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South Platte River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

North Fork Bailey Run
~ 10.5 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 North Fork of the South Platte River flows out of Dillon Reservoir in Summit County just south of IH 70, on the opposite side of the Colorado River from the Blue River. The Bailey Run on the North Fork is a very scenic Class IV+ to VI run of some 10.5 miles across Pike National Forest in northern Park and central Jefferson Counties. Runs begin at the FR 532 bridge near the Town of Bailey, and end at Pine Valley Open Space near the Town of Pine. The often changing gradient starts at 50 fpm, then goes to 58, 59, 138, 158, 145, 90, 72, 59 and finally 39 fpm from a starting elevation of about 7,710 feet msl, dropping 885 feet to 6,825 feet msl on an average gradient of about 84 fpm. As a major water source for Denver and the surrounding metro area the North Fork has a normal season of March through October.

This run is about an hour southwest of Denver, and offers paddlers an excellent opportunity for near-hairboat runs. It is for kayakers with strong advanced to expert level whitewater skills only. Most of this reach is remote and very pretty, though a few homes will be seen nearing the end of a trip close to Pine. Riverbanks are lined with rocky canyon walls and beautiful trees, while the riverbed is characterized by large granite boulders and drops of 4 to 6 feet (or more). Several of the drops have strong hydraulic currents at their bases, making escape difficult.


Northwest Park to central Jefferson Counties in central Colorado southwest of Denver. Colorado Springs and Pueblo are 2-3 hours to the southeast.

Distance from major cities

Denver 45 miles; Colorado Springs 125 miles; Pueblo 167 miles; Grand Junction 234 miles; Durango 340 miles; Salt Lake City 519 miles; Albuquerque 505 miles; Phoenix 963 miles; Oklahoma City 695 miles; Dallas 842 miles; Austin 1,013 miles; San Antonio 1,103 miles; Houston 1,209 miles; Little Rock 986 miles; Kansas City 651 miles; (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The North Fork of the South Platte River flows clean, clear and cold most of the time, but is not drinkable without purification. This section is rated Class IV to VI with huge granite boulder gardens and occasional tree debris. It usually flows from March through October, depending upon dam releases at Dillon Reservoir.

Best time to go

The North Fork of the South Platte River is prime from April through August or September, though it usually flows from March through October, depending upon the amount of water being released from Dillon Reservoir, which get its water from the Colorado and Blue Rivers, Colorado River tributaries above the confluence with the Blue River and winter snowpack in the drainage basin. Spring to summer rainfall may add additional flow. Check the gauge at Grant before going.

Hazards to navigation

Most of the Bailey run features very technical Class IV+ rapids, but there are two rated Class V and another rated Class VI at flows exceeding about 400 cfs (the run rates one-half class lower at flows under 400 cfs.) The big drops are not clearly recognizable from above, so paddlers should pay close attention to the river in front of them, and scout each of the big drops to decide whether to run or portage them. The first real hazard, even before the big drops, is a low-water bridge about 3 miles into the run. At higher flows it must be portaged on private property, so do it quickly and without any fanfare. Four Falls Rapid (Class V) begins about one half mile past homes in the Estabrook Community, and is difficult to see in advance, but can be scouted or portaged on river right. The first of four drops may have dead-fall debris in the landing zone, so look carefully before you plunge into a very dangerous situation. Many unlucky paddlers have been rescued from the keeper hole below the first drop. The other three drops in Four Falls are primarily technical rapids with potentials for log jams, the last drop of which is especially subject to pinning.

Super Max (Class VI) is the second, and most serious, of the three big drops. It is very difficult to detect on the approach, but seeing it in advance is absolutely critical. Super Max starts about a mile or so below Four Falls, and is characterized by a horizon line over which treetops may be visible. It begins as some very easy rapids, but the middle section starts to tighten as boulders on either side form an hourglass-shaped slot through which water flow increases, raising the difficulty factor by a notch or two. The left side boulder is severely undercut and should be considered very dangerous, especially at low water levels when boaters could be swept under the cut and pinned or severely sliced on sharp edges. After squeezing through the slot you will encounter two small waterfalls, each with a potentially sticky hole, especially at high flows. Avoid getting caught in these keeper hydraulics.

Deer Creek Rapid (Class V) comes about a mile below Super Max, just below the river left confluence of Deer Creek, which is almost completely concealed from view upon approach. The entrance to this rapid is protected by a house-sized boulder with a river left eddy that allows scouting or portaging from the left bank. An old railroad grading gives an excellent view of Deer Creek Rapid and the boulders you must dodge running it. There are no other significant rapids on this section of the North Fork.

River Access Points

FR 532 bridge near Bailey on river left at 0.0 miles; Pine Valley Open Space, off 126 Road near Pine, on river left at about 10.5 miles. There are no other access points for this section of the North Fork.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds located along the North Fork of the South Platte River. Duck Creek Campground is located just north of Grant, on the east side of an unknown county road off US Highway 285 between Grant and IH 70. Buffalo and Kelsey campgrounds are available on the west and east sides of SH 67, respectively, near the North Fork of the South Platte River confluence. Devils Head Campground is located just east of Decker. Duck Creek, Buffalo, Kelsey and Devils Head Campgrounds are all located with the boundries of Pike National Forest. Corral Creek Access, about 7.3 miles below US Highway 285/24 on river left, offers riverside primitive campsites. Happy Meadows Campground, on river right just below the US Highway 285/24 bridge, offers excellent campground facilites just outside the Town of Lake George. Elevenmile Canyon State Recreation Area, on river left above the dam, offers excellent campground facilities.

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

As with so many fine Colorado runs, this one is best left to expert level whitewater kayakers because of technical difficulty that includes Class V to VI drops, tight squeezes, dead-fallen timber in the rapids and the river channel, limited scouting and eddy opportunities and myriad other reasons why canoes and rafts should not paddle here. The surrounding scenery is just gorgeous, and typifies most Colorado runs in its astounding natural beauty. This one is not quite a hairboat run for those with adequate skills and experience, though regulars recommend having a knowledgeable paddlers with you if it is your first run on the Bailey section of the North Fork.

Technical Data
Class Rating IV+ to VI
Length 10.5 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in FR 532 bridge near Bailey
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Pine Valley Open Space
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 7,710-6,825 feet msl
Gradient 39-158 fpm (9 changes)
USGS Gauge Web: Pine
Season April through August (September ?)
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 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 ] [ Little Thompson River ] [ North Saint Vrain Creek ] [ South Saint Vrain Creek ]

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Last updated December 30, 2014

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