By Amiee White Beazley
May and June are undoubtedly the best months for rafting Colorado's rivers. Snowmelt runoff is at its peak, which means fast moving water, strong rapids and high excitement.
Recently, I drove over Independence Pass from Aspen and stopped in beautiful Buena Vista to join AVA Rafting for a half-day excursion rafting the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon, a stretch of river I'd long wanted to experience.
Rafting through Browns Canyon in the Arkansas River
The Arkansas is a popular destination in a myriad of Colorado river rafting offerings, accounting for more than 42 percent of the commercial rafting activity in Colorado. The river's corridor comprises more than 150 miles of the state's best whitewater, spanning four counties from Granite to Cañon City, within the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.
From upstream to downstream, the most popular whitewater sections on the Arkansas River are Pine Creek (Class V), Numbers (Class IV-V), Narrows (Class III-IV), Browns Canyon (Class III-IV), Bighorn Sheep Canyon (Class II, III-IV) and Royal Gorge (Class IV-V).
I've rafted several stretches of the Roaring Fork and Colorado River, but the Arkansas is different. I chose Browns Canyon for the tales of both its challenge and beauty. This stretch takes guests through 10 miles of Browns Canyon National Monument. Its granite walls provide a narrow, fast-moving, and technical aspect I'd never encountered, mainly through Class III sections like Zoom Flume and Pinball.
AVA Rafting is part of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA), which supports certified professionals guiding companies "dedicated to offering world-class outdoor recreation on one of the most popular rivers for rafting in the United States."
Rafting boosts local economies
According to the AROA, rafting in Colorado, which lasts anywhere from 100 to 120 days every summer, significantly boosts regional economies. The organization recently released the initial fiscal reports from the Arkansas River 2021 rafting season, noting that AROA outfitters ran 262,357 commercial trips on the river last year. Those trips generated nearly $43 million in total visitor expenditures – including one in six hotel rooms booked and one in ten restaurant tables reserved and spending on retail sales and photography services – an approximate 52 percent increase over the $28 million generated in 2020.
120 days of river fun
Hopefully, my half-day on the Arkansas is just the first of many trips exploring this epic stretch of river. At times it was heart-stopping and jaw-droppingly beautiful. And while May and June might be the best months for big rapids, the Arkansas River employs the Voluntary Flow Management Program (VFMP) to manage water releases to meet multiple needs, including recreational boating and fishery health. That means the entire summer on the Arkansas is prime for adventure. While flows and thrills may be muted in later summer months, this is a perfect time to bring out younger kids who may not have the skill to approach more technical sections of the river during peak runoff.