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 Russellville, 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 Brown's Canyon running from Fisherman's Bridge at the bottom of the Buena Vista Town Run down to Stone Bridge with accesses in between for shorter runs.
Let's start by stating that Brown's Canyon is a VERY popular place because its Class III to IV character offers a lot of excitement that can be enjoyed by less experienced river runners in guided rafts, and you will find plenty of them here! And, that can become a challenge for canoeists and kayakers in much faster boats when they have to wait on slower rafts approaching rapids. When those rapids are close together it makes it even tougher for the smaller boats. Expect a lot of river traffic on summer weekends, and if those are not avoidable for your trip plans, then try to launch early or later in the afternoon to avoid most of the crowd.
Brown's Canyon is a very shallow canyon, but it is Class A scenery, which you will not have a lot of time to appreciate while concentrating on the next rapid ahead. The channel is tight with a rail line on river left closely paralleling the river from just south of Nathrop all the way to Stone Bridge and beyond. These Rocky Mountains are not so rocky because a lot of their rocks are now in teh rvier channel! The rapids come in quick succession, though there is a little time to regroup between the major ones. At 13.3 miles from Fisherman's Bridge to Stone Bridge this will be more than enough for one day for most paddlers. It can be shortened by 1.75 miles by starting at Ruby Mountain Campground, which misses a few warm-up Class II's before hitting the big stuff, and/or on the bottom end by taking out at Hecla Junction Recreation Site at 9.6 miles, which misses a couple of big rapids in Seidel's Suckhole and Double Drop.
Brown's Canyon is primarily a Class III run with at least three potential Class IV drops (Zoom Flume Rapid, Big Drop Rapid and Seidel's Suckhole) in flows below about 2,500 cfs, escalating to a solid Class IV level when the flows exceed that level. Because of the frequency of rapids the main challenge may be stamina. Not all of the rapids are big, and many are in the Class II to III range, but they do take energy over the course of the 13.3 mile run on a moderate gradient of about 31 fpm, which is plenty steep for promoting a swift current. The run is a treat for seasoned paddlers and ecstacy for novices in rafts who may have never experienced anything so wild and thrilling before. Access is great and easy other than the brief "off-road" experience getting to Hecla. Setting up a personal shuttle is a piece of cake. So, saddle up and get ready to meet a bunch of new friends as you enjoy Brown's Canyon of the Arkansas River.
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, to the northeast, and Pueblo, to the southeast, are just about equidistant from the river.
Durango 213 miles; Grand Junction 216 miles; Denver 126 miles; Pueblo 119 miles; Salt Lake City 496 miles; Santa Fe 234 miles; Albuquerque 300 miles; Phoenix 665 miles; Oklahoma City 710 miles; Tulsa 780 miles; Dallas 804 miles; Austin 940 miles; San Antonio 968 miles; Houston 1,038 miles; Little Rock 1,051 miles; Kansas City 690 miles; St. Louis 937 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 III to IV at flows below about 2,500 cfs, increasing by one half step at higher flows. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
This section is heavily dependent upon uncommon weather conditions, but generally it flows from May to August or September. The river is fed by inflow from upstream diversions that fluctuate according to season and impounded water in the drainage basin.
Brown's Canyon does not feature any "imminent death" rapids or waterfall drops, but it does present a Class II to IV run on fast, cold water that will give you a workout. The pre-eminent drops to note are Canyon Doors (Screen Door Class II and Front Door Class II to III), Pinball (III), Zoom Flume (III to IV, depending upon flow), Big Drop (III to IV, depending upon flow), Staircase (III - 7 stairs getting progressively harder); Widowmaker (III - includes Toilet Seat, Toilet Bowl and Widowmaker Falls), Boat Ripper (III), Seidel's Suckhole (III+ to IV, depending upon flow) and Double Drop (III). These rapids are more technical than big, but they are situated in strong currents with a lot of potential for pins, boofing into nasty holes or being flipped by laterals slamming you from multiple directions simultaneously and with very uneven force. A swim would be bad due to water temperature and the boulders to encounter while in the river.
Fisherman's Bridge (N 38° 46' 02.30" / W 106° 05' 41.74") off CR 301 on river left below the bridge at 0.0 miles; AHRA Ruby Mountain Recreation Site (N 38° 47' 09.99" / W 106° 04' 15.04") on river left at the boat ramp at about 1.75 miles; AHRA Hecla Junction Access (N 38° 39' 06.69" / W 106° 03' 03.87") on river right at the boat ramp at about 9.60 miles; AHRA Stone Bridge Recreation Site (N 38° 36' 41.33" / W 106° 03' 48.03") on CR 191 off SH 291 on river right at the boat ramp at about 13.30 miles. Additional access points for the Brown's Canyon reach of the Arkansas River may be found at commercial rafting outfitters operating along this reach of the river.
AHRA charges a fee for access at its sites. Current fee schedules can be found HERE.
Ruby Mountain Campground (N 38° 47' 09.99" / W 106° 04' 15.04") is an AHRA fee site on river left at river mile 1.75 below Fisherman's Bridge; Hecla Junction Recreation Site (N 38° 39' 06.69" / W 106° 03' 03.87") on river right off CR 194 east from US Highway 285 at river mile 9.60 is an AHRA fee site. There are no other campgrounds in this immediate area, though there are several in nearby reaches of this river.
Numerous commercial rafting companies operate in Brown's Canyon. Some of them offer private boater shuttles, and one offers free parking with a very reasonable take-out / launch fee for those self-shuttling.
Brown's Canyon is a blast! This may be a perfect reach to learn Colorado whitewater paddling becasue it is challenging without being hairboating with super easy access. It WILL get you wet even if you stay in the boat and keep it upright, so be prepared for a bath in cold mountain snowmelt water. In other words, dress for the occasion. The run is through a shallow canyon that is very scenic and has the characteristic of being a remote river even though a road and a railroad are very nearby and people live along the river in various places. The first 3+ miles are wide open and fairly smooth, then just south of Nathrop the canyon walls close in and the real thrill begins. The channel is very rocky so water level is critical. Too little flow and it will be a beast navigating around partically submerged boulders. Too much flow and the river becomes pushy and harder to control the boat. This is a great place to hone intermediate or lower level whitewater skills, but not the best place for a novice paddler trying to learn the game.
This may be the most popular run on the Arkansas, and one of the most popular in all of Colorado and surrounding states, so don't expect to be all alone with the peace and tranquility all around you. Embrace your fellow paddler traveling companions and give each other room in the rapids, especially if the one in front of you resembles a slow boat to China.