The Roaring Fork River begins in Pitkin County high in the San Isabel National Forest and flows to the northwest through Aspen, Snowmass and Glenwood Springs to its confluence with the Colorado River. The Fryingpan River Flows into the Roaring Fork just below Snowmass, and the Crystal River joins the Roaring Fork at Carbondale. Its headwaters are between Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest peak at 14,443 feet msl and Independence Pass at 12,095 feet msl. SH 82 parallels the river in very close proximity along most of its run.
The Upper Roaring Fork River is a place for deranged hairboat kayers ONLY! To begin this run mandates scaling a talus slope using ropes to lower boats and paddlers down to the put-in below Weller Lake. The run starts at an elevation of 9,040 feet msl (that's nearly to heaven!) This section is rated at Class III to VI, depending upon flows, but the Class III's will be the exception rather than the rule. Some of the Class V+ rapids will escalate to Class VI status at high flows. It is dangerous to the Nth degree, and equally as scenic. There are many places where expert whitewater kayakers have pinned themselves in the past, and where they will do so again. The potential for serious injury or death is greater than for most Colorado streams. This section of the Roaring Fork has a very short season of two or three weeks in June, so it's never going to be a mainstream run.
The river drops about 900 feet in just 3.2 miles at an average gradient of 281 fpm beginning at 360 fpm, then changing to 130, 380, and finally 150 fpm. The surrounding area is one of the most exclusive in and around Aspen, as evidenced by the homes you will pass along the way, though there will not be a lot of time for sightseeing. The channel is a boulder-strewn river with numerous steep drops that probably will have dead-fallen trees in the landing zones below. Close attention should be given to all parts of this run. The water is cold and wild, and the ride is wet, so drysuits with a base layer are recommended to prevent hypothermia.
Central Pitkin County, southeast of Aspen. Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk Ski Areas are in the general vicinity. Glenwood Springs is about 40 miles to the northwest.
Durango 300 miles; Grand Junction 130 miles; Denver 200 miles; Salt Lake City 415 miles; Albuquerque 560 miles; Phoenix 713 miles; Oklahoma City 825 miles; Dallas 984 miles; Austin 1,175 miles; San Antonio 1,148 miles; Houston 1,234 miles; Little Rock 1,141 miles; Kansas City 806 miles (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The Roaring Fork River flows clean, clear and cold, but is not drinkable without purification. Dead-fallen trees usually clog the drops. The cold water and high elevation make it necessary to wear drysuits or wetsuits with base layers, or water-repelling garments that are layered to prevent hypothermia. Neoprene glove and hard-soled river boots are also strongly recommended.
The prime season for the Upper Roaring Fork run is June, though it may be runnable in May and/or July, depending upon winter snowpack and spring rainfall.
The first hazard on this run is getting to the put-in - you must use ropes to scale a talus slope down to the river from the Weller Lake trailhead. The run begins with a Class IV drop that is frequently littered with tree debris. After the first drop comes an almost continuous run through Class IV+ and V rapids created by huge boulders and log jams that can pin a boater in a heartbeat. The river then settles into a rocky run of Class III and IV drops, with a couple of river-wide log jams that must be portaged. Passing homes in the Taggert Lake area indicates the approach to Difficult Canyon with its tight entry, the beginning of serious whitewater drops. After the first drop at Difficult Canyon the river becomes a series of short, steep drops into landing zones that are frequently clogged by dead-fall deposited in the river by avalanches and floods. Charlie's Choice (Class V) is the next major rapid, followed by a section of rapids characterized by shoals littered with huge boulders and increasingly steeper drops that require quick and effective decision-making skills. The last big drop is Black Dog (Class V) with boulders that wrap boats and bodies if run improperly. The run ends with a series of Class III to IV drops that will seem like a piece of cake compared to the rest of the run.
Talus slope access (by rope) at the Weller Lake trailhead at 0.0 miles; Difficult Campground hikers' bridge about 4 miles east of Aspen at 3.2 miles. There are no other accesses on this section of the Roaring Fork River.
Difficult Campground, at the take-out for this section, offers campsites. There are numerous other campgrounds available near the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal Rivers, as well as adjacent areas nearby.
At least three commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information on the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Rivers.
This run is not for everybody. In fact, if you are not an expert whitewater kayaker, then don't even considering running this one at ANY level. The scenery is absolutely awesome - some of the very best Colorado has to offer, and along this run are located many houses of the rich and famous who call Aspen "home". The run is a rock and tree filled stream that requires imagination, quick reflexes and decisive maneuvers to avoid pins on huge boulders or log jams. The drops are mostly very steep and the water is very cold. The air is thin at this high elevation starting above 9,000 feet msl, and appropriate apparel should be worn to protect against hypothermia. The season is usually limited to a few short weeks in June, but if you are up to snuff for hairboat runs, then this is one you will want to make.