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South Platte River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir to Lake George
~ 12 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.

From Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir Dam to the Happy Meadows Campground below Lake George and US Highway 285/24 near the Town of Lake George the South Platte River flows as a Class II to IV whitewater stream immediately above the Cheesman Canyon run. Here, the rapids become a little more difficult and the riverbed may contain dead-fallen trees, as well as the usual granite boulders, that can be perilous to boaters and boats. This section of the river flows near the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument in far southeastern Park County close to Pike's Peak (elevation 14,110 feet msl) and Saddle Mountain (elevation 10,801 feet msl) just a few miles northwest of Colorado Springs. By water, Denver is about 65 miles to the north, though driving distance is closer to 120 miles.

This run is quite scenic, and offers a beautiful backdrop for this moderate whitewater run that, for some reason, is not as popular as other sections of the South Platte River and its tributaries. It is an excellent run for developing or honing advanced level whitewater paddling skills, and runs can be extended to include the Class V to VI Cheesman Canyon run for a total trip length of about 18 miles. However, the run from US Highway 285/24 to Corral Creek Access or Cheesman Reservoir is for expert whitewater kayakers ONLY, so forget about extending the run unless you have the skills and the boat to run extreme drops while dodging huge boulders and occasional log jams. Trips usually end with a short paddle across Lake George to the take-out at US Highway 285/24 just outside the Town of Lake George.


Park County in central Colorado, southwest of Denver between Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir dam and the Town of Lake George at US Highway 285.

Distance from major cities

Denver 120 miles; Colorado Springs 40 miles; Pueblo 82 miles; Grand Junction 260 miles; Durango 330 miles; Salt Lake City 545 miles; Albuquerque 542 miles; Phoenix 808 miles; Oklahoma City 745 miles; Dallas 757 miles; Austin 938 miles; San Antonio 1,018 miles; Houston 1,184 miles; Little Rock 1,061 miles; Kansas City 726 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 June through August, depending upon the amount of water being released from Elevenmile Canyon and Spinney Reservoirs, which get their water from winter snowpack in the drainage basin. Spring to summer rainfall may add additional flow.

Hazards to navigation

This section of the South Platte river has numerous rapids in the Class II to IV range, many of which require strong intermediate or advanced level skills to negotiate, especially at higher flows. Boulder gardens and occasional log jams make paddling here a run that requires vigilance to avoid serious mishaps. Cold water temperatures necessitate wearing water-repelling garments (no cotton) to avoid hypothermia, especially if you take an unplanned swim.

River Access Points

Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir Dam at 0.0 miles; Happy Meadows Campground on river right just below Lake George and the US Highway 285/24 bridge, at about 12.0 miles (most runs end here); Corral Creek Access below Cheesman Canyon at about 20.3 miles; SH 62 bridge across Cheesman Reservoir at about 32.0 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Elevenmile Canyon State Recreation Area, on river left above the dam, offers excellent campground facilities; Happy Meadows Campground, on river right at about 12.0 miles, offers excellent campground facilites just outside the Town of Lake George. Two campgrounds with excellent facilities are located on river left at the Corral Creek Access off FR 211 about 7.3 miles below Happy Meadows Campground. 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

The run from Elevenmile Canyon Dam to Lake George is a great run for those with experience to run Class II to IV whitewater. This section provides a great training run for developing or sharpening your advanced level whitewater paddling skills. It is a gorgeous area where you will want to have a camera, but make sure it is secured in a drybag or waterproof case to protect it when you are busy dodging boulders and dead-fallen trees. This section of the river can be run by paddlers in canoes with flotation, kayaks and rafts, though canoes and rafts should not attempt to run Cheesman Canyon immediately below the Happy Meadows Campground. This summertime run depends on dam released water from Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir, so be sure to check the gauge before going. Wear non-cotton clothing to protect against hypothermia in the event you go for an unexpected swim while trying to avoid those big rocks. The run ends with a short paddle across Lake George, then under the US Highway 285/24 bridge to Happy Meadow Campground.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to IV
Length 12 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir Dam
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out US Highway 285/24 bridge
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season June through August
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 ] [ Fairplay to Hartzell ] [ 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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