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South Platte River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Lake George to Cheesman Reservoir
~ 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 section of the South Platte River from Happy Meadows Campground below Lake George to Cheesman Reservoir is a hairboat run for expert whitewater kayakers only. This reach is rated Class V with some Class VI drops, especially at high flows. The first 7.3 miles drops about 690 feet on an average gradient of about 91 fpm. It begins at a relatively flat 20 fpm, then changes to 40, 210, 240, 60, 50 and finally 40 fpm through the series of Cheesman Canyon Rapids. Canyon runs include 9- and 15-foot waterfalls, along with several testy Class V rapids.

This section of the river is one where you are likely to encounter some harassment from landowners in the area of the Sportsman's Paradise Club, where barbed wire fences and other obstacles have been placed in the river by inconsiderate people who erroneously believe that they own the river. Club property straddles both side of the river starting about 2 miles below the put-in and ends nearly 2 miles downriver, just above where the big drops start. You will likely encounter a barbed wire fence just above Vermillion Creek (river right), which marks the start of Club property. About midway through their property you will see Crystal Creek on river right, and just below the end of the private property you will see Beaver Creek entering on river right. It is best to remain in your boat and in the river whenever possible. Paddlers should avoid confrontations with landowners, as well as the illegal obstacles they have placed in the river. If a portage around those obstacles is required to avoid injury or death, then you are trespassing, so do it quickly and get on downriver. Paddlers should join American Whitewater and help put an end to the illegal placement of hazards in this, or any other, river.


Southeastern Park and northwestern Teller Counties in central Colorado, southwest of Denver between the Town of Lake George at US Highway 285/24 and Cheesman Reservoir. Colorado Springs and Pueblo are both very nearby.

Distance from major cities

Denver 110 miles; Colorado Springs 30 miles; Pueblo 72 miles; Grand Junction 270 miles; Durango 340 miles; Salt Lake City 555 miles; Albuquerque 552 miles; Phoenix 818 miles; Oklahoma City 735 miles; Dallas 747 miles; Austin 928 miles; San Antonio 1,008 miles; Houston 1,174 miles; Little Rock 1,051 miles; Kansas City 716 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 V to VI with huge granite boulder gardens, waterfalls and tree debris, flowing from June through August, depending upon dam releases at Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir.

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 Spinney and Elevenmile Canyon Reservoirs, which get their water from winter snowpack in the drainage basin. Spring to summer rainfall may add additional flow. Check gauges before going.

Hazards to navigation

This section of the South Platte river has numerous rapids and two waterfalls in the Class V to VI range, many of which require expert level whitewater 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. Sportsman's Paradise Club landowners can be a hazard if confronted, so bite your tongue and avoid engaging them in "discussions" about river access rights. The major drops are as follows:

Just below Beaver Creek is the first major drop, Club Dues (Class V), the entrance rapid where the fun begins, followed closely by Let's Make a Deal (Class V+), a 9-foot waterfall drop. Penis Buster Parfait (Class V+ to VI) is characterized by a steep gradient that makes hitting your line absolutely critical (a nearby hiking trail offers a portage for those wanting to avoid running this drop.) Below Penis Buster is Slap Your Mamma (Class VI), a 15-foot waterfall drop that should be run close to the boulder on river left. Tiger Den (Class V) is a boof that is followed closely by Burmese Punji Stick (Class V) with a 90° left turn over granite boulders and a punji stake at the bottom of the drop that MUST be avoided. Following a brief respite of boulder dodging in smaller rapids the pace again accelerates as the gradient drops at 240 fpm into Underprivileged (Class V), where a twisting riverbed demands a difficult effort to reach a river right eddy - miss the eddy and get taken into an undercut boulder with nasty ramifications. After surviving the drop at Underprivileged eddy out on river left where you can scout Dos Chaos (Class VI) and choose your line or elect to portage around it. Dos Chaos is a river-wide boulder garden of huge rocks with several horizon line slots throughout the difficult and technical drop. The hard stuff ends after Slide for Life (Class IV to V) that is a low-angle waterfall just above where the gradient starts to flatten to a more gentle 50 fpm. All major rapids come in a distance of about 2 miles amid steep gradients, fast moving water and obstacles to be avoided. This section requires a heads-up approach by expert whitewater kayakers who "...know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run..." The rest of the run is more mellow Class III rapids.

River Access Points

Happy Meadows Campground, on river right just below Lake George and the US Highway 285/24 bridge, at 0.0 miles; Corral Creek Access below Cheesman Canyon at about 7.3 miles (most runs end here); SH 62 bridge across Cheesman Reservoir at about 20.0 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Happy Meadows Campground, on river right at 0.0 miles, offers excellent campground facilites just outside the Town of Lake George. Corral Creek Access, at about 7.3 miles, offers primitive, riverside campsites. Elevenmile Canyon State Recreation Area, on river left above the dam, offers excellent campground facilities. 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 Chessman Canyon run is a perilous adventure for expert whitewater kayakers only. Before even getting to the big drops you are likely to encounter angry landowners who think you should not even be paddling past their land. After avoiding barbed wire fences, obstacles placed in the river and taunting landlubbers you will encounter a canyon with gradient drops as high as 240 and 260 fpm, where waterfalls of 9- and 15-feet will be encountered. This is a summer run when water is being released from Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir that is dangerous in just about every way possible, especially if you have a natural confrontational attitude. The scenery is spectacular, but don't spend too much time taking it in when you should be dodging hazards that can injure or kill you. If you are a canoeist or rafter, then go somewhere else to paddle, because this run is NOT for you or me!

Technical Data
Class Rating V to VI
Length 20 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Happy Meadows Campground
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out SH 62 bridge across Cheesman Reservoir
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 7,830-6648 feet msl
Gradient 20-240 fpm (6 changes)
USGS Gauge Web: above Cheesman Reservoir
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 ] [ Elevenmile Reservoir to Lake George ]
[ 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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