennis shoes, or water shoe. Do not bring flip-flops.
  • Quick-dry clothing is best; avoid cotton, as it retains water and will make you cold on the river.
  • Fleece on cold days
  • Dry clothes
  • Towel
  • Sunglasses w/ Croakies
  • SPF 30 + waterproof sunscreen

Transportation

Expect a long shuttle ride when whitewater rafting. Some trips like Gore Creek or the Eagle River may be very close to your hotel but most of the time, the section of river you are going to, is in a remote location that can be quite a distance from your starting point. This means getting to and from the river may take some time. Unfortunately, there’s no way around shuttling to get to and from the river, it is just a part of the process, so try to make the best of it. Here are some tips to make the experience better:

  • Go to the bathroom before boarding the shuttle.
  • Bring a snack for the drive, especially if you’re with kids.
  • Leave a towel and dry clothes on the shuttle that will be picking you up after your rafting trip so you’ll be warm and dry on the ride back.
  • Ask the raft company when you make your reservation, how long of a drive it will be to the put-in and from the take-out.

Can I Bring Items on the Raft?

Probably not, rafts have limited space for people, a first-aid kit and a lunch cooler, so there is not much additional room for anything else. In addition, whatever you bring in the raft has a very good chance of ending up in the river as you go through waves, surf the holes, and if your raft accidentally flips. At the very least, it will probably end up being soaking wet unless you have a dry bag.


See Also: Best Polarized Sunglasses


Comments white water raftin

Have you been white water rafting Vail CO? What was your favorite stretch of river? Which outfitter did you use? Did you go at peak run-off or later in the summer? What was the most exciting thing that happened on your whitewater adventure? Please share your stories, thoughts and comments, we would love to hear them.

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6 Comments

  • Rizvee

    Great article about rafting in Colorado. I will be rafting overnight on a Westwater rafting trip with family and friends.  I am really looking forward to it and although I have done other rafting trips I have never done an overnight trip on the river. My family is taking care of the food, PFDs, helmets and tents but I don’t really know what I need to bring, any ideas about what to bring on this kind of trip?

    • ThinkVail

      Oh you are in for a treat Rizvee, Westwater Canyon is located on the Colorado River in Eastern Utah on the border between the Utah and Colorado.  It is a gorgeous section of river that is tons of fun!  Yes since it sounds like a lot of the big stuff has been taken care of for you I would make sure you bring a couple of dry bags so you can pack clothes and gear so they do not get wet if the raft you are in goes through some big waves or if your raft tips over and you swim.  You are also going to want to pack some good river shoes to protect your feet whether its from rocks in the river or while hiking or setting up camp.  Also don’t forget a high SPF, waterproof sunscreen and good sunglasses with croakies so you don’t lose your shades in the river.

      Enjoy this once-in a lifetime river trip, have fun and make memories!

  • Paul

    Hey there,

    This is a great article on whitewater rafting in Vail Colorado, this is a really fun topic. I am an avid kayaker and will be in the Vail area mid July with friends from a college. We all spend a lot of time on the river and are very physically fit, we are thinking of doing a whitewater raft trip while we are there but we are looking for something a little more adventurous than the typical tourists.  Do you have any suggestions?

    • ThinkVail

      Hi Paul, 

      I am so glad you enjoyed the post about white water rafting in Vail, CO. Yes, I do have some ideas for you. Usually by mid July the rivers in Colorado have already peaked and they are no longer running as big as they usually do in late May of June but this year, the snow melt has been very slow and late and the rivers are still quite high even now the first week of July, which makes for great white water rafting and kayaking on the local rivers. 

      If you are looking for adventure I would check to see if local outfitters are running Gore Canyon, this is a Class IV stretch of river that is very dangerous and exciting and demands that everyone in the boat paddles hard the entire trip.  It is NOT for beginner rafters but if you are experienced boaters looking for some adrenaline pumping water, than this might be exactly what you are looking for.

      The Arkansas River is the sixth-longest river in the United States, and it runs higher and faster than the Colorado for a longer amount of the rafting season. The Number section of the Arkansas is challenging and will absolutely fulfill your sense of adventure. Check in with local rafting outfitters like Sage and Timberline Tours to see if they offer a Numbers rafting trip while you are visiting the area.

      Lastly, you can rent a raft from Colorado River Center and make your own adventure on the Colorado River.  The
      Class II – III section of river from the Pumphouse in Lower Gore Canyon to Rancho Del Rio is popular and exciting and along the way you can enjoy the natural hot springs at Radium.  It is a spectacular trip full of fun!

      Whatever you do have fun and enjoy the beauty of Colorado’s rivers and breathtaking scenery but be safe.

  • Robert J Warneck

    Thanks for all of this information regarding white water rafting in Vail, CO.  We are having a family reunion in the Vail area in August and I am looking for a trip that would work for both my elderly mother-in-law as well as y 8 year old son and his cousins.   I love the sound of the wine tasting option. That sounds like a lot of fun, as well as the dinosaur one; I think the kids would love digging for fossils like archaeologists!  You mentioned that a good many of these tours take place from May through early July, are there tours that take place in August?  If so, which one would you recommend?  Thanks for this exciting article!  I loved watching the videos, so I could get a visual!

    • ThinkVail

      So happy you enjoyed this article about white water rafting in Vail, Colorado.  Yes there are tons of fun trips still available in August and by then the rivers should be running lower and slower so it is not nearly as scary or dangerous as earlier in the summer.  For both young children and older grandparents you may want to stick to Class I-III section of rivers as this means there should be a lot of splashing but nothing too scary especially at this late time in the season.  The Upper C is a perfect place for everybody in your group and lots of fun, check in with Timberline Tours, Sage Outfitters and Colorado River Center to see if they have a tour to match your family’s particular needs. I do love the Dinosaur Raft Trip, lots of fun and educational too, and come on Dinosaurs, need I say more?

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