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North St. Vrain Creek, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

North St. Vrain Creek
80 Road Access to Black Bear Inn (Lyons)
~ 8.6 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

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.

Located just south of the Little Thompson River in northwestern Boulder County is the North Saint Vrain Creek, an often wild and exciting whitewater ride for canoes with flotation and kayaks (it is too tight for rafting) paddled by boaters with at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills. NSV, as locals call it, begins as a number of fork creeks draining the area west of Lyons, between Loveland to the north and Longmont to the south. The uppermost boatable section is above Button Rock Reservoir, but for reasons that are only logical to local law enforcement the reach between the top of Button Rock Reservoir and the bottom of Longmont Reservoir is off-limits to boaters except on Saturdays. Therefore, the 9.5 mile, Class V+ to VI- section that runs above Longmont Reservoir will not be described herein, opting instead to focus on the 8.6 miles of Class III- to V- water that runs between the bottom of Longmont Reservoir and the Town of Lyons.

Begining at the access gate off 80 Road from SH 36, the NSV flows through a couple miles of Class IV to V- whitewater on a gradient of 100 and 120 fpm from a starting elevation of 5,940 feet msl. The middle 2.4 miles of Class III water drops at about 88 fpm from 5,720 to 5,510 feet msl. The final 4.2 miles is Class III- water dropping at about 50 fpm down to 5,300 feet msl. The run is absolutely breathtaking for its gorgeous scenery depicted by a granite canyon, rolling hills, forests, big granite boulders in the creekbed and cold, clean, clear water that usually flows from late spring through summer, depending upon dam-released water from the two reservoirs upstream. Boulder, Colorado is only about 15 miles to the south, so just about every convenience can be found very nearby.


Northwestern Boulder County, just north of Boulder near Rocky Mountain National Park, Boulder Creek, Big Thompson and Little Thompson Rivers and the Roosevelt National Forest.

Distance from major cities

Denver 40 miles; Fort Collins 50 miles; Grand Junction 286 miles; Durango 380 miles; Salt Lake City 574 miles; Albuquerque 477 miles; Phoenix 853 miles; Oklahoma City 665 miles; Dallas 824 miles; Austin 1,005 miles; San Antonio 988 miles; Houston 1,074 miles; Little Rock 981 miles; Kansas City 646 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 is usually excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold except for occasional dead-fall debris, but is not drinkable without purification. Flows usually occur when water is being released from Button Rock and/or Longmont Reservoirs in late spring through summer.

Best time to go

The prime season for North Saint Vrain Creek is May through August, depending upon dam-released water. The creek is extremely dangerous at or near flood stage, and may be too low to boat if releases are not occurring.

Hazards to navigation

Even on the lower 8.6 miles there are plenty of hazards, though most can be negotiated safely by competent boaters with strong intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. The first 2 miles of this run are best left to kayakers with at least strong advanced level whitewater skills. This run begins with a section of Class IV boulder garden rapids and a couple of Class V- drops sandwiched between Class III water. The big drops occur where the canyon walls narrow and huge granite boulders adorn the creekbed. The drops are more technical than big, but are usually runnable by those of competent skill levels. Pinning and wrapping are definite possibilities.

The middle 2.4 miles of Class III water is characterized by boulder gardens with small standing waves, holes, pillows and numerous places to eddy out for scouting ahead or resting briefly. Some of the channels have tight, twisting chutes that test maneuvering skills of paddlers. A small diversion dam can be portaged on river left near SH 36, or run straight on, but beware of the rockpile directly below the drop. This middle section includes several low-water bridges that can be death traps in high water conditions, where finding an escape route may not always be possible.

The lower 4.2 miles is primarily a run-of-the-mill series of Class III rapids of the rock garden variety that generally pose no significant dangers at normal flows for boaters with at least intermediate level whitewater canoe or kayak skills. However, holes and boulders in the creek can result in pinning and/or wrapping, as well as swimming in the cold water. Vigilance is the name of the game on NSV.

River Access Points

80 Road access gate off SH 36 northeast of Lyons at 0.0 miles; 80 Road Bridge on river right at about 2.0 miles; Apple Valley Road bridge off SH 36 at about 4.4 miles; Lyons footbridge across from Black Bear Inn on river left at about 8.6 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds located along North Saint Vrain Creek. Several excellent campgrounds are available nearby in state and national forests, and in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hotel and motel rooms are available nearby in Boulder, Longmont and Loveland.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on North Saint Vrain Creek. Plan on providing your own boats, gear and shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

It is always a shame when local authorities use their influence, however well intended, to block access to great waterway runs, but in the case of the Upper North Saint Vrain Creek at least it only negatively impacts hairboaters, and they are a small percentage of all boaters. Still, protecting their rights to access is protecting those same rights for all who paddle. The legally boatable part of NSV still offers excitement and challenge, albeit not quite up to snuff for the upper reach. Very close proximity to Boulder, Longmont and Loveland, as well as Fort Collins just a few more miles to the north, make paddling NSV an excellent destination in late spring through summer, when water is being released from the two reservoirs that sustain flows in the creek above Lyons. Gorgeous scenery and a remote atmosphere combine to make paddling NSV an adventure to be remembered by whitewater canoeists and kayakers who want to experience near-steep creek boating on slightly less hairy runs.

Technical Data
Class Rating III- to V-
Length 8.6 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in 80 Road access gate off SH 36
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Lyons footbridge
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 5,940-5,300 feet msl
Gradient 50-120 fpm (3 changes)
USGS Gauge Web: Vrain Creek below Longmont
Boats Canoes w/ flotation, Kayaks
Season May (?) through August (?) dam releases
Permits No

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