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Arkansas River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Pinnacle Rock to Canon City
including the Royal Gorge
~ 19.2 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Arkansas River forms in the Pike National Forest of Chaffee County in central Colorado, then flows south through Buena Vista and Salida before turning east by southeast at Coaldale. From there, it flows through Canon City and Pueblo to John Martin Reservoir, then into and across Kansas through Wichita, down into Oklahoma through Tulsa and Muskogee, where it again turns eastward into Arkansas at Fort Smith, flowing through Russellville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff before reaching its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi River on the Arkansas-Mississippi border. The Ark is a VERY long river with a large number of dams creating reservoirs in each state through which it passes. This description covers Rincon Recreation Site to Pinnacle Rock Recreation Site with accesses in between for shorter runs.

The Arkansas River continues its Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde impression on the 19.2 mile run of Class I to IV+, perhaps V, whitewater flowing between Pinnacle Rock and Canon City. The first ~ 8.7 miles to the Parkdale Recreation Site flows as a Class III stream below about 2,700 cfs, and a Class IV stream above that level through a canyon all the way to Parkdale where it opens briefly with a huge sand mining operation on river left. The river drops 285 feet on a gradient of about 32.8 fpm down to Parkdale. The water is fast and cold. The Royal Gorge, which is tighter, more technical and bigger is just ahead. If you have any problems between Pinnacle Rock and Parkdale, then take out at the Parkdale Recreation Site Access. Otherwise, a thrill ride through a deep gorge canyon awaits. The Royal Gorge is situated between Parkdale and Canon City, and it's up next!

The Royal Gorge section drops about 412 feet on a gradient of about 39.2 fpm over about 10.5 miles as a Class III run below 2,700 cfs and a Class IV+ run above that level. In places, like The Narrows, the river is tight with banks just a few yards apart and occasionally obstructions that are best avoided with fast current and little room to maneuver. The Gorge has at least ten named major rapids that must be successfully negotiated. This run can be made in canoes paddled by strong advanced or expert level paddlers, in kayaks by strong intermediate or higher skill level paddlers and rafts by just about anybody as long as somebody in the boat knows how to successfully run a major whitewater river on a reach wehre outside assistance is very hard to attain within any reasonable amount of time (in other words, don't get hurt!)

The canyon walls rise 1,000 or more feet above the river, and if you strain you may be able to see people above waving at you from the bridge lookout, and they may be able to see you wave back, but probably not. Besides, at the bridge you just went through The Narrows and you are about to enter Wall Slammer, the seventh of the ten majors on this run. About the last three and one half miles allow you to get back in the boat, dry off a little and look cool as you enter Canon City, where you have three options for a take-out (depending upon your shuttle arrangements, of course.) Entering Canyon City there are a couple of hazards to avoid. The first is a low head dam with a boat bypass channel on river left, and the second is a pile of twisted steel that you can avoid on river right. This run is actually harder than it looks or sounds, amd flips can result in long, cold swims among boulders, so take this run seriously if running it in a small boat like a canoe or kayak.

Additional information about this and other reaches of the Arkansas River within the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area can be found on the AHRA website HERE. This link will include safety information, helpful tips and suggestions and notices of things to avoid, like major holidays when crowds can be huge.


Fremont County, Colorado, bordered on the west by the San Isabel National Forest and on the east by the Pike National Forest in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. Denver and Colorado Springs are each northeast of this reach. Grand Junction is northwest of here. Pueblo is east southeast of here.

Distance from major cities

Durango 230 miles; Grand Junction 220 miles; Denver 141 miles; Pueblo 66 miles; Santa Fe 347 miles; Albuquerque 400 miles; Phoenix 863 miles; Oklahoma City 645 miles; Dallas 752 miles; Austin 890 miles; San Antonio 915 miles; Houston 985 miles; Little Rock 981 miles; Kansas City 660 miles; St. Louis 906 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point and destination point on the river.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snowmelt cold. This section is rated Class III to IV+, depending upon flow. Below about 2,700 cfs it will be rated Class III to IV, but above 2,700 cfs the Royal Gorge section will rise to Class III to IV+ with Class V consequences. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.

