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.
Clear Creek forms near Idaho Springs in Gilpin County just west of Denver, then flows eastward through Golden to its confluence with the South Platte River just north of IH 76 in Denver. For all practical purposes this is a metro run, though most of the popular section is west of Golden in an area where mining operations have scarred the face of adjoining lands. The area is still quite scenic, offering sloping rock wall river banks with beautiful trees. Boulder piles along the banks and in the creekbed slid to the stream as a result of blasting above. This Class IV- to V+ run has turbulent water that usually flows from late spring through summer.
The upper 5.7 miles is rated Class IV- at flows below about 600 cfs, escalating to Class IV above that level. The middle 5.5 miles, frequently referred to as "Black Rock", is rated Class V- at flows of about 400-900 cfs, and solid Class V to V+ above 900 cfs. The lower 3.6 miles is rated Class IV (with a portage around a diversion dam after about 3 miles) at flows of 400-900 cfs, and Class IV+, with the same portage, when flows are above 900 cfs. All levels are referenced to the Clear Creek gauge near Golden. The gradient averages about 92 fpm, but is not constant. The upper reach drops at about 90 fpm. The Black Rock reach changes from 68 fpm to 130, 134, 138, 85 and finally 130 fpm. The lower reach drops at about 85 fpm. The current is usually swift and the water is cold. Strong advanced to expert level whitewater skills are recommended for kayaks and rafts (Clear Creek is not well-suited for canoes.)
Southeastern Clear Creek and westcentral Jefferson Counties in central Colorado a few miles west of Denver. Boulder and Fort Collins are a short distance to the northeast. Colorado Springs and Pueblo are 2-3 hours to the southeast.
Denver 18 miles; Colorado Springs 88 miles; Pueblo 130 miles; Grand Junction 228 miles; Durango 330 miles; Salt Lake City 513 miles; Albuquerque 542 miles; Phoenix 784 miles; Oklahoma City 645 miles; Dallas 800 miles; Austin 995 miles; San Antonio 968 miles; Houston 1,055 miles; Little Rock 960 miles; Kansas City 625 miles; (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Clear Creek usually flows clean, clear and cold most of the time, but is not drinkable without purification. This section is rated Class IV to V with huge granite boulder gardens and occasional tree debris. It usually flows from May through August, depending upon snowmelt from the drainage basin northwest of Denver.
Clear Creek is usually prime from June through July, though it may flow in May and August, as well, depending upon the amount of winter snowpack in the Denver area. Spring to summer rainfall may add additional flow. Check the gauge at Golden before going.
Most of this Clear Creek run should be considered hazardous, though not quite up to extreme hairboating danger levels. About 1.4 miles into the run starting at Kermit Gravel Pit is Double Knife Rapid (Class IV to IV+), a two-drop rock garden of boulder- and hole-dodging with serious consequences for missing your line. About 0.4 miles after that comes Terminator Hole (Class IV+), extending nearly the full width of the creek. Pick your best line, then go for it with all you've got! Entering the Black Rock section there are three major drops worthy of discussion. Black Rock Rapid (Class V to V+) is about 6.5 miles below the Kermit Gravel Pit access where this run begins. It is distinguished by a huge, black boulder with an undercut river left rocky bank requiring very technical paddling to avoid. About 1.5 miles below Black Rock Rapid is The Narrows (Class V- to V), where the creek is constricted through a hard right turn with a cliff along the river left bank, after which you should see a horizon line leading to a very sticky hole that locals call "Mr. Bill", followed quickly by a very large wave/hole combination that requires adequate downriver speed and control to break through.
Rigor Mortis Rapid (Class V to V+) comes about 9.3 miles below the start of this run, and is the final drop of the Black Rock section. Here, the creek takes a nasty drop through a narrow grotto with strong hydraulic currents and numerous boiling holes at the end. Possibly hidden from view (depending upon water level) is an undercut rock on the wall along river left. Avoid hitting the left bank wall! Elbow Falls (Class IV to IV+) is the first drop below the Black Rock section, and frequently causes boaters some grief. It ends with a sizable hole very close to the wall on river right, either or both of which can bang up boaters and boats. Screaming 1/4 Mile Rapid (Class IV) is a boulder garden of sizable length that is not too hazardous if run properly. Choose your line, then hit it! About 12.8 miles into the run is a diversion dam that most paddlers choose to portage. Running this small dam often results in pinning a boat or capsizing in a fast current amid granite boulders (can you say "smash-mouth boating?") However, it is sometimes runnable at high flows. Watch for boiling holes below the drop. There are no other significant drops on this section of Clear Creek. A diversion channel about 0.7 miles below the dam is not a hazard, but taking the left channel is a road to nowhere. Paddle to the right channel, then proceed to the take-out there, or on downstream to Golden.
Kermit Gravel Pit off IH 70 about 15 miles west of Golden on river right at 0.0 miles; IH 70 / SH 119 interchange (when traffic is light) on river right at about 2.8 miles; Pull-off take-out from IH 70 on river left at about 3.1 miles; Green Bay Rock access on river right at about 5.5 miles; Rigor Mortis access on river right at about 9.3 miles; Tunnel # 1 access off IH 70 on river left at about 13.0 miles; Whitewater Park access in Golden off SH 6 on river right at about 14.3 miles.
There are no campgrounds located along or very near Clear Creek. Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and several other state and federal campgrounds, are located in the general vicinity of the Denver area. Ample motel rooms are available in the Denver metro area.
At least four known commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information on Clear Creek.
Clear Creek is a beautiful whitewater paddle trip for kayaks and rafts, though the waters are probably too big for canoes most of the time. Paddlers should have very strong advanced to expert level whitewater skills to enjoy runs on this stream, and expert skills are recommended for running the middle section called Black Rock. Clear Creek has a summer season when snows melt in the higher elevations northwest of Denver, providing a metro run that is very close to everything a paddler needs for comfort and safety. Though campgrounds are scarce in the immediate vicinity, some are available not too far from Denver, and plenty of motel and hotel rooms are usually available, along with numerous great restaurants and watering holes.