The Dolores River forms south of Lizard Head Pass in the San Juan Mountains of San Juan National Forest in Dolores County in southwestern Colorado, then flows southwest through Stoner to the Town of Dolores where it turns Northwest. A dam just north of Dolores forms McPhee Reservoir, from which the river flows in a generally north by northwest direction through or near the Towns of Cahone, Dove Creek, Slick Rock and Bedrock to Gateway, where the river then turns northwest and continues to its confluence with the Colorado River just south of Cisco, Utah. The river is usually described as the Upper Delores above McPhee Reservoir and as the Lower Dolores below the dam.
Between Stoner Bridge and the Town of Dolores the river is seldom paddled due to access problems. However, it is navigable, and for those willing to run about 17 miles in a day a splendid Class II to III run amid gorgeous forested mountains with a medium gradient of about 31.5 fpm awaits. This section of the river flows through Montezuma County just north of the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Indian Reservations. The West Dolores River joins the Dolores just south of Stoner.
The short season in May and June depends upon snowmelt water from the San Juan Mountains to provide a navigable flow for canoes and kayaks. Rafts could technically paddle this section, but the aforementioned access problems would require a long day of paddling to reach the Town of Dolores. SH 145 closely parallels the river along this run, providing access at either end. This will never be a main stop for most paddlers, but offers an excellent destination for those wanting to paddle more and play less.
Montezuma County, Colorado, near the western edge of the San Juan National Forest northwest of Dolores. Durango is a few miles to the southeast. The West Dolores, Animas, Piedra and San Miguel Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 62 miles; Grand Junction 132 miles; Denver 401 miles; Pueblo 334 miles; Salt Lake City 417 miles; Albuquerque 274 miles; Phoenix 516 miles; Oklahoma City 816 miles; Dallas 942 miles; Austin 977 miles; San Antonio 885 miles; Houston 1,127 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, flowing clean, clear and cold, but not drinkable without boiling or purifying by other methods. The river primarily flows in late May through June, when the snow melts in the San Juan Mountains. Be sure to check the flow before you go. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, layered water-repelling garments, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
Generally, the optimum season is from late spring through early summer, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains. Flow is usually best from May into early June.
This section of the Dolores River has more whitewater than any other section, usually in the form of boulder garden rapids where the streambed bends, and it bends often. The river is primarily a Class II to III+ run that poses few significant hazards at medium or higher flows. At lower flows the rocks are up, and the chances of pinning or damaging a boat are much greater.
Stoner Bridge Access (N 37° 35' 19.79" / W 108° 19' 11.08") on river right before the bridge at 0.0 miles; CR 38 @ SH 145 (N 37° 35' 20.88" / W 108° 21' 23.41") is a launch only access on river rightjust up the West Dolores River from the confluence at about 2.60 miles; SH 145 Roadside Access 3 (N 37° 30' 34.66" / W 108° 23' 23.20") on river right at the highway turnout at about 8.70 miles; Dolores River RV Park (N 37° 28' 26.20" / W 108° 27' 11.18") on river right after a hard right bend at about 13.80 miles (fee may be required); Dolores City Park (N 37° 28' 27.69" / W 108° 29' 30.29") on river right at the boat dock at about 16.00 miles; Joe Powell Park - Dolores Access (N 37° 28' 08.56" / W 108° 30' 32.68") on river left on a wide open beach off CR 30 at about 17.0 miles.
There are two public campsites on river right on the Dolores River at Priest Gulch just above Stoner, and Layton, a little farther up the road. There are three public campsites on the West Dolores River above Stoner - Burro Bridge, on river left near the headwaters, Mavreese, on river left just above Stoner, and Forks, on river left between Mavreese and Stoner. Contact BLM at 970-247-4874 for information. There are at least two commercial campgrounds located along the Dolores River. Other natural campsites can be found along the river. Please observe these rules for the protection of the river area and the enjoyment of all who paddle the Dolores River:
1. Fire pans are required for all open fires. Debris MUST be carried out;
2. Porta-potties are required for all human waste, which MUST be carried out;
3. Dogs must be on leashes at all times in camp;
4. Dog feces MUST be collected and carried out;
5. Strainers MUST be used for dishwater, and food debris MUST be carried out;
6. A scrim material should be used for kitchen floors to collect dropped food. All food debris MUST be carried out.
Because of limited campsites, courtesy in setting up camps and not intruding, either physically or by noise, on other campers is expected. When meeting other groups on the way downriver discussions about campsites should be undertaken so that groups know where each other are going to be staying. Cooperation on these simple rules and common courtesies will go a long way toward making your Dolores River trip enjoyable for yourself and others who are on the river. If you pack it in, then pack it out. Take only photographs and memories - leave only footprints!
Rentals and shuttles may be available from any of several outfitters serving the Dolores and surrounding rivers. Other outfitters elsewhere in Colorado and other states may also provide services on the Dolores River.
The Upper Dolores River between Stoner Bridge and the Town of Dolores is a beautiful place where canoeists and kayakers can enjoy one of Colorado's prettiest whitewater rivers. What it lacks in technical merit is more than made up for by its serene and spectacular scenery. The water is fast moving and cold. The season is short. The nice thing about this trip, beside the great ride and awesome scenery, is that when you finish you are at the town of Dolores and can get a restaurant meal so that you do not have to set up, prepare and eat after a day on the river. And if you do not stop at Joe Powell Park, then you will soon find yourself on McPhee Reservoir, so don't miss that last take-out in Dolores.