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Arkansas River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Hayden Meadows to Granite
~ 11 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 Russelville, 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 the section from Hayden Meadow to Granite in a generally flatwater section just above the serious whitewater starting at the end of this reach.

Launching from the northwest corner of the Highway 24 bridge in Hayden Meadow the Arkansas River flows about 11 miles to the Granite Access off Highway 24 at the CR 397 bridge as a Class I to II+ stream that is generally suitable for almost anybody in canoes, kayaks, rafts or SUPs. The channel is narrow - almost creek-like - with a LOT of boulders that create rapids, waves and holes in high enough flows, but which are just obstacles to navigation in low water conditions. Near the end of this reach Lake Creek flows in from Twin Lakes on river right adding substantial flow to the river, though it is still quite narrow. The run closely parallels Highway 24, so you can scout your lines on the shuttle to the top.

This run begins in a wide open valley for the first 3.5 miles to near the CR 55 Access where the mountain creeps in on river left. Another 4.5 miles gets you to the Lake Creek confluence on river right near Balltown. The scenery is awesome, with snow-capped peaks to the west and very few signs of human habitation to distract from the vistas. The short distance and probable speed of the current means this trip will not be a long one unless you intentionally make it so. Two to four hours should do it for most paddlers, but speed may be dictated by flow and how much rock is sticking up. Still, the run is quick and the shuttle is a breeze, so this one could be run multiple times in a day of one so desired.

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.


Lake 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, to the northeast, and Pueblo, to the southeast, are just about equidistant from the river.

Distance from major cities

Durango 245 miles; Grand Junction 185 miles; Denver 110 miles; Pueblo 150 miles; Salt Lake City 465 miles; Albuquerque 330 miles; Phoenix 700 miles; Oklahoma City 785 miles; Dallas 835 miles; Austin 975 miles; San Antonio 1,000 miles; Houston 1,070 miles; Little Rock 1,070 miles; Kansas City 710 miles; St. Louis 960 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snow-melt cold. Minimum flows should be at least 300 cfs, with maximum flows for safe boating about 1,000 cfs. Below these minimums the river channel gets very rocky and difficult to navigate. Above maximums, the river becomes wild and potentially injurious or deadly. 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

Generally, the optimum season is from late spring through late summer, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains. Flow is usually best from April through August. This section of the Arkansas River is seldom navigable from late-September until April due to insufficient water and extremely cold temperatures.

Hazards to navigation

The biggest hazard to navigation on this reach will be low water and high rocks. At average or higher water levels the ride is easy whitewater suitable for beginner whitewater paddlers to develop their skills. At high flows the narrow channel coupled with a lot of rocks in the channel on a cold water, fast-moving current can be a concern. With the highway right beside the run the threats are reduced somewhat, but this is mostly an easy paddle

River Access Points

Hayden Meadow Access (N 39 10' 07.37" / W 106 19' 27.25") on river left above the Highway 24 bridge at 0.0 miles; CR 55 Access (N 39 07' 42.60" / W 106 18' 42.61") on river left after the bridge at about 3.60 miles; US 24 Roadside Access (N 39 03' 17.50" / W 106 16' 20.75") on river right at about 9.90 miles; Granite Access (N 39 02' 35.00" / W 106 15' 55.63") on river left after the bridge at about 11.0 miles.

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

Campgrounds and accommodations

Railroad bridge campground on river left at 10.5 miles; Crazyhorse Resort campground on river right at 12.0 miles; Ruby Mountain campground on river left about 8 miles below the US Hwy. 306 crossing.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

Reviewer's comments

The Arkansas River is cold, wet and rough, offering a challenge to kayakers and rafters who dare to test their skills on the section between Hayden Meadow and Granite. With a channel cut through the Rocky Mountains, the scenery is beautiful and natural most of the way, though decidely moreso before the heat of summer scorches the hills and turns everything brown. Still, this is a great run for beginner or novice paddlers, and even intermediate skill levels might find enough excitement here to be enjoyable. As with most Colorado streams, the season is short and heavily dependent upon a good winter snow pack, but a little longer on this one than most. Recent local rainfall helps greatly, but don't count on it.

Because the water is cold and the sun is often blocked by the mountains, wearing wetsuits or drysuits is advisable for most paddlers. The Arkansas River would not be a good place to become hypothermic. Ear plugs would be advisable to keep the cold water out of your ear canals, a situation that can lead to serious aural complications from repeated and prolonged exposure. The mostly gentle nature of this reach makes it suitable for canoes, kayaks, rafts and SUPs, though rafts will prefer a little more water than the other types of boats. This run features walls that are a little futher back from the river than other Arkansas River reaches. You may see more wade fishermen than boaters on this reach because of its remoteness, lack of boater traffic, shallow depth and ease of access.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II+
Length 11.0 miles
Minimum Flow 300 cfs
Optimum Flow 500 - 800 cfs
Maximum Flow 1,000 cfs
First Put-in Hayden Meadow Access
Lat. / Long. N 39 10' 07.37" / W 106 19' 27.25"
Last Take-out Granite Access
Lat. / Long. N 39 02' 35.00" / W 106 15' 55.63"
Elevation 9,317 - 8,940 feet msl (- 377')
Gradient ~ 34 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Web: Leadville
Web: Below Granite
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
(depending upon flow!)
Season May through August
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 ] [ Granite to Numbers Launch Site ] [ Numbers Launch Site to Railroad Bridge ] [ Railroad Bridge to Buena Vista Baseball Field ]
[ Buena Vista Town Run ] [ Fisherman's Bridge to Stone Bridge ] [ Stone Bridge to Rincon ] [ Rincon to Pinnacle Rock ]
[ Pinnacle Rock to Canon City ] [ Canon City to Pueblo Reservoir ]


[ Grape Creek ] [ Lake Creek ]

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Last updated August 23, 2021

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