Best time to go

This section is heavily dependent upon winter snowpack and seasonal rains, but when it flows its season is May through August for Pinnacle Rock to Parkdale, and nearly year-round in the Royal Gorge. The window may be longer or shorter depending upon winter snowpack and seasonal rainfall in the drainage basin.

Hazards to navigation

This whole reach can be a hazard to navigation. AHRA recommends that Royal Gorge not be run at flows over 3,200 cfs at the Parkdale gauge as read at 7:00 am for full-day or morning trips, and at 12:00 noon for afternoon trips. From Pinnacle Rock to Parkdale the river is littered with Class III rapids that are fairly straight forward except for Three Rocks Rapid, a solid Class III about two miles below Pinnacle Rock with potential to cause pins, flips and swims. These upper reach rapids are full of holes and standing waves that can be a problem if not run properly. The lower reach through Royal Gorge, with ten named major rapids and a slew of smaller ones starting about 2.5 miles below Parkdale, is more extreme partially becasue of the tightness and depth of the gorge making outside help difficult to obtain. Most of the excitement comes in a span of about 5 miles starting less than a mile after passing under the US Highway 50 Bridge. In sequence, you will encounter El Primero, El Segundo, Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, Squeeze Box, The Narrows, Wall Slammer, Boat Eater, Soda Fountain and Pipeline. The are all Class III to IV or IV+, depending upon water level.

NOTE: mileage points for rapids are approximations on known waypoints, and are given for reference purposes only. If in doubt, then check a recent river map or talk with a local outfitter about the precise location and condition of rapids.

River Access Points

AHRA Pinnacle Rock Recreation Site (N 38 26' 51.37" / W 105 31' 23.06") off US Highway 50 at a landing on river right at 0.00 miles; US Highway 50 Roadside Access (N 38 27' 20.20" / W 105 30' 01.64") at the large beach on river right at about 1.60 miles; AHRA Five Points Campground (N 38 27' 14.53" / W 105 29' 40.41") just off US Highway 50 on river right at about 2.00 miles; AHRA Spikebuck Recreation Site (N 38 27' 31.46" / W 105 27' 51.74") off US Highway 50 at the boat ramp on river right at about 3.70 miles; CR 157 @ US Highway 50 Access (N 38 29' 07.96" / W 105 23' 49.54") on river left just after the bridge at about 8.30 miles; AHRA Parkdale Recreation Site (N 38 29' 12.56" / W 105 23' 22.74") just off US Highway 50 at the large landing on river right at about 8.70 miles (last possible public access before entering Royal Gorge Canyon!); Canon City Boat Ramp (N 38 25' 58.01" / W 105 15' 53.72") off Riverside Drive at boat ramp on river right at about 17.80 miles; Centennial Park Access (N 38 26' 10.32" / W 105 14' 36.40") at the ramp on river right immediately after the drop at about 19.00 miles; AHRA River Station (N 38 265' 12.45" / W 105 14' 25.96") on river left after the bridge at about 19.20 miles. Additional primitive accesses may be available along the river. (NOTE: AHRA is Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area, NOT American Hot Rod Association, just in the event you were wondering.)

AHRA charges a fee for access at its sites. Current fee schedules can be found HERE.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Rincon Recreation Site (N 38 28' 21.05" / W 105 51' 55.86") on river right at ramp off US Highway 50 is an AHRA fee site at 0.0 miles; Vallie Bridge Campground (N 38 23' 29.50" / W 105 46' 27.91") on river left before the bridge is an AHRA fee site at about 8.9 miles. Other campgrounds are available in reaches above and below this one, including (going back upriver toward the Rincon Access) Point Barr Campground (N 38 28' 17.73" / W 105 52' 20.38") on river left along CR 45 is an AHRA fee site; Salida East Access (N 38 30' 34.75" / W 105 57' 48.87") on river right at ramp just off US Highway 50 is an AHRA fee site; Hecla Junction Recreation Site (N 38 39' 06.69" / W 106 03' 03.87") on river right off CR 194 east from US Highway 285 at river mile 9.60 is an AHRA fee site; Ruby Mountain Campground (N 38 47' 09.99" / W 106 04' 15.04") is an AHRA fee site on river left at river mile 1.75 below Fisherman's Bridge; and moving downriver at Five Points Canmpground (N 38 27' 14.53" / W 105 29' 40.41"), another AHRA recreation site on river right just off US Highway 50.

