Water roads of the Rockies
July 6, 2018
The snow that sparkles on Vail's slopes in the winter season trickles down in the springtime to fill up creek beds and river basins with water: the foundation of summer fun. Vail's waterways are inlets to adventure, and the watercrafts that carry us down them are as diverse as those who love spending a day — or day after day — outdoors.
With rafts, paddleboards, kayaks, tubes and other water-worthy vehicles to choose from, exploring the water roads of the Rockies can be as leisurely, or as intense, as you'd like. And whether you decide to go out on a day trip or an over-nighter, it's possible to find a craft and a stretch of current near Vail that matches your ability level.
Rafts, SUPs and Tubes
Scenic mountain views, wildlife and adventure are the key elements that make Vail's rivers worth seeking out, no matter what craft you pick as the vehicle for exploration. Whitewater rafts, stand-up paddleboards and tubes are undoubtedly three of the most accessible ways to explore river culture this summer on a self-supported or guided trip.
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Whitewater rafts come in different shapes, sizes and styles. Inflatable, self-bailing rafts are used by most Vail guide services that offer commercial whitewater rafting trips. These rafts range in size, and some can seat up to 10 people who paddle while sitting along the sides of the raft with a guide calling out commands from the back. A cataraft, a type of raft that floats on two inflatable pontoons, is equipped with an oar frame for rowing instead of paddling, and while this watercraft can carry fewer people, it's designed for quick maneuverability on the river.
Rafts can accommodate adventurers of all ages and can be outfitted to serve a variety of purposes. Fly fishing, relaxing and intense river running are all within the realm of what can be done with a raft. And while day trips are the most common way to experience rafting, rafts can also be loaded up with food, tents and sleeping gear for overnight or multi-day adventures that let you float from one scenic camping spot to the next.
If competitive or intense watersports aren't for you, then a relaxing river tubing float trip might be more your style. Inflatable, heavy-duty donut-shaped tubes serve as the vehicle for this most social of river activities. Get together a group of friends or family members, and head out on a mild stretch of the Colorado River to float your weekend away.
Tubes for river tubing come in a variety of styles, and individual tubes give you the chance to guide your own watercraft, but some tubes are big enough for several people to pile on and float downriver together. With individual tubes, it's also possible to link up with other members of your group and float en masse for a while and then break off when desired. River tubing is a great way to add some adventure to a celebration or group gathering. Due to the social nature of this river activity, group tubing is perfect for wedding parties, birthdays, anniversaries or special events.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
Stand-up paddleboards suitable for whitewater travel are inflatable, and they have surfboard-like decks on which a paddler can sit, kneel or stand with one long paddle for propulsion and steering. The Vail area is unique for stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) because it offers opportunities for relaxing river floats as well as exciting whitewater paddling. Since a strong core is essential for optimal paddling, SUP challenges strength, endurance and balance. Beginners often start out honing their skills on a lake, but mellow sections of river can also provide a good introduction to the sport.
Get inspired by early summer rafting and SUP competition by participating or cheering on competitors at the Town of Vail Whitewater Race Series or at the annual GoPro Mountain Games. Both events are held in Vail Village along Gore Creek, where spectators gather around Vail's International Bridge to watch the action.
"The Vail Whitewater Race Series is a great introduction to whitewater racing. The weekly events support local athletes and sponsors, and they add to the sense of community we have here in Vail around rafting and stand-up paddleboarding," says Jeremiah Williams, a member of the U.S. Men's Whitewater Raft Team and a competitive stand-up paddleboarder.
Williams and his teammate Rob Prechtl have also come out on top in several rafting events over the years at Vail's annual GoPro Mountain Games, which attracts a field of whitewater competitors from across the globe.
"The GoPro Mountain Games is a true test of ability, and it's where local athletes get the chance to compete against the best. For those of us who live here, the Mountain Games are our home event, and it's where I feel really good about being a part of the Vail whitewater community," Williams adds.
Vail's Creeks and Rivers
The Vail whitewater season is dynamic, with factors including snowmelt, weather and local river or creek conditions all affecting which stretches are prime for rafting, stand-up paddleboarding, or tubing at any given time. But from June through September, the whitewater's likely flowing somewhere at a level that suits your fancy.
Gore Creek flows through Vail's town center, and this snowmelt-fed waterway reaches its peak in the early summer season. Gore Creek sets the scene for whitewater events at the GoPro Mountain Games, a popular summer kickoff event, where you can watch top athletes in action from the International Bridge and get inspired to go out on your own whitewater adventure.
The Eagle River, like Gore Creek, is snowmelt-fed, meaning that many of its sections are prime for rafting in the early summer season, including Dowd Chute, a spicy stretch of river that advanced paddlers seek out for its churning whitewater rapids, steep gradient, and technical challenges.
For those who prefer a less intense river experience, the Upper Colorado River is a mainstay of river adventure and can accommodate a variety of watercrafts, including rafts, SUPs and tubes. With its mild, splashy rapids and opportunities for wildlife viewing, the Upper Colorado River is a popular choice for adventurers of all ages who want to relax and enjoy quintessential river-meets-mountains scenery.
The Arkansas River provides classic family-friendly rafting as well as intense whitewater that athletic paddlers love. Be prepared to enjoy an incredibly scenic drive to get there, a little more than an hour away from Vail. The Arkansas River is at its height during the early summer season, when snowmelt contributes to higher water volume, but it remains dam controlled to provide solid water levels through mid-August.
Stay safe this summer on Vail's waterways by researching current conditions, understanding river class rating systems, and taking safety measures such as wearing personal floatation devices and having the proper fitness, skills, knowledge and gear to safety travel the section of river or creek you choose. When in doubt, go with a guide: Vail is a river-lover's destination, and many professional outfitters are ready to guide you through a safe and enjoyable river experience that matches your desired adventure level.
Finally, do your part to protect Vail's waterways by staying within the boundaries of put-in and put-out locations, by observing wildlife from a distance and by personally committing to leave no trace behind. In this way, you'll no doubt enjoy the natural beauty you discover this summer along Vail's rivers and creeks while ensuring that they're just as beautiful each time you return.