Paddling season is underway in Colorado, and late snow in the high country is going to make for an extended runoff period this year. Now is a prime time to hit the state’s whitewater parks: stretches of river that have been modified to create a series of drops and pools that are fun to run with a kayak, canoe, standup paddleboard (SUP), or some other floating device. When creating parks, engineers design whitewater features for typical flows, and also enhance stream habitat, creating better fishing and pleasant places for people and wildlife to hang out along the riverbanks.
One reason Colorado has so many excellent whitewater parks is because a pioneer of river park design lives in Boulder. Gary Lacy is president of Recreation Engineering and Planning, whose URL—boaterparks.com—speaks to the company’s specialty. Lacy has designed more than 100 whitewater parks, including many of those listed here. Colorado also benefits from the backing of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), which channels lottery proceeds to outdoor recreation projects, including whitewater parks. You’ve got GOCO to thank (among many other supporters) for four of the parks described below: Buena Vista, Gunnison, Montrose, and Salida.
So load up the car with your kayak, canoe, raft, or paddleboard and head out there to any of these eight awesome whitewater parks in Colorado while the getting is good. The water is raging right now. Keep in mind that higher water usually makes whitewater features more challenging, so be sure of your skills if you’re putting in during peak runoff. Otherwise, wait for flows to drop a bit. As an added bonus, whitewater parks are typically in or near a town, so you can make a few runs and then sidle up to a bar for a beer.
1. Boulder Creek Whitewater Course
The Boulder Creek Whitewater Course is one of the older parks in the state, yet it still retains a high fun factor. Conditions are prime right now. Put in above Eben G. Fine Park to tackle the challenging features. From there you can keep floating for miles, all the way through the city to 95th Street if you like, with mellower conditions the farther down you go.
“I never get tired of Boulder Creek when there’s water,” says Lacy. “When it has water like it does now, it’s just a riot. The only negative is lack of flow later in the year.”
Peak season for the Boulder whitewater course is typically May and June, but this year’s flows promise to keep conditions raging through July. When the water drops, tubers have a hoot floating through town.
2. Buena Vista Whitewater Park
The Buena Vista Whitewater Park runs along the Arkansas River in downtown Buena Vista from E. Main Street to the South Main District. It has five whitewater structures that appeal to a broad range of abilities, including easy play waves and surf waves to an advanced freestyle hole. Trails, easy river access, and a beautiful setting contribute to making this one of the premier paddling spots in the state. If you want to demo equipment or take a clinic, check out CKS PaddleFest held here each Memorial Day weekend.
The typical season begins in May and ends in September.
3. Clear Creek White Water Park
The Clear Creek White Water Park stretches for about 1 ½ miles through downtown Golden, to the delight of inner tubers, kayakers, standup paddleboarders, and canoers. It’s a popular spot, with a slalom course at Lions Park and a play park with six drop structures where paddlers can play in the waves. The park also hosts whitewater competitions, including international slalom races and pro kayaking events.
The Clear Creek White Water Park is a shining example of an outstanding community amenity whose appeal spills beyond the banks to grassy areas for lounging, and trails that run the length of the corridor. Daily use is high, attracting locals and visitors to the riverbanks and downtown. The park remains in great shape year after year because the city keeps a close eye on it and regularly invests in improvements. “The city is committed to keeping it upgraded,” says Paul Burkholder, Golden’s Parks, Cemetery and Forestry Manager.
May and June are best for kayaking. Then the water drops off, attracting mainly tubers in July and August. Park at Lions Park; you can take out at Vanover Park and jog back to get your car.
4. Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park
Visit the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park three times, and you’ll likely have three very different experiences, depending on time of year and water levels. Spring flows start mellow at levels below 2,500 cfs, before raging up to nearly 20,000 cfs. In the 10,000-15,000 cfs range (late May-mid June), the park forms an outstanding wave that rivals any other in the state.
Tom Barnes, the director of Glenwood Springs Parks and Recreation Department, says water lovers of all sorts have a blast in the park. “When this was built, the focus was the kayak park. Now we have standup paddleboarders, guys going out there with boogie boards—almost anything you can think of they’re using out there. It depends on the water flow,” he says.
If peak flows in May and June give you the willies, then come back in July. The Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park has an advantage because the Colorado River is runnable even later in the summer when other flows have slowed.
5. Gunnison Whitewater Park
The Gunnison Whitewater Park is 1/2 mile from downtown and includes three features along the Gunnison River, one of which (the Third Feature) was completely rebuilt in 2015 with the help of a GOCO grant. The Third Feature is now unlike any other in the state, with a unique two-island system that diverts water into the whitewater section. It’s extremely powerful during high flows in May and June, then becomes perfect for intermediates when the water drops to 600-1,200 cfs, usually July to October.
“It’s got great performance for advanced kayakers but is a little more forgiving for intermediates,” says John Messner, grant writer and fundraiser for the project.
There are other two features in the park, about 1/4 mile apart. One is good for advanced paddlers, and the other is more suited to beginners. If you’re after a longer float, Messner suggest putting in about 3.5 miles upstream at North Bridge and drifting down to the park at a leisurely pace.
6. Montrose Water Sports Park
The Montrose Water Sports Park is one of the largest in the state, and also the newest, having just cut the ribbon in mid May. GOCO kicked in more than $250,000 of the $1.1 million price tag for the park, which includes whitewater features, terraced banks for spectating, riverside trails, athletic fields, and playgrounds. It spans 1,000 feet of the Uncompaghre River and includes six diverse whitewater drops—including some that make freestyle kayakers grin, a beginner wave, and a couple of waves that are designed to amuse river surfers on SUP boards.
“The Montrose project was exciting because it was so broad and diverse in scope,” says Jake Houston, local government project manager at GOCO. “Community support was very high for this project.”
The best part of the Montrose park is that you can run it all summer long since the river flow is controlled for irrigation. This makes for steady flows long after water in other rivers has tapered off.
7. Salida Whitewater Park
The Salida Whitewater Park runs 1/4 mile through the center of town on the Arkansas River. It has four primary features: a classic freestyle hole called the Boat Hole, another more forgiving kayak hole, and two surfer waves. It also offers very easy access, so you make run after run without getting in your car. Spend a whole day doing laps and working on your skills.
This park completely transformed the community, connecting downtown with the river and creating a world-class recreation facility that benefits business owners in addition to boaters. It acts like a magnet, attracting people who frolic in the waves and then spend money in downtown stores and restaurants.
The river is dam-controlled so it has fairly steady flows, with highest water May through July.
8. Steamboat Whitewater Park
The beginner- to expert-friendly Steamboat Whitewater Park is famous for Charlie’s Hole (C Hole) and Depot Hole (D Hole). Put in at Doctor Rich Weiss Park and do the whole “Town Run,” which includes features scattered along close to 3/4 mile of the Yampa River right through the heart of downtown Steamboat. During peak runoff, it’s best suited for advanced paddlers. The river is flowing at record levels this year.
“We have a wide fluctuation in flows being the last free-flowing river in the Colorado Basin,” said Steamboat Parks, Open Space, and Trails Manager Craig Robinson. “Roughly 700 cfs and up is when the features that we have get more exciting.”
Depending on the season, heavy flows start in May and last until late June or early July. Then the water drops and the park is more welcoming to beginners. Inner tubers have fun floating it all summer.