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 eastward 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 The Numbers Launch Site to the Railroad Bridge Access above Buena Vista.
Between the Numbers Launch Site and the Railroad bridge 6 miles below the Arkansas flows as a wiler whitewater river with a series of major rapids that are uniquely and most origonally named Number One, Number Two, Number Three, Number Four, Number Five and, you guessed it ... Number Six. Somebody probably stayed up all night thinking of those names, but they are excellent when thinking about this much excitement packed into a few short miles. At flows below about 1,000 cfs the river flows as an "easy" Class IV- ride, but it escalates to solid Class IV from about 1,000 to 2,200 cfs and above that level it hits Class IV+. The run is great for those with strong intermediate whitewater paddling skills who are looking to up their game, as well asa advanced and higher level paddlers who will find enough challenge to make things interesting, though perehaps not the biggest water they run. For most people this will be an E-ticket ride on cold, fast water.
CR 371 very closely parallels the river on the left bank and US Highway 24 is nearly as close on the right, but you will not have much time to watch traffic once the fun starts. The run is through a forested mountain valley of immense scenic beauty which you can appreciate on the shuttle. Scott's Bridge at about 1.4 miles sits below Number One and just above Number Two. Otero Pump Station Access at about 2.8 miles sits between Number Four and Number 5. Number Six is about three quarters mile below Number 15, and sits just above the Railroad Bridge Access where this reach description ends. The Railroad Bridge Access has plenty of parking, several campsites and pit toilets with easy access from CR 371 a short drive north of Buena Vista. This reach ends where the Fractions reach begins and flows about 7 miles into Buena Vista.
The Numbers is a super place to hone your chops for bigger water in Colorado and beyond. Number One is, acording to those who do this run frequently, the technically toughest drop on the run as paddlers wind their way through a mazed of boulders and boat flipping holes. Things "ease up" a bit through Numbers Two and Three, but Numbers Four and Five can be very hard. Number Four has a reputation of being a very pushy rapid with a hard flow to right and then the left. Number Five, just below the Otera Bridge at about 2.9 miles features rocky banks that are real trouble. Number Six is a breeze compared to Numbers Four and Five, but don't let up until you are at the bottom of the drop. Whatever else you do, do NOT forget your count! And at the end of the run you can cruise on into Buena Vista to celebrate another great day on a river. You may even see other boaters there.
But, to be very clear, The Numbers is a serious run of almost non-stop paddling from top to bottom and it is also non-stop boulder dodging with some very turbulent hydraulics and lateral waves around the hugh boulders that create the major drops on this reach. At any navigable water level this reach of the Arkansas River is a powerful, physically and mentally challenging whitewater run with huge penalties for choosing wrong lines or failing to punch through holes, most of which are not keepers, but which can flip a raft, not to mention a canoe or kayak. The net bottom line is not to let up until the take-out! This is NOT Disneyland!
Additional information about this and other reaches of the Arkansas River within the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area can be found on the AHRA website HERE. This link will include safety information, helpful tips and suggestions and notices of things to avoid, like major holidays when crowds can be huge.
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.
Durango 230 miles; Grand Junction 200 miles; Denver 123 miles; Pueblo 135 miles; Salt Lake City 480 miles; Albuquerque 313 miles; Phoenix 680 miles; Oklahoma City 800 miles; Dallas 877 miles; Austin 960 miles; San Antonio 985 miles; Houston 1,055 miles; Little Rock 1,087 miles; Kansas City 726 miles; St. Louis 973 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.This section is rated Class IV- to IV+ at depending upon water levels. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
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. Look for flows of 400 to 2,500 cfs on the USGS Nathrop gauge.
Aside from six Class IV- to IV+ rapids (depending upon flow), a narrow, rocky channel, steep gradient, swift current abd cold water there really is not much in the way of hazards to navigation on this reach. Oh, did we mention the possibility of wood in the channel? The first 1.3 miles is easy water. Number One comes just before Scott's Bridge and it is a doozie! The most technical drop on thisr each, Number One is Olympic paddling on a slalom course littered with boulders and holes, all of which are to be avoided if possible. Number Two comes right after the bridge and is a fairly straight-forward drop that is bigger than it is technical. It and Number Three are easier rapids than the others on this reach. Number Four is situated about three quarters mile above Otero Pump Station Bridge is a religious experience - it is holey ... and pushy! And after a hard bracing run down the tongue trying to stay out of deep holes you need to steer left away from the entrance to a diversion canal, which is probably less fun to paddle, though a lot less challenging! Number Five falls almost immediately after the Otero Bridge on a right bend and drop with rocky sides to be avoided like the plague, and that MAY be possible by riding the tongue and steering to the left avoiding as many holes as possible along the way. Some easy rapids (Class II to III) are to be found above Number Six, but the last named one is pretty much a straight-forward run down the tongue through the rapid. There are other rapids, but none of any serious consequence for a paddler skilled and experienced enough for this run.
