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South Fork of the White River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

South Fork Trailhead to South Fork Campground
~ 13.2 Miles


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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The White River forms in Garfield County at the confluence of the North and South Forks, in the Williams Fork Mountains of the White River National Forest, then flows westward across Moffat County and into Utah to its confluence with the Green River south of Ouray. The prime whitewater run is on the Upper South Fork where there are about 13.2 miles of Class V+ drops and an ever-changing gradient from as low as 42 feet per mile (fpm) to a steep 365 fpm. Gradient changes occur an average of once every mile! This is a run for serious, expert level whitewater kayakers only. Getting to the put-in is almost as hairy as the run down the river, but they say that getting there is half the fun, so this is one great trip for those with the skills and experience to survive it.

This gorgeous run begins in the Flat Top Wilderness Area at a nose bleed altitude of 8,984 feet msl and drops to 7,580 feet msl, still about a mile and one half above sea level. The entire run is within the boundries of the White River National Forest. You will find a river channel that is clogged with huge boulders, and occasionally by dead-fallen trees, with little room to scout the drops before running them. The Upper South Fork is a place for great instincts, quick decision-making and excellent paddling technique.

The run begins with a couple of miles on Class III "tame" whitewater, then does a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde impersonation as it begins to reveal its true colors. The riverbed features a narrow channel with tight turns around boulders that make rafting impossible. It is situated near the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan, Crystal and Colorado Rivers, so there are options in the event the river is either too high, too low or too clogged for safe and fun rides. The window for runs on the Upper South Fork is a short 1-2 summer months, and paddlers almost need to be there at the time snowfall melts off the roads and mountains. It would be a great place for photography if there were only places to stop and you had a camera able to withstand the bumps and soakings it would get. But, if you are a serious kayaker with expert-level skills and cajones made of stainless steel, then the Upper South Fork of the White River might be just what the doctor ordered.


Garfield and Rio Blanco Counties of west central Colorado, about 3-4 hours from Denver or 2-3 hours from Grand Junction, depending upon road conditions. The entire South Fork run is within the White River National Forest boundries.

Distance from major cities

Durango 290 miles; Grand Junction 120 miles; Denver 175 miles; Albuquerque 500 miles; Salt Lake City 405 miles; Phoenix 700 miles; Oklahoma City 800 miles; Dallas 960 miles; San Antonio 1,123 miles; Houston 1,210 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 Fork of the White River flows clean, clear and very cold. Its water quality is excellent, though very short-lived. Due to its high elevation you can expect a late snowmelt, making runs only possible during the summer, and then only for a few weeks.

Best time to go

The prime season for the South Fork of the White River is June, and sometimes part of July. Its season may be extended by above normal winter snowpack and/or summer rainfall. It can also be shortened or terminated entirely by drier than normal conditions in its watershed. A great fallback is any of several other classic whitewater streams in the close vicinity.

Hazards to navigation

The South Fork of the White River is one continuous rampage of whitewater from put-in to take-out. The first couple of miles have more gentle Class III conditions, quickly escalating to class V and V+ most of the way to the end of the run at South Fork Campground. A brief respite comes after the confluence with Patterson Creek, where the river tames to Class II to III range before returning to its bony, challenging self. There are steep-drop waterfalls, some ending in very shallow pools, and dead-fallen log jams along much of the run. Eternal vigilance is the requirement for running this section of the White River. This is a dangerous stream that should not be attempted by anybody who is not swiftwater rescue trained and expert-level whitewater kayak experienced.

River Access Points

The only put-in point for the South Fork run is at the South Fork Trailhead off Deep Creek - Coffee Pot Road north of IH 70 (take the Exit 133 at Dotsero, then turn north, follow that road for a couple of miles to the left turn onto Deep Creek - Coffee Pot Road and drive about 30+ miles to Budge's Resort) at 0.0 miles. The only take-out (unless you continue paddling to the confluence with the main stream of the White River) is at South Fork Campground on 10 Road south of Buford. NOTE: Snowdrifts frequently block access to the put-in, so call the NFS office at Eagle (970-328-6388) to determine the state and condition of the access roads.

Campgrounds and accommodations

South Fork Campground at 13.2 miles offers the only camping facilities on the Upper South Fork of the White River. Camping along the river is not an option.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on or near the South Fork of the White River. Plan on providing your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The South Fork may not be the hairiest run in Colorado, but it sure comes close! This is definitely a run for expert whitewater kayakers ONLY! For anybody else it would be a suicide run that would provide campfire stories about your "bravery" for many years to come. The scenery is just awesome, and it might be worth going just to take some photos from terra firma. For those running the Upper South Fork the trip begins with an arduous shuttle that is almost as testy as the run itself. Travel light, pack tight and don't let the black bears bite!

Technical Data
Class Rating II to V+ w/ mandatory portages
Length 13.2 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in South Fork Trailhead
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out South Fork Campground
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 8,984-7,580 feet msl
Gradient 41-365 fpm (12 changes)
USGS Gauge Web:
Season June (July ?)
Permits No

Map of the Yampa River public access points courtesy Colorado State Parks Department
Map of the Yampa River public access points courtesy
Colorado State Parks Department

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