There are also several commercial RV parks/campgrounds located along the Arkansas River in, above and below this reach which are accessible by road and river.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are several liveries or shuttle services serving this reach of the Arkansas River. Ask local paddlers or check the AHRA website for details.

Reviewer's comments

This reach of the Arkansas River is one any whitewater junkie should love. With amazing canyons, rapids ranging from gentle to wild, fast moving water that is cold enough to chill your drinks, and it ends after a run through the world famous Royal Gorge where the landlubbers can envy you from 1,000 feet above as you pass under the bridge. The first nearly nine miles is a rather "gentle" Class III run at flows below 2,700 cfs, but it starts getting gnarly at higher flows. The scenery is amazing and you paddle past millions of years old rock formations of the Colorado Rockies. This is a very popular run served by numerous commercial outfitters, so do not expect solitude on the river, but you can feel safer knowing there are probably going to be others nearby to assist if you decide to swim where you shouldn't. And, if you are not up for the slightly harder Royal Gorge section, then you can still enjuoy a fantastic run of about 8.7 miles on great rapids that will probably end before you are ready.

One great feature of this run is the ability to split it into any of three runs: Pinnacle Rock to Parkdale, Pinnacle Rock to Canon City, or Parkdale to Canon City, the latter being the Royal Gorge section. And in Canon City you have three take-out options depending upon how tired you are and where your vehicle is parked, if at the take-out. Otherwise, your take-out will be determined by your shuttle arrangements, but you can take out on the northwestern outskirts of Canon City, at Centennial Park, or at River Station, the latter two both inside Canon City along the river belt. Of clourse, the greatest feature is the Royal Gorge with major rapids like El Primero, El Segundo, Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, Squeeze Box, The Narrows, Wall Slammer, Boat Eater (don't you just love that name?), Soda Fountain and Pipeline to blaze a searing memory of this run into your head for you to re-live for the rest of your life. Just watch the water level because at above 2,700 cfs this river rises to III+ to IV+ level with intensity ratcheted by several notches and where rescue becomes even harder.

After the run you can relax in Canon City with food and beverages, find a place to stay for the night, and tell lies about your exploits while planning the next great adventure. With all the great rivers around here, as well as great runs on this river up above, there is plenty to do without traveling too far. But, it is hard to beat a Royal Gorge run because of the closeness you feel to the river in that deep, tight canyon and the experience of those rapids in a little rubber or plastic boat.

Technical Data
Class Rating III to IV+ (V)
Length 19.2 miles
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 1,000 - 2,400 cfs
Maximum Flow 3,200 cfs (AHRA recommendation)
First Put-in Pinnacle Rock Rec Site Access
Lat/Long N 38 26' 51.37" / W 105 31' 23.06"
Last Take-out River Station - Canon City
Lat/Long N 38 26' 12.45" / W 105 14' 25.96"
Elevation 6,033 - 5,336' msl (-697')
Gradient ~ 36.3 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Nathrop
Boats Kayaks, Rafts, Canoes, SUPs (?)
Season May - August Pinnacle Rock to Parkdale
Usually Year-round Royal Gorge
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

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Arkansas River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

Arkansas River

[ Arkansas River Homepage ] [ Hayden Meadow to Granite ] [ Granite to Numbers Launch Site ] [ Numbers Launch Site to Railroad Bridge ]
[ Railroad Bridge Access to Buena Vista ] [ Buena Vista Town Run ] [ Fisherman's Bridge to Stone Bridge ] [ Stone Bridge to Rincon ]
[ Rincon to Pinnacle Rock ] [ Canon City to Pueblo Reservoir ]


[ Grape Creek ] [ Lake Creek ]

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