The Arkansas River forms in the Pike National Forest of Chaffee County in central Colorado, then flows south through Buena Vista and Salida before turning east by southeast at Coaldale. From there, it flows through Canon City and Pueblo to John Martin Reservoir, then into and across Kansas through Wichita, down into Oklahoma through Tulsa and Muskogee, where it again turns eartward into Arkansas at Fort Smith, flowing through Russelville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff before reaching its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi River on the Arkansas-Mississippi border. The Ark is a VERY long river with a large number of dams creating reservoirs in each state through which it passes. This description covers the section from Pinnacle Rock to Canon City.
Flowing through Chaffee County, the Arkansas River between Granite and Buena Vista runs about 17.9 miles with rapids rated Class II-V, depending upon flow and whom you ask. The average gradient is 58 feet per mile (fpm), but the first 6 miles, between Pine Creek and "The Numbers", drops at 200 fpm. Through "The Numbers", the drop is about 71 fpm over 4.9 miles. The last 7 miles down to the US Highway 306 access has a gradient of "only" about 44 fpm. This section of the Arkansas River is well suited for kayaks and rafts, though it is possible to run it in a whitewater canoe with full flotation paddled by an advanced to expert paddler. A great roll is highly recommended.
The scenery along the way is awesome, but don't forget to watch the river. With some drops in the Class IV-V category there are plenty of places to get into trouble by not paying attention to what lies ahead. The drops begin big (Class III-V), then ease up a bit to Class II-IV (usually Class II-III) as you work your way downriver. Access points are numerous and a campground is available at the railroad bridge access, as well as a few other places nearby.
Chaffee 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. Denver, to the northeast, and Pueblo, to the southeast, are just about equidistant from the river.
Durango 275 miles; Grand Junction 185 miles; Denver 115 miles; Pueblo 135 miles; Salt Lake City 470 miles; Albuquerque 473 miles; Phoenix 729 miles; Oklahoma City 740 miles; Dallas 810 miles; Austin 991 miles; San Antonio 1,071 miles; Houston 1,177 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snow-melt cold. Minimum flows in the upper 6.5 miles should be at least 200 cfs, with maximum flows for safe boating about 2,500 cfs. Below "The Numbers" put-in the minimum flow should be about 600 cfs, with a maximum flow for safe boating at about 3,500 cfs. Below these minimums the river channel gets very rocky and difficult to navigate. Above maximums, the river becomes wild and deadly. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
Generally, the optimum season is from late spring through mid summer, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains. Flow is usually best from May through July. This section of the Arkansas River is seldom navigable from September through April due to insifficient water and extremely cold temperatures.
There are plenty of places, both on and near the river, to get into trouble. A crumbling dam about 1.8 miles below the Granite put-in can be run after scouting, or portaged, but extreme caution to avoid getting pinned in the river or entangled in cables amid the rocks on either bank must be exercised. Pine Creek Rapid, about 4.2 miles below Granite, is rated Class IV+ most of the time, but will escalate to Class V at flows above 1,500 cfs. Starting at about 6.0 miles below Granite, and continuing for nearly 5 miles, is a series of 7 long rapids known as "The Numbers" (Number One, Number Two, etc.) This is a group of solid Class IV rapids (Class IV- < 1,000 cfs; Class IV @ 1,000 - 2,200 cfs; Class IV+ > 2,200 cfs) amid big boulders, significant drops, sticky holes, strong cross currents, and just to make it really interesting, "No Trespassing" signs along both banks. Below "The Numbers" is about 7 miles of Class III whitewater with a gradient of about 44 fpm.
Granite access at 0.0 miles; "The Numbers" access at 5.8 miles; Railroad bridge access at 10.5 miles; Buena Vista (US Highway 306) access at 17.9 miles.
Railroad bridge campground on river left at 10.5 miles; Crazyhorse Resort campground on river right at 12.0 miles; Ruby Mountain campground on river left about 8 miles below the US Hwy. 306 crossing.
The Arkansas River is cold, wet and rough, offering a challenge to kayakers and rafters who dare to test their skills on the section between Granite and Buena Vista. With forests on both sides and a channel cut through the Rocky Mountains, the scenery is beautiful and natural most of the way. This is NOT a run for beginner or novice paddlers, and even intermediate skill levels might not be enough to handle some of what this section will throw at you. As with most Colorado streams, the season is short and heavily dependent upon a good winter snow pack. Recent local rainfall helps greatly, but don't count on it. This section of the Arkansas is a great warm-up for more challenging Colorado streams, so you can come here to get your chops tight, then head out to bigger water elsewhere.
Because the water is cold and the sun is often blocked by the mountains, wearing wetsuits or drysuits is advisable for most paddlers. The Arkansas River would not be a good place to become hypothermic. Ear plugs would be advisable to keep the cold water out of your ear canals, a situation that can lead to serious aural complications from repeated and prolonged exposure. Canoes should not challenge this section of the Arkansas except when properly outfitted for heavy whitewater and paddled by advanced to expert paddlers who have the training and skills necessary to survive the run. Swiftwater rescue skills would be advisable for all paddlers running the Arkansas River.