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.
Gateway, Colorado to Dewey Bridge in Utah is the last section of the Dolores River, ending at its confluence with the Colorado River. One last canyon will be visited in this section. It starts shortly after departing the Gateway launch area. The canyon is a magnificent formation offering natural campsites and many places to explore by hiking in side canyons along the way. This 30 mile section is mostly slow-moving flatwater with some Class II to III rapids, and one called Chicken Raper (I ain't gonna touch that one!) that merits a solid Class IV to IV+ rating, depending upon flow conditions. Beaver Falls, shortly below Chicken Raper, is a riverwide boulder garden that is very bony in low water conditions and an E-ticket ride at normal to high flows.
The real joy on this run is the beautiful natural scenery everywhere you look. Below Chicken Raper the canyon narrows and its walls rise from the river to give paddlers a true sense of wilderness adventure. Signs of civilization are nowhere to be seen or heard. The only negative is its short season of about two months in normal years.
Runs start at an elevation of 4,550 feet msl and drop 450 feet in 32 miles at about 14 fpm. This section is runnable in canoes, kayaks and rafts, though canoeists and kayakers should have at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills to successfully negotiate the more technical rapids that will be encountered. Expect more traffic, including a lot of raft traffic, on this section. Runs into Utah require a cost-free permit from the Moab office of BLM (435-259-7012), but there is no group size limit. The BLM office can also provide information about river conditions, shuttles, etc.
Mesa County, Colorado and Grand County, Utah near Grand Junction in far western Colorado and far eastern Utah. The West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, Gunnison, Colorado and San Miguel Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 198 miles; Grand Junction 60 miles; Denver 306 miles; Moab 140 miles; Salt Lake City 345 miles; Albuquerque 410 miles; Phoenix 652 miles; Oklahoma City 931 miles; Dallas 1,090 miles; Austin 1,113 miles; San Antonio 1,021 miles; Houston 1,263 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The current runs slow during the late spring and early summer, but too low to navigate at other times during normal years. Water quality is generally very good to excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold, but not drinkable without boiling or purifying by other methods. Be sure to check the flow before you go. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool air temperature, layered water-repelling garments (non-cotton) 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 April into early June. This section of the Dolores River is seldom navigable from July through late April due to insufficient water.
This section of the Dolores River has some Class II-III rapids, and a couple with serious potential hazard threats. Chicken Raper Rapid (Class IV to IV+) is located about 8 miles below the put-in. The scout is on river right before the canyon narrows, and the run is to the right. About midway through the rapid the river bends to the right with a strong draw to the left wall - avoid this like the plague! An expert kayakers MAY be able to run the left side, but it is likely to be clogged with downed trees and completely impassable. Paddle hard to river right and take the right channel around the second island. Watch out for a log jam of dead fallen trees at the tip of this island, which acts as a natural collection area for debris washing downriver. Shortly after successfully negotiating Chicken Raper comes Beaver Falls (Class III to IV), a boulder garden across the river that extends for a short distance downriver. There is really no good spot from which to scout Beaver Falls. As golfers like to say, "Grip it and rip it!" Canoes and kayaks can easily pick a line and work their way through, but rafts will have a harder time making the turns. After Beaver Falls the river settles back down to a more leisurely flatwater stream with occasional smaller rapids.
Gateway Access at 0.0 miles; Cisco launch site at Rose Ranch on the Colorado River on river right at about 19.0 miles; Dewey Bridge access on river left at about 30.0 miles. There are no other access points on this section of the Dolores and Colorado Rivers.
There are no campgrounds along this section of the Dolores River. However, abundant natural campsites are available. Please observe the following use rules to insure that the river remains a pristine and wonderful place to paddle:
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 distance for this section is moderately long - about 1-2 hours one way on paved roads depending upon starting and ending points, so plan accordingly. 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.
This section of the Dolores River is a very popular run and will usually have a higher number of rafts than on some sections of the river. The spectacular canyons, desert topography and gorgeous natural surroundings make for a wilderness adventure trip that can be 1-3 days long depending upon paddling skills, flow and the amount of time you have to spend on the river. Exploring side canyons can add a day or more to trips here. Be prepared for some serious whitewater at two major rapids that rate Class IV status, and that means you need to dry everything in and lash it to your boat - just in case! If you don't get enough river by the time you reach Dewey Bridge, then just continue on downriver to Moab, or beyond, on the Colorado River.