Upper Colorado River rafting offers pleasure, excitement
KREMMLING — On a warm June afternoon, Pumphouse Campground is a flurry of activity.
A mélange of commercial rafting companies, weekend warriors and all ilk of river rat crowds the banks of the Upper Colorado River.
I’ve come here with a commercial guide, Kremmling-based Arkansas Valley Adventures, to test my mettle on a stretch of the Colorado River that runs from Pumphouse to the small riverside town of Radium, about 4.5 miles downriver.
The section is an intermediate mix of Class II and Class III rapids, including the well-known Needle’s Eye rapid.
Passing through Little Gore Canyon, this stretch is the family-friendly answer to Gore Canyon proper, a 5.5-mile section of bone-crushing, white-knuckle Class V rapids that ends just above Pumphouse.
With water levels just below 4,000 cubic feet per second toward the end of June, the Upper Gore Canyon is all but unrunnable.
Conversely, the warm temperatures and gorgeous weather make the Little Gore Canyon the perfect spot for an early summer family trip.
A heavily traveled section, the stretch of river from Pumphouse to Radium sees around 60,000 visitors annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Despite the Little Gore Canyon’s diminutive reputation when compared to its big brother upstream, I couldn’t help but feel excited, and a little nervous, as I boarded my inflatable kayak and paddled out into the throng of rafts casting away from the put in.
I suppose, though, that we should start from the beginning.
Given the popularity of the Upper Colorado River for rafting, Kremmling boasts a veritable bunch of commercial rafting companies.
Arkansas Valley Adventures, located on the eastern edge of town, offers a variety of half, full-day and overnight rafting trips on the Upper Colorado River.
In addition to guide services, AVA rents a full range of river gear including rafts, stand-up paddleboards, inflatable kayaks and paddles. All rentals include personal flotation devices.
From the shop it’s a 20 or so minute bus ride to the put in.
Of course, no rafting story is complete without an account of the guides.
Raft guides are a peripatetic tribe with a seemingly unshakable countenance and a penchant for light-hearted self-deprecation.
Standing before a mostly silent assemblage of novice rafters, trip leader Ross Barry braces himself against the front seat of the bus as he recites the routine safety spiel.
Like a hairy, shirtless flight attendant, Barry delivers his seamless monologue with a conviction that only experience brings.
“Does anyone know the difference between a raft guide and bigfoot?” Barry asks. “One is a big smelly creature that lives in the woods that the other is a mythical beast.”
Barry spends his summers raft guiding and his winters as a snowboard instructor, while being a “world-class dirt bag in between.”
It’s guide Ken Omiyga’s first season.
He’s got some on-water experience from rowing at Binghamton University, and he’s currently majoring in film production.
Omiyga said he’d like to be a director someday, but for now, “rafting is a sweet gig.”
Raft guides are nothing if not an eclectic bunch.
The bus is eerily silent as we approach Pumphouse Campground. I wonder if I’m not the only one with a butterfly or two in my stomach.
Whatever tension there may have been on the bus ride dissipates like a ripple across a pond as soon as we got on the water.
The Upper Colorado River is a wide, meandering thoroughfare where it passed Pumphouse Campground
It’s a bucolic stretch. The river is flanked by verdant stands of tall grass and tamarisk. Behind that, the scrubland rolls up into red hills.
The rafter’s first taste of whitewater is the newly installed Gore Canyon Whitewater Park, a man-made play wave stretches the span of the river just below Pumphouse.
The river soon leaves the rolling hills behind, though, and enters Little Gore Canyon, home of Needle’s Eye rapid.
Before putting in, Barry recommended that I avoid the rock in the middle of the rapid with my inflatable kayak.
Though I never felt like I was in any danger, and I’m sure I wasn’t, the rapid was enough to raise my pulse, and rocking over the waves just below it was an exhilarating experience.
From Needle’s Eye, the next big attractions are an in-rock hot spring and “jump rock.”
The former was effectively submerged when we passed, though that didn’t stop a group of conspicuously young people from milling around it, beers in hand.
Beyond that, a short hike up the cliff band takes you to jump rock, where rafters can take a 30-foot plunge into the river.
A photographer is stationed on the other side of the river. He’s sure to catch the look of terror on your face.
There’s also a little jump rock for children and the faint of heart.
After purifying myself in the gelid waters of the Colorado River, I climb back into my craft and we continue on our adventure.
From jump rock, it’s a short drift before you reach the Radium bridge.
As I maneuver the kayak toward shore, I’m struck by just how quickly the time has passed.
The one and a half hour voyage had seemed more like a 15 minute pleasure cruise, but as they say, “time flies when you’re having fun.”
The Upper Colorado River is the perfect spot for a summer trip.
The beautiful scenery and pleasant climate are tempered with just the right amount of excitement, making it a well-balanced adventure.
For more information about Arkansas Valley Adventures or to book a trip, visit coloradorafting.net or call 1-800-370-0581.
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