Colorado is home to over 200 rivers. Depending on the snow run off and time a year you can generally find anything from a gentle Class I to a challenging Class V.
Among these is the famous Arkansas River. The Arkansas River runs through the Rockies, dropping up to 4,600 feet in 120 miles. This section supports extensive whitewater rafting, with rivers such as The Numbers (near Granite, Colorado), Brown's Canyon, and the Royal Gorge.
For our trip, we chose to raft the beautiful Royal Gorge, just a few miles west from Cañon City, Colorado. Cañon City (which is about 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs) is the epicenter to a majority of the white-water rafting.
Which Company Should You Choose?
We chose Echo Canyon River Expeditions, which boasts a 4.9/5 Stars on Google with over 700 reviews. While I don’t always consider these rating systems accurate. I can tell you that we personally found their service superb. What makes them so much better than other companies?
Well for starters they are incredibly professional and organized. Not once did we worry about the safety during our journey. Their guides are absolute professionals when it comes to rafting. The skill and confidence isn’t just awe inspiring, but impressive to watch.
Every raft is equipped with a GoPro and professional photographers are stationed near the big rapids, so you have videos and pictures to see after your trip. Yes, you will have to pay for these, but trust me when I say it’s worth it.
Prepping For The Trip
We set out bright an early from Colorado Springs for the near hour-long drive to Canyon City. The drive was beautiful, but where is it not in Colorado? As you draw closer to the shop you will find the typical line of tourist enticing signs boasting everything from rafting to ziplining.
Once at the shop I was immediately taken back by the friendliness and attentiveness of everyone there. From the woman behind the counter to the gentleman who fitted us for our life jackets, everyone was genuinely pleasant and engaging.
There are fitting rooms in the bathrooms to change and lockers for your items. You can also simply lock your car and have the front desk hold onto your keys. If you are a delicate flower who grew up in the warm Florida water like me, you can rent wetsuits at the gear counter for $10 dollars. Life Preservers and Helmets are obviously included.
Having said that. I quickly discovered that the 3mm spring suit I decided to wear was actually a bit more than needed. Don’t get me wrong. The water is a cool 55-60 degrees in August. However, I discovered that it was actually quite refreshing in the 90-degree air. Most people on the raft simply wore bathing suits and a t-shirt.
What you will want to bring
Water shoes (close toed, grip on bottom)
Bathing suit / neoprene suit (I wouldn’t suggest anything over a 3mm)
SUNSCREEN! – You will get burnt out there.
Polarized sunglasses with a strap (if you don’t have a strap, they do sell in them in the shop).
Optional tip: A long sleeve UV shirt. The UV protection and quick drying material are ideal for rafting. This is the one that I have. Less expensive options are just as good.
Some of our fellow rafters actually brought their smart phones in waterproof pouches. Nobody lost them but I still wouldn’t suggest it. I would suggest brining your GoPro as well as a couple backup batteries. See my GoPro section for specifics.
Some of the helmets do have a mount rack on them despite the sight saying that they don’t. If you ask the guys at the fitting counter, they will dig them out for you. I would however bring a backup plan like a clip mount just in case.
Full Day Royal Gorge
Echo Canyon has multiple options on different parts of the Arkansas River. We chose the Royal Gorge All Day trip, which gives you the fullest experience of white water rafting. Even after 4 hours, no one wanted the day to end. If you do choose the all day package, Echo Canyon provides a steak (or chicken) lunch.
We met our guide Cody and loaded up in the van for a 20-minute drive up to the “put in”. Along the way, Cody did his very best to cover all possible scenarios and managed to thoroughly terrify Gabby.
“How often do these boats flip?” she asked.
“Only when people ask.” He replied with a straight face.
We got to the launch sight and piled into the boat. We reviewed some rafting basics.
Right side 2 times (people on the right-side paddle twice).
Left side back 1 (people on the left paddle backwards once).
And so on… pretty simple. Timing with your fellow rafters however, a bit more of a challenge. We discovered it simpler to have the two people in the front of the raft to call out the paddles. Within about 20 minutes, we were pros.
The first half of the morning was a series of small class II to III rapids. Little bumps, a few splashes. Nothing to get too excited about, but this is a smart way to start for novice rafters as it prepared us for what was coming in the afternoon.
About an hour and a half down the river we came to the midway point “pull out”. Echo Canyon actually owns a private launch point on the side of the river with restrooms, hammocks, picknick tables, a huge tent and grills. Here our guide Cody actually cooked us lunch. Cody’s wide range of expertise became more apparent as I cut into my perfectly cooked medium rare piece of meat. Water, salad, snacks were also provided.
After we all finished eating and cleaning up the sight, we prepared again for launch.
Into the Class IV Rapids
As we had been the only boat on the morning run, we waited around for a few for the half day rafters to launch in with us. Royal Gorge was currently running class III to IV rapids and as the odds of involuntarily exiting your raft is higher, it is much safer to run in a group.
Once the rest of the group was on the river, we continued on eventually coming to the mouth of the Gorge. Beautiful cliff faces shooting up 1400 feet on either side made it feel like we were rafting into Jurassic Park. We could immediately see the difference in the roughness of the water and thanks to our morning trained we felt far more prepared.
Over the next hour and ½ we careened down class IV rapids with names like “Boat Eater” and “Wall Slammer”. There apparently aren’t any rapids with pleasant names like “Cuddle Corner”. Go figure. Now don’t let the name scare you. Even as a boat full of novices, we successfully managed all the rapids without losing a single person. Although I did personally go air born on a couple occasions.
This was because of our guide. Cody informed us that he had been a guide on this river for 5 seasons and had spent an additional 3 in other rivers. His expertise shined through as he guided us past huge boulders and spinning vortex.
After nearly 4 hours on the water we finally arrived at the “pull out” point. Everyone was intact though thoroughly soaked. It was by far, one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.
Final Tips For Success
Wear a bathing suit or quick dry clothing
Bring a GoPro or Waterproof camera
Sunglasses and strap
If you forget anything don’t worry! Like any good company, Echo Canyon have virtually everything on site to purchase or rent.
Shout Out to Our Guide!
Ask for Cody! If you really want a great trip, a great guide is half the recipe for success. With years under his belt, Cody not only will get you through safely but has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the Arkansas River. I felt like I was on a historical boat ride with rapids in the middle. He’s the real deal.