Canoeing and Kayaking in Central Colorado
Some of the best whitewater action in the USl

Kayaking and canoeing in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area on the river its named after is 148 miles of fun, excitement, and beauty. As the snow melts high in the Colorado Rockies the Arkansas River and world class paddling water is born. From it's headwaters near Leadville the river flows 148 miles through the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area down to Pueblo Reservoir. Then the river heads eastward to join the Mississippi River. The stretch of water flowing through the recreation area is one of the ten most popular canoeing and kayaking areas in the nation. Known internationally for its challenging rapids and scenic beauty it receives nearly 300,000 users annually. What makes the Arkansas so popular is its easy access, variety of rapids, continuous numbers of rapids, rapids' technical nature, wildlife, and unparalleled beauty. The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area has excellent campgrounds, and put-in and take-out sites near Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida, Vallie Bridge, Parkdale, Canon City, and Pueblo Reservoi

Kayaking the Arkansas River

Paddlers on the Arkansas will encounter a full range of water conditions from easy Class I ripples and small waves all the way up to extreme Class VI whitewater which is nearly impossible to run. No other river has the variety or continuous number of rapids. They follow one after the other. You get out of one rapid and start to relax and you're in another. Thrills like this continue one rapid after another on the Arkansas. 

The scenery along the river is fantastically beautiful and the wildlife abundant. Deer, elk, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are often seen near the river. Following is a brief tour of the paddling areas on the Arkansas River starting at the northern boundary of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

Leadville to Granite
This stretch flows fairly quietly with Class I-II water between banks that are sometimes open, sometimes forested with Douglas-fir and Englemann spruce.

Granite to Buena Vista
The river changes dramatically as it flows into a narrow canyon that is home to the heart-pounding Pine Creek rapids with Class V-VI whitewater. Before you can catch your breath you will be running the internationally renowned "Numbers" rapids with technically challenging Class III-V whitewater until about 9 miles north of Buena Vista. From there you will be running the famous "Narrows" rapids all the way to Buena Vista. These runs are second-to-none on the Arkansas River with one rapid after another. To the west are the scenic 14,000 foot Collegiate Peaks -- mounts Oxford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Buena Vista to Salida
This stretch features Browns Canyon, a pink granite gorge with technically challenging Class III-IV rapids. Browns Canyon has a series of rapids one after the other with colorful names like Pinball, Zoom Flume, Staircase, Widowmaker, Last Chance, and the infamous Seidel's Suckhole. Vegetation changes to pinon pine and juniper woodlands with scattered Ponderosa pines. Browns is a wild ride at high water... pour overs, standing waves, sharp turns, narrow chutes. At any water level, it is a challenging and scenic section. Below Browns Canyon, the valley widens and the river calms. From Stone Bridge south the river has a stretch of Class I-II water.

Salida to Cotopaxi and Parkdale
The upper part of this run from Salida to Cotopaxi is quiet Class I-II+ water. The river then flows into Bighorn Sheep Canyon, a granite canyon dotted with stands of pinon pine, juniper and oak brush. This is a prime area for wildlife viewing. Sightings of bighorn sheep are common in this canyon. From Cotopaxi to Parkdale the river travels past spectacular geological formations with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. Soon you enter a series of exciting Class II-III rapids like Texas Creek, Maytag, and Devil's Hole. You are not finished with Bighorn Sheep Canyon yet, next you inter more demanding and technical rapids: Prelude, Reefer Madness, Spikebuck and Shark's Tooth to name a few.

Parkdale to Canon City
Near Parkdale, the river slows to Class I-II and travels through and open area bordered by cottonwood and willow, and South Webster Park. Then the river plunges into the Royal Gorge and extremely difficult Class IV-V whitewater. The Royal Gorge is Arkansas' most famous achievement. Over millions of years, the river carved through the hard rock producing the rivers ultimate wild ride. After eight miles, the river emerges from the Royal Gorge and flows through Canon City.

Canon City to Pueblo Reservoir
Below Canon City, the Arkansas changes into a quiet, meandering Great Plains river. A wide ribbon of cottonwood, willow and water-loving plants along its banks creates a "riparian zone" that is extremely important to wildlife. This stretch offers fine wildlife viewing and the slower pace of the river also makes for excellent canoeing, but caution and skill are necessary to avoid low dams and overhanging and fallen trees. The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area ends at Lake Pueblo State Park. The park offers swimming, boating, water skiing, camping and both warm water and cold water fishing.


Whitewater Classifications

Most experts use a Class I to VI rating system for whitewater difficulty. Here's a quick rundown of what to expect from each classification:

Class I - Small rapids with low waves and no obstructions.
Class II - More frequent rapids with few or no obstructions.
Class III - Waves up to four feet, with some maneuvering around obstructions.
Class IV - Very difficult, extended rapids. Scouting is necessary.
Class V - Long and violent rapids. Large waves that are unavoidable. Complex course. Scouting is a must.
Class VI - Maximum difficulty. Involves serious risk of life.

Note: Class III-VI not recommended for open canoes.


Racing Festivals

FIBArk Festival --Salida Colorado is the home of the legendary FIBArk (First In Boating The Arkansas) Festival. This four-day festival held each year in mid-June is the venue for the oldest down river race in America. FIBArk draws whitewater raft, canoe, and kayak racers from around the world. This event includes a kayak race (26 miles) and a whitewater rodeo event where the only qualification is that the craft you race cant be a boat. The festival not only has the best whitewater racing in America but also a full range of activities for spectators including live entertainment.