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.
From a perspective of sheer beauty and close proximity to Mother Nature's handicrafts, the Dolores River between Slick Rock and Bedrock (Yabba-dabba-doo!) is hard to beat. The run is 50 miles of unparalleled geological wonder. Huge mountains rise along the river banks to tower overhead, leaving paddlers breathless with imagination as to just how those canyon walls were carved (and even more breathless if that is the selected "take-out" for some reason!) The area is rich in Native American petroglyphs dating back to ancient times.
The walls are colorful sandstone. This trip offers true wilderness camping, side canyon trips, desert flora and fauna, and a dirth of poison ivy on both sides of the river. "...You're gonna need an ocean of Calamine lotion..." if you don't watch where you walk and camp. The rapids are Class II+ below 800 cfs, escalating to Class III at flows above 800 CFS. With a gradient of 10 fpm, the waters in this section move a little slower than they do upriver. Trips of 14 miles (Slick Rock to Gypsum Valley Recreation Site), 36 miles (Gypsum Valley Recreation Site to Bedrock) or 50 miles (Slick Rock to Bedrock) can be taken on this section of the Dolores River. Maximum group size is 16 persons. Depending upon access points, trips can be 1 to 3 (or more) days in length. Bring plenty of film to capture the awe-inspiring essence of one of Colorado's truly beautiful rivers.
San Miguel and Montrose Counties, Colorado, just a few miles southwest of the Uncompahgre National Forest between Grand Junction and Dolores, a few miles to the southeast. The West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, Gunnison, Colorado and San Miguel Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 103 miles; Grand Junction 120 miles; Denver 366 miles; Pueblo 375 miles; Santa Fe 315 miles; Albuquerque 315 miles; Phoenix 557 miles; Oklahoma City 853 miles; Tulsa 958 miles; Dallas 967 miles; Austin 1,157 miles; San Antonio 1,237 miles; Houston 1,213 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. Below 800 CFS, this section is a solid Class II+ run, but any flow over 800 CFS will increase everything to Class III. 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 is seldom navigable from July through late April due to insufficient water and extremely cold temperatures.
This section of the Dolores River has numerous Class II-III rapids, but none that pose significant hazards at or above normal flows. At lower flows the rocks are up, and the chances of pinning or damaging a boat are much greater. Most of the hazards along this section are NOT on the river, but rather along the banks.
All distances are referenced from the Slick rock access (Mileages are river miles): Slick Rock Access at 0.0 miles; Gypsum Valley access at 14.0 miles; Bedrock access at 50.0 miles. NOTE: It is reported that vehicles have occasionally been vandalized at the Bedrock access while boaters are on the river. Leave nothing of value in your car, and leave everything else locked in the trunk, if possible.
Gypsum Valley Recreation Site offers primitive camping with public parking, shelters, picnic tables, grills and a launch ramp. There are no toilets or potable water at the Gypsum Valley Recreation Site; Bedrock access offers primitive camping with public parking, shelters, picnic tables, grills and a launch ramp. There are no toilets or potable water at the Bedrock access. 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!
Shuttle information may be available from the BLM at 970-882-7296 (Dolores) or 970-240-5300 (Montrose). 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 Dolores River is a beautiful place where canoeists can join kayakers and rafters to enjoy one of Colorado's premiere 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, and it can be somewhat crowded, especially on Memorial Day weekend, when the river below the Town of Dolores becomes very popular with pedestrian paddlers out for a weekend of fun on the river.
The section between Slick Rock and Bedrock is one of the most popular section of the Dolores River. There are no major rapids, and the trip is a great Class II-III ride in fairly slow water. Putting in at Slick Rock offers trips of 14 or 50 miles. Putting in at Gypsum Valley Recreation Site offers a trip of 36 miles. This section is usually a one to three day trip, but it can be extended for those preferring a more leisurely pace and taking time to explore the riverbanks. It can be a two-day trip for those who want to paddle steadily. It is best to check with BLM or outfitters on the Lower Dolores for water flows before driving to the river. Be sure to wear layered water-repelling fabrics, wetsuits or drysuits to guard against hypothermia and take care to avoid the profuse poison ivy along the riverbanks.