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The Best Rivers to Explore in Colorado

When you think of Colorado, perhaps pristine powder and bluebird days on the slopes come to mind. But did you know that Colorado is also home to three major rivers that are ideal for a summer fishing trip, a whitewater rafting adventure, or a lazy day of tubing on the water? The Colorado, Arkansas, and Yampa rivers all flow through the Centennial State; consider adding an exploration of these off-the-beaten-path locations to your list.

The Colorado River: Grand County, CO

The Colorado River stretches an astonishing 1,450 miles and is home to world-class fishing spots, swiftly-flowing rapids, and relaxing swimming holes. With so much river to choose from, how do you narrow down your options? Make Grand County, CO your home base. Families seeking a low-key vacation with water activities for everyone in the group, from the fishing enthusiast to the nature lover, prefer this area for its easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area.
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Your local options for fishing the Colorado River include Rocky Mountain National Park, Winter Park, Granby, Grand Lake, and more. Wherever you choose, look forward to stunning views of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The river winds through Grand County, providing countless options for casting a line, including a “mostly untouched” part of the river near Granby that was just opened to the public in 2017.
Would you rather cruise the rapids? Pick either a kayak or rubber raft and set off for a day of fun. Local tour operators offer half-day and full-day options throughout the season, which runs from May to September. Beginners may prefer the upper Colorado River, which is typically calmer than the rapid-heavy lower Colorado. With offerings ranging from gentle Class 1 rapids to challenging Class 4 and 5’s, everyone can spend their perfect day on the water.

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Biking by the Colorado River

Locals Love: Start your day’s adventure with a cup of coffee from Winter Park’s The Perk and, during summer months, enjoy an all-Americana treat at Grand Lake’s Miyauchi’s Snack Bar, located right on the lake.

The Arkansas River: Salida, CO

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Arkansas River at dusk

Located just 2 1/2 hours south of Denver, Salida is home to local Colorado breweries, an emerging foodie scene, and incredible mountain access (including local favorite, Monarch Ski Resort). Couples looking for a new weekend escape love to visit Salida for its cute downtown, which is filled with unique shops and historic buildings, and the meandering river that borders town. Upgrade your trip with a visit to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs after a day on the water and maybe wander down the road to neighboring town, Buena Vista.
Why choose the Arkansas River? For one, the river flows right through town—simply walk from your lodging to start your adventure! With up to 5,000 trout per mile and more than 70 miles of public access, you can’t go wrong with where you cast your line—just be sure to check for a green sign along the river, which indicates you’re at a fishing hole. 5280 Magazine recommends the calm waters above the rapids and near Salida for summertime fishing. The waters are quite chilly year-round due to snowmelt, so either bring or rent waders.
The Arkansas River is also known for whitewater rafting. Locals and visitors alike flock to the river to enjoy the crisp waters. With views of the local “Collegiate Peaks,” all of which are over 14,000 feet in elevation, routes through Brown’s Canyon, and the opportunity to ride alongside the sheer rock face of the Royal Gorge, you might find it hard to keep your eyes on the rapids! Local tour operators include Salida-based Independent Whitewater, Buena Vista-located River Runners, and Noah’s Ark, which offers a variety of tour options.
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Arkansas River

If you’re looking for something a bit different, consider exploring the river on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP). River Runners offers a package that teaches participants how to manage the river’s continually changing surface on a SUP before taking you upstream to try your hand at class 2 rapids. Others can try their hand at river surfing at the Salida Whitewater Park in town! If the water levels are appropriate, visitors looking for a more laid back day on the water can inner tube the river near town.
Locals Love: Pick up fresh bread for your picnic or perhaps a breakfast to go from Salida’s Little Red Hen Bakery. After a long day on the water, head back into town for pizza and locally-crafted beer (another Colorado specialty!) at Amica’s.

The Yampa River: Steamboat Springs, CO

While this river may not be as well known as others, boating enthusiasts won’t want to miss it. Located near the charming mountain town of Steamboat Springs, the Yampa River is known for its variety in topography and fly fishing offerings. Each part of the river provides different opportunities to fish for cold-water and warm-water species, including trout and pike. You can even fish in town—just be sure to follow the catch and release rules.

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Yampa River

If you prefer a boating adventure, launch your vessel from any of the 13 access points for boaters and enjoy the views of steep sandstone mountains. Kayaks, rafts, canoes are all suitable for the water, so take your pick! The Yampa River State Park provides access to 134 miles of the river, flowing west to the border and Dinosaur National Monument. Most of the river flows at class 1 or 2 rapids level, although there can be sections up to class 5. Visitors should be prepared for all scenarios, in particular near the Cross Mt. Canyon segment, which can surge up to class 5.
Locals Love: Enjoy a hearty and hot breakfast at Steamboat Springs’ Lil’ House Country Biscuits and Coffee before setting out for the day; end with a soak in Strawberry Hot Springs, a series of spring-fed pools nestled into Hot Springs Creek.
Please be sure to review the Colorado Parks and Wildlife rules before putting on your waders or casting your kayak from shore.
Visitors flock to Colorado year-round for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and more. As you plan your next trip, consider touring one or more of the state’s rivers. From fishing to kayaking, the offerings are world-class and fun for everyone! And for those landlubbers who prefer to stay dry—pack a picnic, rest on the riverbank, and enjoy the sound of flowing snowmelt as it gently passes you by.