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Arkansas River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Buena Vista to Stone Bridge
~ 18.9 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

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 Buena Vista to Stone Bridge.

The launch point for the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Stone Bridge is off SH 306 in the Town of Buena Vista. This section is Mutt and Jeff - it starts out with about 6 miles of Class III- water, then escalates to Class III to IV through Brown's Canyon. Ironically, the first part has a gradient of 32 fpm, dropping to 31 fpm on the lower 13 miles. There are two hazards, an old dam and a rapid, on the upper 2 miles and 9 more rapids through Brown's Canyon.

Well suited for kayaks, canoes with flotation, and rafts, this section offers moderate whitewater thrills on the upper few miles, more challenging drops below Cottonwood Creek, and beautiful scenery along the entire run. Ruby Mountain Campground, located about 8 miles below the put-in, and Hecla Junction Campground about 17 miloes below the put-in, offer campsites along this section. Roads cross the river at four locations, two near the top and the other two nar the bottom, giving great access to the river.


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 and Colorado Springs are to the north, Pueblo is to the east and Grand Junction is almost due west.

Distance from major cities

Durango 250 miles; Grand Junction 215 miles; Denver 140 miles; Pueblo 120 miles; Salt Lake City 500 miles; Albuquerque 460 miles; Phoenix 704 miles; Oklahoma City 765 miles; Dallas 795 miles; Austin 976 miles; San Antonio 1,056 miles; Houston 1,162 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 snow-melt cold.This section is rated Class III to IV at flows below about 2,500 cfs, and escalates to solid Class IV above that level. 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

By Colorado standards, this secton has a very long season ranging from May through August or September, though the actual season may be longer or shorter, depending upon winter snowpack and summer rainfall amounts.

Hazards to navigation

An old dam about one half mile below the put-in must be carefully negotiated - scout before running; a rapid near Johnson Village about 1.5 miles below the put-in is a haystack ride of the Class III variety - pick a good line and then go for it; Cottonwood Creek Rapid at about 10.7 miles below the put-in is a Class III; Pinall Rapid, at about 11.3 miles, is a rock garden; Zoom Flume, at about 12.0 miles, is a true Class IV that will test your skills in whitewater; Big Drop, at about 12.5 miles, is a solid Class III most of the time; Staircase Rapid, at about 13.1 miles, is a good Class III; Widowmaker Rapid, at about 14.0 miles, is a fun ride; Raft Ripper Rapid, at 15.0 miles, gets its name from what it can do to inflatable boats, so stay off the rocks; Seidel's Suckhole Rapid, at 16.1 miles, is a solid Class III drop with a big hole that can suck a slow boat in and hold it; and Twin Falls Rapid, at 16.8 miles, is the last major Class III on this section. All of the Class III's in this section can escalate to Class IV level in high flow conditions, and become progressively more difficult to manage for intermediate or lower skill level paddlers.

River Access Points

SH 306 access of US Highway 24 at 0.0 miles; Fisherman's Bridge access, off US Highway 285 and CR 300, at 6.0 miles; Ruby Mountain access off CR 300 at 7.9 miles; Hecla Junction access, off CR 194 from US Highway 285, at 15.5 miles; and SH 291 access, near US Highway 285 / SH 291 split, at 18.9 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Ruby Mountain Campground off CR 300 on river left at 8.0 miles; Hecla Junction Campground near the US Highway 285 and CR 194 split on river right at about 17.0 miles. There are other campgrounds available in the sections immediately above and below the Buena Vista to Stone Bridge section - see those section reviews for specific information.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

Rentals, shuttles and/or other river related services are available from any of several outfitters located on or serving the Arkansas River.

Reviewer's comments

This section of the Arkansas River is a great run for intermediate or high level whitewater paddlers, with plenty of good rapids, and none too demanding or dangerous. Great access, a couple of great campgrounds and close proximity to major roads make this section ideal. The scenery is awesome, but the nature of this run makes it very popular, so crowding can sometimes be a problem, especially during the peak summer months. The long season, lasting from May into September, gives paddlers a good window for catching the Arkansas River between the Town of Buena Vista and Stone Bridge at optimum levels. Unless you are prepard and have the skills for Class IV whitewater, this section is best avoided when the flow exceeds about 2,500 cfs.

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 intermediate or higher level whitewater paddlers. Swiftwater rescue skills would be advisable for all paddlers running the Arkansas River.

Technical Data
Class Rating III- to IV
Length 18.9 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in SH 306
Last Take-out SH 291
Elevation msl
Gradient max.
USGS Gauge Web: 07087050 (Granite)
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May through August
Permits No

Zoom Flume Rapid on the Arkansas River - photo courtesy Wilderness Aware Rafting
Zoom Flume Rapid on the Arkansas River
photo courtesy Wilderness Aware Rafting

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Arkansas River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Arkansas River Homepage ] [ Granite to Buena Vista ] [ Stone Bridge to Rincon ] [ Rincon to Pinnacle Rock ]
[ Pinnacle Rock to Canon City ] [ Grape Creek ] [ Lake Creek ]

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