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Piney River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Piney Crossing to State Bridge
~ 19 Miles


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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Piney River is a serious 19 miles of whitewater ranging from moderate Class III to very technical Class VI- in a wilderness environment north of Vail, running to the confluence with the Colorado River near State Bridge. The gradient on this section starts at 200 fpm, then goes through changes to 400, 160, 100, 140, 200, 120, 180 and finally 87 fpm. This river is NOT for canoes and rafts, and should ONLY be attempted by expert level whitewater kayakers. The run starts high in the Gore Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 9,240 feet msl, and descends 2,500 feet in 19 miles - it is a steep run!

The Piney River scenery is absolutely stunning. This granite boulder-strewn river is lined with spruce and aspen, as well as dense stands of willow trees. This is a run of monster drops, huge boulders all over the riverbed, many major log jams, steep gradients, very fast water, and if all that is not enough, bears feeding on the salmon that spawn in the stream. This is not a run to be taken lightly. It is for creek boats with excellent, quick maneuvering capabilities, and nothing less. Serious injury or death awaits any paddler lacking the requisite skills and mental dexterity to run this river.


Eagle County, northwest of Vail, between Kremmling to the northeast and Glenwood Springs to the southwest, in the White River National Forest.

Distance from major cities

Durango 280 miles; Grand Junction 145 miles; Denver 120 miles; Santa Fe 492 miles; Albuquerque 492 miles; Phoenix 734 miles; Oklahoma City 745 miles; Tulsa 850 miles; Dallas 904 miles; Austin 1,085 miles; San Antonio 1,165 miles; Houston 1,154 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Piney River flows wild, white and very cold. The upper part of this run needs a gauge reading of at least 600 cfs on the lower gauge to be navigable. It is tight and technical, with a rating of Class V to VI- at flows exceeding 600 cfs on its uppermost segment, and easier Class III down below.

Best time to go

The prime season on the Piney River is typically May through August, but it may be extended or shortened, depending upon winter snowpack and late spring rainfall.

Hazards to navigation

Realistically, just about everything on the Piney River is a hazard. The easy part is a stretch of Class III whitewater, but the majority of the run is a bumpy ride over huge boulders and around log jams in Class V to VI- conditions that can only be run successfully by expert whitewater kayakers. Broken Paddles Rapid is the first significant drop, turning sharply to the right just as it enters a gorge. As with all rapids and waterfalls on this run, be always vigilant for log jams - they are everywhere. The Slot is the second major drop, with its flow funneling into a very narrow gorge. The upper section ends after Beaver Attack Rapid, a class VI- drop with nasty consequences for a bad run, where good judgement usually defaults to a portage along a hiking trail leading to Big Eddy, a marshy wetland where the river flows slowly across a grassy flat before continuing its mad rage. Beaver Attack Rapid is about 1/3 mile of non-stop terror beginning with a cascading drop on a gradient of about 400 fpm. If you have any second thoughts about Beaver Attack Rapid, then opt for the portage.

Below Big Eddy, Meadow Creek and the North Fork of the Piney River lies a stretch of generally gentle (by comparison) water with several Class IV+ rapids that should be scouted. However, scouting is difficult because of dense willow stands along the banks. Big boulders and log jams permeate this section, and quick acton is required to avoid pinning. As the Piney Valley starts to widen the river flattens and begins to back up because of an eddy chocked full of floating deadwood. This signals the approach of a section of Class V whitewater with some particularly nasty drops that demand full attention and very good decision-making skills with equally good execution.

The first hazard in this segment of the Piney River is an S-turn rapid with a big right side pile of tree debris that can be avoided by running on river left. As you approach an island it is very important that you find a river right take-out, then portage up hill through dense brush to the next rapid called Lower Big Drop. Failure to take out before passing the island can, and probably will, result in serious injury or death. Put in just above Lower Big Drop and then continue the run. Be watchful for bears during your portage - many people have reported seeing them. The rest of the run is basically a long, Class III paddle to the take-out.

River Access Points

Follow Red Sandstone Road from Vail about 10 miles north toward Piney Lake. Put in at the bridge near the campground above the lake. Take out near a bar at State Bridge, where the Piney River flows into the Colorado River at the end of the Pumphouse run.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There is a campground adjacent to the bridge at the put-in. Three other campgrounds are nearby on the Colorado, upriver from the State Bridge take-out. Visitors are strongly urges to take every precaution to preserve the natural environment, including the use of firepans, packing out everything you pack in (including human and pet waste), avoiding soap or debris entering the river, avoiding damage to plants, animals or geology, and leaving only footprints as a trace of your having been there.

Liveries, Outfitters and Shuttle Services

There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on or near this section of the Piney River. However, outfitters on other rivers in the not-too-distant vicinity may be able to provide rentals, outfitting and shuttles. Ask local paddlers for advice.

Reviewer's comments

The Piney River is a typical Colorado whitewater run very similar to a true hairboat experience. This is a river that is much better suited to kayaking than to canoeing or rafting. The scenery is as gorgeous as the river is treacherous. It's a good idea to have swiftwater resuce and First Aid skills before attempting to run the Piney River. Whitewater abounds, with the easy stuff rated Class III and the hardest stuff earning a Class VI- designation. The average season is about 4 months, from May through August, and paddlers are encouraged to protect the natural beauty of the area. Leave your rafts and canoes on the car, because they are not advisable for the Piney River.

Technical Data
Class Rating III to VI-
Length 19 miles
Minimum Flow 600 cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Piney Lake Campground
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out State Bridge
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 9,240-6,740 feet msl
Gradient 87-400 fpm (8 changes)
USGS Gauge Web: Minturn
Season May through August
Permits No
October 31, 2009

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