Forming in the high country of the San Juan Mountains, the Dolores River begins as two forks - the Dolores and the West Dolores, joining above Stoner and then flowing into Dolores in Dolores County. The river then flows southwest into Montezuma County before turning north at the Town of Dolores. Just north of Dolores a dam has created McPhee Reservoir, so a portage is required around the lake and dam if starting above the lake. Leaving the reservoir, the Dolores River flows northwest through Dolores, San Miguel, Montrose and Mesa Counties before entering Utah and on to the confluence of the Colorado River.
Scenery is like something straight out of an "Old West" cowboy movie. The high, heavily-forested region is absolutely gorgeous, setting the stage for one of Colorado's premiere river runs, though not quite as technically challenging as many other streams in the state. In all, the Dolores flows for over 200 miles. The San Miguel River flows into the Dolores a few miles below Bedrock in Montezuma County. The river drops in elevation from 8,155 to 5,000 feet MSL. Its waters are clean, clear and cold (C3) - water temperature cannot be overstated - it is COLD! The Dolores is almost completely dependent upon snow melt for its flow, so it has a short season usually beginning in late April and ending in early June in normal snowpack years. Above normal snowfall may prolong the season by 2-3 weeks, and the river may not flow at all in years of below normal snowfall.
The navigable distance of the Upper Dolores River, from Roaring Forks Creek to the Town of Dolores, is about 31 miles. The navigable distance for the Lower Dolores River, from the Bradfield Access at Cahone (below McPhee Reservoir) to the Colorado River in Utah, is about 173 miles. Unlike many Colorado rivers and creeks, the Lower Dolores is well suited for canoeing, as well as kayaking and rafting. Most rapids fall into the Class II+ to III category most of the time, though some Class III's can become Class IV's in high water. Between Bradfield Access and Slick Rock is a Class IV rapid called Snaggletooth that may seem like a Class V, especially if you run it wrong. Good intermediate or higher whitewater skills will get you safely down the river most of the time.
Permits are not required to paddle the Dolores in Colorado, but they are required if you run the section from Gateway into Utah. All boaters must register with the BLM office at the access points in Colorado, and group size will be limited on some sections. All boaters are required to wear a US Coast Guard-approved Type I, III or V personal flotation device (PFD, or lifejacket) at all times while on the river. Remember, this is bear country, so DO NOT wipe food on your clothing or otherwise "invite" a visit from an animal who may mistake you for lunch. Bring your own drinking and food preparation water. There is potable water at the Bradfield access, but water from the Dolores and its tributary creeks and streams is not safe for human consumption.