Part of the Colorado State Parks system, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area follows its namesake river downstream for 150 miles from the mountain town of Leadville through the Sawatch mountains and past Pueblo. The Arkansas is known for its world-class whitewater, from Class IV and V rapids to milder Class II and III sections.
What Makes It Great
The upper part of the river is the most popular whitewater boating river in the U.S. The river is open to private boaters and commercial outfitters. Novice rafters are encouraged to choose an outfitter that is a member of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, a group that represents more than 50 whitewater rafting outfitters in Colorado. To choose outfitters located along the Arkansas River, check with the Arkansas River Outfitters Association.
This stretch of river is also home to some of the best fishing in Colorado. Both bait and fly anglers enjoy testing their craft here, as there are many access points along the 75-mile stretch between Buena Vista and Canon City, and the surrounding landscape is simply beautiful, with the Saguache and Sangre de Cristo Mountains towering above in all directions. There are plenty of pools and runs with excellent brown and rainbow trout populations, typically ranging from 13-15 inches. Bank and raft fishing are both popular.
Who is Going to Love It
Expert rafters or thrill seekers will appreciate the toughest runs – The Numbers, Pine Creek Rapid, and Royal Gorge. Newcomers can get a splash of excitement with an outfitter on this cold water (high summer temps range in the 60s).
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The Arkansas River Recreation Area visitor center is in Salida. From Colorado Springs, take Colorado Highway 115 to U.S. Highway 50, then 50 west to Salida. From the intersection of Highways 50/291, turn north on First Street; drive to G Street, and turn right; at Sackett Avenue, turn left. For an alternate route, take U.S. Highway 24 west to U.S. 285 south. Turn left onto Colorado Highway 291 and drive 7.8 miles to Salida; turn left at Skateboard Park, and drive to Sackett Avenue, parallel to the Arkansas River.
Launch windows for outfitters in most parts of this recreation area are from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with biggest crowds from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. In the Numbers section from Granite to Railroad Bridge, all commercial trips are launched before 11 a.m. at Granite and 2 p.m. at Numbers. In the Royal Gorge, all commercial trips launch between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Commercial launches aren’t allowed at flows above 700 cfs at Wellsville.
Cold-water gear is suggested and personal flotation devices are required.
Recreation area managers suggest private boaters pull in behind the last boat of a group (the outfitters can run up to 10 boats in a group). There are no launch windows for private boaters.