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Little Thompson River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Highway 36 Bridge to Bridge near CR 71
~ 6.4 Miles

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General Description

The South Platte River forms in the Pike National Forest of northern Park County, Colorado between Breckenridge and Alma near Hoosier Pass (elevation 11,541 feet msl), then flows southeast to Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument before turning to flow northeast through Cheesman Reservoir, into and through Denver to Greeley, where it then flows east by northeast to its confluence with the North Platte River at North Platte, Nebraska. It is a major Colorado waterway that is fed by numerous rivers and creeks including Clear Creek, Boulder Creek, Bear Creek, Big Thompson and Little Thompson Rivers, North and South Saint Vrain Creeks and others. The river is rated from Class I to V in various sections, and most tributary streams are rated Class IV to V+, or even VI.

The Little Thompson River (Little Tommy) is a splendid Class IV+ whitewater run that includes several major portages around hazardous drops, waterfalls and log jams. The river flows from its headwaters just south of its sister, Big Tommy, beginning in Roosevelt National Forest of far northern Boulder County, then flowing east by northeast into Larimer County between Longmont to the south and Loveland to the north before joining Big Tommy near its confluence with the South Platte River close to Greeley. Its difficulty is rated about the same as Big Tommy (Class IV to IV+), but its characteristics are radically different. Mandatory (or, at least, well-advised) portages on Little Tommy make it a kayaker run only. Canoes and rafts just would not do too well here!

About the only time Little Tommy is navigable is when the river is in flood stage, at times when it is also the most dangerous. The stream drops about 850 feet from a starting elevation around 6,550 feet msl on an ever-changing gradient of 185, 145, 175, 145, 175 and finally 60 fpm. Huge slabs of granite with sharp edges along the banks and granite boulders in the riverbed create numerous places to pin and/or wrap a boat while injuring a paddler. The difficulty of portages, and getting to eddies to do them, make this a kayaker run for those with at least advanced level whitewater river running skills. Being half mountain goat would not hurt, either! Lining boats is not practical, and carrying canoes could be unsafe along the narrow, winding, rocky portage trails.


Northern Boulder and southern Larimer Counties in northcentral Colorado, just a few miles west of Loveland and a few miles southwest of Fort Collins.

Distance from major cities

Denver 50 miles; Fort Collins 67 miles; Grand Junction 300 miles; Durango 470 miles; Salt Lake City miles; Albuquerque 512 miles; Phoenix 810 miles; Oklahoma City 700 miles; Dallas 860 miles; Austin 1,040 miles; San Antonio 1,023 miles; Houston 1,226 miles; Little Rock 1,016 miles; Kansas City 681 miles; (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality in Little Tommy is usually excellent, though it has a very short season. The water flows clean, clear and cool, but is not drinkable without purification. Optimum flows are 125 to 150 cfs with a difficulty rating of Class IV+ and some mandatory portages.

Best time to go

Typically, the only time Little Tommy flows as a navigable stream is during heavy rainfall periods in the spring. There are no gauges, so a visual inspection is the only way to really determine navigable conditions. After the river rises there will be a short window of a few days when paddlers can run this stream.

Hazards to navigation

Little Tommy is one hazard after another. Keep your eyes and ears open, and be alert for warning signs of impending dangers. Eddies are often hard to catch, so be prepared to exit the river and scout anytime you cannot see what lies directly ahead. Avoid getting swept through some of the narrow slot openings between granite boulders and over sizeable drops that can seriously injure or kill you. Beware of log jams caused by large, old-growth Ponderosa pine trees that frequently find their way into the stream. Be very careful portaging along the cliffs on narrow trails with a boat on your shoulder or overhead.

River Access Points

Highway 36 bridge between Lyons and Estes Park at 0.0 miles; Bridge near CR 71 at about 6.4 miles. There are no other access points for this section of the Little Thompson River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds located along this section of the Little Thompson River. Numerous excellent campgrounds are available in state and national parks, and in national forests surrounding the Loveland-Fort Collins area. Motel and hotel accommodations are available in Fort Collins, Loveland and Boulder, all relatively nearby.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on The Little Thompson River. Plan on providing your own boats, gear and shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

To begin, this is a creek-type run for advanced or expert kayakers only, not so much because of the difficulty of rapids you will encounter, but more because of the difficulty of necessary portages around unrunnable drops that can and will cause serious injury or death. This is not a run for canoes and kayaks. It is a gorgeous area of box canyons, large granite boulders, Ponderosa pine (both standing and in the river), high cliffs, a 15-foot waterfall and a 10-foot water slide. The biggest drawback is a very short, irregular season that requires heavy springtime rainfall to make the river navigable. You have heard of hairboating - this stream offers hairportaging! If you happen to be in the Loveland area when rains are falling heavily, and you have the boat and experience to run this one, then the Little Tommy just might surprise you with a very interesting, though demanding, short run of about 6.4 miles.

Technical Data
Class Rating IV+ w/ mandatory portages
Length 6.4 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow 125-150 cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Highway 36 bridge
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Bridge near CR 71
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 6,550-5,600 feet msl
Gradient 60-185 fpm (5 changes)
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Canoes w/ flotation, Kayaks
Season March through May
Permits No

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

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Click the links below for information regarding the section of the South Platte River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

South Platte River
[ South Platte River Homepage ] [ Fairplay to Hartzel ] [ Elevenmile Canyon Res. to Lake George ]
[ Lake George to Cheesman Reservoir ] [ Decker to Chatfield Res. S.R.A. ] [ North Fork Bailey Run ] [ North Fork Foxton Run ]

[ Clear Creek ] [ Upper Boulder Creek ] [ South Boulder Creek ]
[ Big Thompson River ] [ North Saint Vrain Creek ] [ South Saint Vrain Creek ]

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