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Arkansas River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Canon City to Pueblo Reservoir
~ 28.75 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.

This reach of the Arkansas River flows about 29 miles between Canon City at the bottom of the Royal Gorge run down to Pueblo Reservoir as a Class I to III run that offers relatively tame whitewater with a lot of flatwater pools that almost any person can enjoy. Unlike most of the river above here, this reach is a teddy bear. The river is wide open from Canon City to Florence where the river left mountains creep in much closer. This upper section of the reach contrasats its gentrly rolling, often parched dry, hills lined with cottonwood trees against the section below Florence with its shale and limestone walls rising 200 or more feet above the river confirming that this area was once a seabed. Leaving Florence the right side closes in and you will paddle through Swallows Canyon the rest of the way to Pueblo Reservoir and your take-out on Swallows Road shortly after making your debut on the lake. There are three more paddler accesses at campgrounds on Pueblo Reservoir if you need more boating before ending this trip, each of which entails some additional distance across the lake. But, they also offer a campsite after a trip, so that might make the extra effort worth it.

This run is much more relaxing than the reaches above, and allows more time for photography, conversation and taking in the scenery as you ride a good current on a modest gradient (by Colorado standards) of 15.7 fpm, which is still plenty to keep the water moving. Canon City and Florence are developed, but the rest of the trip is remote. There are some concerns to be considered. First, the Minnequa Dam (N 38 24' 52.52" / W 105 09' 35.74"), located about half way between McKenzie Bridge Access and the Pathfinder Park Access about 2.6 miles below, required a portage around an unrunnable structure bounded by private property (NOTE: under federal navigation law it is a LEGAL trespass to access private land to avoid a damgerous hazard in a river) with no discernable portage path around the dam, which has an irrigation diversion canal located right at the dam on river right. Strainers and logjams are known to collect in this reach of the river, so vigilance is required to avoid an entrapment. Land Ownership in this section is largely private. Public lands exist from mile 139.6 to 140.6. Watch for signs indicating when you are entering or leaving public lands and avoid unnecessary trespasses. Lastly, AHRA states that access points above Pueblo Reservoir are not compatible with larger watercraft such as rafts, large fishing oar boats and motorboats, and that larger craft should use ramps on the lake.

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

Pueblo 40 miles; Denver 115 miles; Durango 260 miles; Grand Junction 250 miles; Salt Lake City 530 miles; Santa Fe 320 miles; Albuquerque 375 miles; Phoenix 840 miles; Oklahoma City 618 miles; Tulsa 660 miles; Dallas 725 miles; Austin 865 miles; San Antonio 890 miles; Houston 960 miles; Little Rock 955 miles; Kansas City 635 miles; St. Louis 880 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 I to II, and is generally considered by prominent Colorado whitewater boaters to be a safe run up to about 2,500 cfs. Current will slow and the water may become murky approaching Pueblo Reservoir depending upon lake level and amount of run-off flowing into the river.

Best time to go

This section is heavily dependent upon winter snowpack and seasonal rains, but when it flows its season is April through August. The window may be longer or shorter depending upon winter snowpack and seasonal rainfall in the drainage basin.

Hazards to navigation

This reach of the Arkansas River has some Class I to III rapids, but none are particularly difficult or hazardous for competent boaters running them to avoid holes and pins. Most of the significant rapids are located at or above Florence, though at least five rapids in the I+ to II+ range will be encountered below there. You may find, however, some man-made and natural potential hazards to be avoided, especially in higher flows. The Minnequa Dam (N 38 24' 52.52" / W 105 09' 37.74") has no distinguishable portage path on either side, but a portage on river left starting just above the dam may be possible. The intake to an irrigation canal is right at the dam on river right. Logjams and strainers are known to form in this reach, especially around the outsides of river bends, so be careful to avoid entrapments. Vigilance and boat control are still necessary, but the consequences are far less severe on this reach than on any reach above this one.

River Access Points

AHRA River Station (N 38 265' 12.45" / W 105 14' 25.96") on river left after the bridge at about 19.20 miles; Arkansas River Trail Access (N 38 26' 16.94" / W 105 12' 20.19") on So. Raynolds Av. on river right after the bridge at about 2.00 miles; Florence River Park (N 38 23' 30.14" / W 105 04' 23.46") at the ramp on river right just off SH 115 at about 10.90 miles; AHRA Blue Heron Access (N 38 23' 30.12" / W 105 03' 44.83") is a primitive access with a short carry to vehicles on river right at about 11.65 miles; AHRA Swallows Boat Ramp (N 38 18' 11.09" / W 104 51' 22.17") at the boat ramp on river left shortly after entering the lake at about 28.75 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

Even though this reach has some good, fun, but not too challenging whitewater it is not the most popular part of the river because (1) the run is divided by the impassable Minjnequa Dam about 5.25 miles into the run, (2) it approaches the lake on a shallower gradient with a slower current and (3) it lacks the majesty of the reaches above in both scenery and technical difficulty. With 13 named rapids in the Class II to II+ range, possibly CLass III in higher water, the run will give you a thrill ride with plenty of relaxation time, especially below Florence where only five rapids remain, all Class II+ or smaller. The run begins in urban Canon City and remains semi-urban all the way to Florence, then becomes more rural leaving Florence as the river flows into a canyon with 200+ foot high walls sloping toward the river all the way to Pueblo Reservoir where this reach ends.

The gradient is only about 15.7 fpm, which is still plenty for a good flow, but much shallower than above where it is like falling off a mountain. That flow is mitigated the closer you get to Pueblo Reservoir and its backwaters. Just 5.25 miles below River Station in Canon City lies Minnequa Dam, an unrunnable structure with no obvious or easy portage path. In fact, AHRA recommends taking out at McKenzie Bridge just 4 miles below River Station Access and putting back in at Pathfinder Park about 2.6 miles below McKenzie Bridge bypassing the dam entirely, but that is more work than most paddlers want to do, especially with the shuttles involved, which is much more than 2.6 miles one way. McKLenzie Bridge Access could be used as the starting point for a trip of about 22.15 miles down to Swallows Access on Pueblo Reservoir with options for taking out above or below Swallows.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 28.75 miles
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 1,000 - 2,000 cfs
Maximum Flow 2,500 cfs
First Put-in River Station - Canon City
Lat/Long N 38 26' 12.45" / W 105 14' 25.96"
Last Take-out Swallows Rd Ramp (1st takeout on lake)
Lat/Long N 38 18' 11.09" / W 104 51' 22.17"
Elevation 5,336 - 4,885' msl (-451')
Gradient ~ 15.7 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Nathrop
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts, SUPs
Season April - August
Permits No, but access fees at AHRA sites apply

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 ] [ Pinnacle Rock to Canon City ]


[ Grape Creek ] [ Lake Creek ]

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