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Lake Creek, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Diversion Tunnel to Willis Gulch Picnic Area
~ 9.25 Miles


EXPERT KAYAKERS ONLY!

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Lake Creek, a feeder stream to the Arkansas River, is a hairboater's wet dream. It forms as a natural streambed running down the sides of mountains toward Twin Lakes, but the majority of its flow comes from a diversion tunnel through a mountain carrying water from the Roaring Fork River on the other side. Together, the sources provide Lake Creek with navigable flows of from zero days to a couple of months depending upon winter snowpack and spring rainfall. The "easy" part of the run is rated Class V+, and then it really gets wild. Lake Creek is definitely not a place for canoes and rafts, or for kayakers with less than expert whitewater skills. This is no classroom - this is the professional grade extreme creek run! As gorgeous as it is, and it is one very beautiful place, there will be very little time to "smell the roses" unless you want to smell them from a prone position inside a pine box. The run starts at an elevation of 10,483 feet msl, then plunges 1,191 feet to a final elevation of 9,292 feet msl on an average gradient of just less than 129 fpm - STEEP - along the way. The air is thin and cold. Few Colorado streams flow at this elevation.

Running about 9.25 miles, Lake Creek flows through the mountains above Twin Lakes with a constantly changing gradient that varies from a low of 60 fpm to a high of 215 fpm. The water is cold, turbulent and strewn with huge boulders, log jams, undercut rock ledges, big holes, strong cross currents, tight, blind drops and turns, and plenty of other things that can prove disasterous for a paddler who has not done his or her homework, or who takes this run for granted. It also has some spots of tame water that can lull a paddler into complacency just before delivering a serious wake-up call. Lake Creek almost makes Grape Creek look like a playful run by comparison. Remember the Boy Scout motto - BE PREPARED!

The very short season and sheer difficulty of this run makes Lake Creek a place where you will never see massive crowds, but it is very popular with the hairboaters who have what it takes to "safely" navigate these big drops and cascading waterfalls that may flush you where you do not want to go if you lose control of your boat. The run is roadside and carefully scouting the entire run on the way upriver is strongly recommended, even if one is a veteran here, because things change. This run might be even more dangerous at lower flows because of the limitations that places on available lines approaching major hazards.

The run is easy to find - it closely parallels SH 82 running east to west from US Highway 24 a little south of Leadville and just north of the Granite Access for the Arkansas River. That will be the last part of this run that is easy! If you make it the first 5+ miles and you are still alive, then you will have the opportunity to take out at a SH 82 pullout just above Mt. Elbert Lodge avoiding the Lower Gorge where some really big drops are located. Having survived such notables as Tombstone, a Class V to VI sieve drop just 2.2 miles into the run is the culmination of ice cold, pushy water on a constantly dropping gradient leading into the big drops through a narrow gorge with occasionally undercut walls. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) Rapid, about 4 miles into the run, is a Class V+ series of drops that are the most challenging of the upper gorge. NIMBY is a real beauty - it is a boulder garden with pushy current and big drops and often, it has logjams blocking both the entrance and the exit - what fun! And, it is BIG! One more big one, Toaster (Class V), about 6 miles below the put-in is a 10-foot waterfall drop into an undercut boulder that awaits before you get to the next access point where you can re-evaluate a decision to continue downriver.

Below Mt. Elbert Lodge the river starts gently, and then just above Parry Peak Campground the river descends into The Brain Rapid (Class V+) at about mile 7.5, and then into the gnarly Paralyzer Rapid (Class VI) just about one half mile later in a tight gorge with little or no time to scout the monster drop on the approach. Next up is Z-Turn Rapid (Class V+) at about 8.1 miles with a hard must-make move at the top to avoid a direct assault into an undercut rock wall. Parry Creek Campground, at about 8.3 miles, is the end of the upper gorge and the start of the short lower gorge with Cauldron Rapid (Class V+) at about 8.7 miles, a waterfall drop into a boiling rock cauldron of turbulent water with logjams blocking the exit at lower flows. But, after this you can relax for the last half mile and prepare to clean your kayak after the run.

