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South Platte River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Fairplay to Hartzel
~ 20 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.

The uppermost practical run on the South Platte River begins off US Highway 285 near SH 9 at Fairplay, and continues about 20 miles to Hartzel. The river crosses under SH 9 twice along this very scenic run that flows between sections of the Pike National Forest, though forest boundries are a few miles away on either side. The remote area offers an exciting ride on Class I to III whitewater that is suitable for canoes, kayaks and rafts, though canoeists and kayakers should have at least intermediate level whitewater skills for safe boating. The run typically ends at Hartzel, though it is possible to continue downriver to and across Spinney Mountain Reservoir to the Spinney State Recreation Area above Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir.


Park County in central Colorado, southwest of Denver. Upper sections flow just north and parallel to the headwaters of the Arkansas River. Breckenridge is just a few miles to the north.

Distance from major cities

Denver 75 miles; Fort Collins 137 miles; Grand Junction 205 miles; Durango 292 miles; Salt Lake City 490 miles; Albuquerque 512 miles; Phoenix 746 miles; Oklahoma City 700 miles; Dallas 859 miles; Austin 1,050 miles; San Antonio 1,023 miles; Houston 1,109 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

The South Platte River flows clean, clear and cold most of the time, but is not drinkable without purification. This section is rated Class I to III, flowing from mid-April through the summer in normal snowpack years.

Best time to go

This section of the South Platte River is prime from May through July, though it may also be boatable as early as mid-April and as late as August, or possibly September, depending upon the amount of winter snowpack in the drainage basin and spring to summer rainfall.

Hazards to navigation

There are no significant hazards along this section of the river unless you encounter an angry landowner looking for a confrontation with a paddlers. Avoid trespassing and ignore baiting insults from landlubbers, though encounters will be the exception rather than the rule. Canoeists and kayakers should have at least intermediate level whitewater skills to handle the few Class III rapids that will be encountered. Water temperature, especially early in the season, will be cold, so dress for those conditions.

River Access Points

US Highway 285 bridge near SH 9 at Fairplay at 0.0 miles; SH 9 crossing at about 5.0 miles; SH 9 crossing at about 11.0 miles; US Highway 285 bridge at Hartzel at about 20.0 miles (the last practical takeout for this run); Spinney State Recreation Area below Spinney Mountain Reservoir, on river left, at about 35.0 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds located between Fairplay and Spinney State Recreation Area below Spinney Mountain Reservoir at about 35.0 miles. Fourmile and Weston Pass Campgrounds are located a few miles west of Fairplay in the Pike National Forest. There are no other campgrounds known to be operating near this section of the South Platte River.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

At least four known commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information on the South Platte River.

Reviewer's comments

This section of the South Platte River is an excellent training run for boaters looking to develop or hone whitewater paddling skills. It is scenic, but boaters need to be capable of a 20-mile paddle in a day (35 miles, if going to Spinney State Recreation Area to camp) because of a lack of campgrounds along the river. Private lands adjoin the river, so paddlers should avoid trespassing and not become involved in legal rights discussions with landowners whom they may encounter. The area is befitting use of a camera to capture photos of the gorgeous scenery where blue waters are lined with rocky banks and huge trees. This run is about 1.5 hours from Denver, and small towns in the near vicinity can provide gasoline, food and beverages.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to III
Length 20 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in US Highway 285 bridge near SH 9
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out US Highway 285 bridge
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May through July
Permits No

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Click HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

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 ] [ 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 ] [ Little Thompson River ] [ North Saint Vrain Creek ] [ South Saint Vrain Creek ]

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