The Fryingpan River begins near the Continental Divide as a tributary of the Roaring Fork River, joining it just above the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers at Glenwood Springs. It is a sister tributary to the Crystal River, which joins the Roaring Fork between its confluences with the Fryingpan and Colorado Rivers. The Fryingpan River flows east to west across Colorado north of Aspen in far southern Eagle County above and below Ruedi Reservoir in the White River National Forest. The upper section, above Ruedi Reservoir, is fed by snowmelt, while the lower section, below the reservoir, is a 14-mile run to Basalt fed by dam-released water from Ruedi. The upper section has a roller coaster gradient while the lower section has a more constant 80 fpm gradient, both with big water and big drops. Above Ruedi, the Upper Fryingpan River is rated Class IV+ to V- whitewater. Below Ruedi, the rating drops to Class III to IV-, both sections characterized by large boulder gardens and dead-fallen trees occasionally creating obstacles to be avoided.
The Upper Fryingpan River flows from its headwaters in the White River National Forest of far southern Eagle County to the top of Ruedi Reservoir about 17 miles east of Basalt and the confluence with the Roaring Fork River. While its banks are lined with beautiful, tall trees, the channel is adorned with very large boulders that create Class IV+ to V- rapids, holes and obstructions. Dead-fallen trees and avalanche debris frequently create strainers that must be avoided. The gradient of the Upper Fryingpan is like a roller coaster ride with at least six changes, going from 137 fpm to 149, 129, 85, 106 and finally 74 fpm over just 5.7 miles from Norrie Colony to Ruedi Reservoir.
FR 105 closely parallels the river, though it diverges around Ruedi Reservoir, from the headwaters area all the way to Basalt. With at least three campgrounds along the upper river and another north of the reservoir on the west end near the dam, the Upper Fryingpan is a great place to set up a base camp for several days of running rivers in the general area. Nearby streams include the Upper and Lower Fryingpan, Crystal, Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. Unfortunately, a lot of water is diverted from the river to nearby communities resulting in an abbreviated season of less than two months, and in sub-normal snowpack years the river may have insufficient flow to paddle at all. It is always a good idea to check the flow before driving a long distance to run the Upper Fryingpan, especially if it is your only destination.
The White River National Forest of far southern Eagle County, flowing east to west from south of Norrie Colony through Ruedi Reservoir to Basalt where it joins the Roaring Fork.
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 Upper Fryingpan River flows clean, clear and cold, but is not drinkable without purification. The run starts at an elevation of 8,420 feet and drops to 7,760 feet msl, so be sure to bring warm clothing for off the river because it will get very cold, occasionally freezing at night, even in mid-summer. 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 Upper Fryingpan River has a very short season usually relegated to a period of a few weeks in June and possibly July, depending upon winter snowpack, seasonal rainfall and diversions.
The biggest hazard on this section of the Fryingpan may be the floating tree trunks and debris washed down into the river channel by avalanches. About 2 miles (perhaps less) into the run from Norrie Colony is a collapsed small dam that is runnable on the left or right. Numerous good Class IV to IV+ rapids, some tight and technical, offer fun and excitement for paddlers with advanced or higher level whitewater skills in canoes outfitted for heavy whitewater, or kayaks. Rafts should not run the Upper Fryingpan because of its narrow channel and the need for quick maneuvering. While not particularly difficult, any of these drops can pose significant danger to boats and boaters if not negotiated properly. Some of the giant boulders will create holes at higher flows, and those holes will not always be readily visible. The somewhat steep, ever-changing gradient creates fast-moving water. Swimming in a fast current of cold water littered with boulders and trees is not a good idea, and every effort should be made to avoid that to prevent serious injury or death. Below the FR 105 crossing the river mellows a little and becomes somewhat less technical, but it still retains its fast water in a roller coaster gradient with many trees and tree debris to avoid, so remain vigilant all the way to the take-out.
Put in at Norrie Colony off FR 105 just south of the FR 501 split, about 5.7 miles above Ruedi Reservoir. Take out by the campground on river left where the river enters the reservoir.
Three campgrounds along the river and a fourth north of the dam at Ruedi Reservoir offer great base camp opportunities for paddling the Upper and Lower Fryingpan, Crystal, Roaring Fork or other nearby rivers and creeks. From top to bottom, these are: Chapman Gulch Campground off FR 105 southeast of Norrie Colony; off FR 501 about 2 miles east of the FR 105 split; off FR 105 on Miller Creek at the inlet to Ruedi Reservoir; and off FR 105 at Ruedi Creek just north of the dam at Ruedi Reservoir.
At least three commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information on the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Rivers.
The Upper Fryingpan River is a great trip for advanced or expert level whitewater paddlers in canoes or kayaks, but it is too tight and littered with obstacles to make a good rafting river. This is a place of immense natural beauty, and paddlers will want to have a camera and lots of film or digital media to capture it. The upside is four great campgrounds in near proximity, several great rivers that can be paddled in the vicinity of a base camp, natural beauty all around, low-volume traffic, and the not-too-difficult runs that can be enjoyed. The downside is the short season that may not exist at all in dry winter years and the absolute remoteness of the area. The high elevation demands that you be prepared for cool to warm days, cold to freezing nights, and potential afternoon thunderstorms during the short few weeks when the Upper Fryingpan can be paddled. The water is cold, so dress appropriately when paddling, and avoid swimming in a channel clogged with huge boulders and inhospitable trees.