Location

Lake County, Colorado, bordered on the west by the San Isabel National Forest and on the east by the Pike National Forest in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. Leadville is only about

Distance from major cities

Durango 237 miles; Grand Junction 205 miles; Denver 128 miles; Pueblo 141 miles; Salt Lake City 485 miles; Albuquerque 320 miles; Phoenix 688 miles; Oklahoma City 806 miles; Dallas 825 miles; Austin 965 miles; San Antonio 990 miles; Houston 1,060 miles; Little Rock 1,092 miles; Kansas City 730 miles; St. Louis 978 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point and destination point on the river.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snowmelt cold. This section is rated Class V+ and higher when it flows at or above 400 cfs. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.

Best time to go

This section is heavily, dependent upon uncommon weather conditions, but when it flows its season is a few weeks in June and/or July. This is one you just have to monitor, and be there when conditions are right. The window is very short!

Hazards to navigation

Are you kidding me? This entire run is a serious hazard, even for extreme whitewater hairboaters. Treat Lake Creek as seriously as you would bubonic plague, because it can be just as deadly!

River Access Points

SH 82 (N 39 04' 54.96" / W 106 32' 26.94") at mile marker 69 near Graham Gulch by the diversion tunnel outflow at 0.0 miles; SH 82 pullout at Road 84A (N 39 04' 17.48" / W 10627' 48.16") at mile marker 74.5 just above Mt. Elbert Lodge on river left at about 5.3 miles; Willis Gulch Picnic Area (N 39 03' 46.45" / W 106 24' 15.26") at mile market 79 on river left before the bridge at about 9.25 miles. There are no other practical access points for this run.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are two public campgrounds located on Lake Creek. Twin Peaks Campground (N 39 04' 02.90" / W 106 24' 39.40") near Toaster Rapid is located on river right at about 8.9 miles. Parry Peak Campground (N 39 is located just below The Brain Rapid and Paralyzer rapid on river right at about 9.2 miles. Other campgrounds are available in each of the sections above this one on the Arkansas River.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or shuttle services Located on Lake Creek. However, such services may be available from outfitters in other areas. Ask local paddlers for details.

Reviewer's comments

Lake Creek is a very pretty and very treacherous place to play, even for expert whitewater kayakers. Anybody else should go somewhere else to play. It has nine different gradients in just 9 miles of creek, rolling like a roller coaster from its start at 110 fpm, peaking near the end at 215 FPM and finally ending at 205 fpm. Its "flattest" segment is 60 fpm, and comes immediately before its steepest segment. The short season features fast moving water, big drops, big rocks, big standing waves, and big opportunities to damage or destroy boats and injure or kill paddlers. Its setting is rugged wilderness, with moderately high canyon walls, mountains and green trees everywhere except the channel, and sometimes parts of those things are there, too! Lake Creek is a tributary of the Arkansas River, ending on that stream at above Granite and below Leadville near the US Highway 24 / SH 82 intersection, so if you are up to snuff and wants a great ride while in the area running the Arkansas, then Lake Creek is a run you will long remember. Canoes and rafts should not even think about running the creek because it is just too steep and too narrow with too many opportunities for disaster. This is truly a hairboater's playground.

Technical Data
Class Rating V to VI
Length 9.25 miles
Minimum Flow 300 cfs
Optimum Flow 350-700 cfs
Maximum Flow 1,000 cfs
First Put-in SH 82 near Graham Gulch
Lat/Long N 39 04' 54.96" / W 106 32' 26.94"
Last Take-out Willis Gulch Picnic Area
Lat/Long N 39 03' 46.45" / W 106 24' 15.26"
Elevation 10,483 - 9,292' msl (-1,191')
Gradient 64 to 215 fpm (8 changes) / ~129 fpm av
CPW Gauge Above Twin Lakes
Boats EXPERT KAYAKERS ONLY!
Season June through July
Permits No


Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

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Arkansas River

[ Arkansas River Homepage ] [ Hayden Meadows to Granite ] [ Granite to Numbers Launch Site ] [ Numbers Launch Site to Railroad Bridge ]
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Tributaries

[ Grape Creek ]

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Last updated August 26, 2021

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