NOTE: AGRA recommends "that the Numbers (Section 1C) not be run at flows over 2400 cfs at the Numbers/Below Granite gauge as read at 7:00 am for full day or morning trips and at 12:00 noon for afternoon Numbers trips."
Numbers Launch Site (N 38° 59' 42.15" / W 106°13' 11.76") on river right after taking a dirt road north from Scott's Bridge to the access at 0.0 miles; Scott's Bridge (N 38° 58' 37.64" / W 106°12' 49.11") on river right below the bridge at about 1.4 miles; Otero Pump Station Access (N 38° 57' 39.00" / W 106° 11' 57.01") on river left below the bridge connecting US Highway 24 and CR 371 at about 2.8 miles; Riverside Access (N 38° 55' 51.54" / W 106° 10' 22.35") along CR 371 on river left at about 5.4 miles; Railroad Bridge Access (N 38° 55' 23.25" / W 106° 10' 14.97") on river left before the railroad bridge at about 6.0 miles. There are several other primitive roadside accesses off CR 371 on river left below Scott's Bridge and below Otero Bridge.
AHRA charges a fee for access at its sites. Current fee schedules can be found HERE.
AHRA Rincon Campground, off SH 291, is located near Badger Creek Rapid and The Flume at 18.3 miles. Other campgrounds are available in each of the two sections above and below the Stone Bridge to Rincon section.
Rentals, shuttles and/or other river related services are available from any of several outfitters located on or serving the Arkansas River.
If you are here, then you are either a very good boater, or else you are about to get your eyes opened wide. The Numbers is short - just 6 miles - but it packs a punch. Some of the rapids are technical and the seven (and one half) majors that carry the names of the Numbers are also big and violent with lateral waves that will flip you if you let them, so don't let them because then you will be swimming with boulders in fast, cold water. On an average gradient of 62 fpm and a maximum gradient of about 71 fpm the water moves, so getting downriver is not the problem. Boat control is essential to avoid potentially painful injuries. At low water (less than 1,000 cfs) the big drops are rated Class IV-, which means they are serious rapids demanding situational awareness of where and how you intend to run the more technical drops (Numbers One, Four and Five), but even the others require precise control to safely navigate. Most of the drop terminate in holes with strong standing waves pounding you in the face, so strong forward momentum and being squared up to the waves are necessary to pull you over the waves and keep you upright and inside your boat. Fortunately, most of the rapids can be scouted on the shuttle, so take the time to do it.
This reach of the Arkansas River is not for the faint-hearted. The run is much harder than it appears from the road. Starting about a dozen miles north of Buena Vista this run is convenient and the shuttle is easy since the run is mostly roadside to US Highway 24 and/or CR 371. Fortunately, there are several roadside access points off CR 371 on river left below Scott's Bridge and below Otero Bridge in the event a boater needs to depart the river sooner than going all the way to the Railroad Bridge Access where this reach ends. With six named Class IV= rapids that can escalate to IV+ in higher water conditions and numerous smaller Class II and III rapids packed into just six miles of river on a moderately steep gradient there is plenty of action to keep paddlers on their toes. Runs can be made in fully outfitted whitewater canoes, kayaks or rafts. This is definitely NOT a tuber run and SUPs would probably be advised to find easier runs, though surely some are doing these rapids on boards - not much open ocean to surf in Colorado! Canoeists should be especially careful about the power of this reach because it can flip a canoe quickly. The swim is scary!
This reach is drop dead gorgeous. The river flows in a forested mountain valley between Leadville from where the river sources and Buena Vista, and runs can generally be made in late-spring throughout the summer. In wetter years runs in September may even be possible and in drought years the season may be VERY short. Buena Vista, with its shops, restaurants and accommodations, is a quaint little town that adds to the mystic of running the Arkansas River.