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 Granite to The Numbers Launch Site.
Granite to The Numbers Launch Site is a "warm-up" for running The Numbers section immediately below the take-out for this run of about 5.2 miles on what is typically a Class III to III+ run with one major Class IV+ to V (depending upon flow) in Pine Creek Rapid starting about 4.1 miles below the put-in. This is where the Arkansas' excitement begins, and if you have problems here, then perhaps it is better to go to a different reach of this river, or a different river. The water is cold and fast running on a steep gradient of about 58 fpm. If you swim, then at least it is only a short distance to the bank assuming the current will allow you to climb out of the river. This is a good place to stay in your boat.
Flowing through forested mountains the Arkansas picks up the waters of Clear Creek just 2.2 miles into this run. US Highway 24 is riverside most of the way and never very far away, though sometimes 100 feet or more higher in elevation. A roadside access at about 1.85 miles is at the site of a blown-out dam that can be portaged on river left, or run after careful scouting for a good line through the rubble. It is the approximate midway point between Granite Access and the top of Pine Creek Rapid. Right below the dam, on river left, CR 371 ends and runs back to and through Buena Vista closely paralleling the river on this reach and offering occasional access points. CR 371 is much closer in elevation to the river and therefore provides easier egress if you need to exit the river in a hurry.
Typically, this is a May through August run, but that depends largely upon winter snaowpack and spring rainfall, which may shorten or lengthen the season. When it flows you may prefer a drysuit or wetsuit with base layers to protect you from air and water temperatures at this somewhat lofty elevation that begins at just under 9,000 feet above sea level. Paddlers on this reach should be in rafts, or else be at least strong intermediate boaters who are ready to test their abilities on turbulent rapids, especially Pine Creek Rapid, which is a solid Class IV to IV+ on a normal day and meaner on days with flows above about 900 cfs, when it rises into the Class V range getting tougher as the flow increases. The good news is that it is possible to portage Pine Creek Rapid on river left along CR 371. The portage will be about one quarter mile, and it will not be as quick as running the rapid, but many paddlers will be drier and less "excited" by opting for the road rather than the river unless they are confident of their skills and equipment, in which case this is a super exciting ride.
The short distance on a steep gradient with a swift current makes this a quick run unless you run into trouble. It could almost be run in the time it takes to do the shuttle, which means it could be run three or four times in a day if one were to be so inclined. It is scenic and tight as the river cuts through the granite mountain, and inflatable boats should watch for sharp edges that can slide their tubes.
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 and Chaffee Counties, 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 to the north, Pueblo is to the east and Grand Junction is almost due west.
Durango 235 miles; Grand Junction 195 miles; Denver 118 miles; Pueblo 140 miles; Salt Lake City 475 miles; Albuquerque 320 miles; Phoenix 688 miles; Oklahoma City 795 miles; Dallas 828 miles; Austin 965 miles; San Antonio 990 miles; Houston 1,060 miles; Little Rock 1,080 miles; Kansas City 720 miles; St. Louis 968 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point and destination point on the river.)
Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snow-melt cold.This section is rated Class III to IV at flows below about 1,500 cfs, and escalates to solid Class IV above that level. Pine Creek Rapid is the sole exception rating a Class IV+ designation below 900 cfs and getting harder as flow increases, topping out at Class V at flows above about 1,500 cfs. Because of the cold water temperature and the often cool to cold air temperature wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
By Colorado standards, this secton has a very long season ranging from May through August or possibly September, though the actual season may be longer or shorter, depending upon winter snowpack and summer rainfall amounts.
Little Pine Creek Rapid (N 39° 02' 06.01" / W 106° 15' 18.99") at about 0.9 mile is reputed to be the hardest rapid above Pine Creek Rapid; S-Turn Rapid (N 39° 01' 19.85" / W 106° 14' 32.45") immediately after the Clear Creek confluence at about 2.3 miles deserves attention and precise boat control; Pine Creek Rapid (N 39° 00' 10.64" / W 106° 14' 02.00") at about 4.1 miles is the Big Kahuna at ANY water level - show your respect by scounting unless you know the run well enough to just grip it and rip it. AHRA recommends not attempting to run Pine Creek Rapid at flows exceeding 1,250 cfs on The Numbers gauge. At higher flows the rapid can be portaged on river left. There are several other less prominent Class III rapids on this run that will demand attention and control, especially as water levels increase. Water temperature and possibly air temperature should be considered a potential hazard on this trip and proper selection of clothing will greatly contribute to comfort and safety.
AHRA Granite Access (N 39° 02' 35.00" / W 106° 15' 55.63") on river left after the bridge at 0.0 miles; US Highway 24 Roadside Access (N 39° 01' 36.41" / W 106° 14' 38.98") on river right before the blown out dam at about 1.85 miles; AHRA Numbers Launch Site (N 38° 59' 42.15" / W 106° 13' 11.76") on river right immediately about Rapid Number 1 at about 5.2 miles; There may be other possible roadside access points along this reach from either CR 371 on river left or US Highway 24 on river right.
Ruby Mountain Campground off CR 300 on river left at 8.0 miles; Hecla Junction Campground near the US Highway 285 and CR 194 split on river right at about 17.0 miles. There are other campgrounds available in the sections immediately above and below this reach - see those section reviews for specific information.
Rentals, shuttles and/or other river related services are available from any of several outfitters located on or serving the Arkansas River.
While some reaches of the Arkansas River can be tame and leisurely the run from Granite to the Numbers Launch Site is not one of them. Granted, there are a lot of much bigger runs in Colorado, but this one is nothing to take lightly. It is mostly Class III to IV rapids that are fairly straightforward, especially in a tight channel full of rocks, but it also offers Pine Creek Rapid a solid IV+ drop at its easiest and a class V at flows above about 1,500 cfs. Dropping at 58 fpm in a narrow channel full of cold water and large rocks makes this either an exciting whitewater run, or else a "please let me live over this and I'll never do it again" moment. But, some of the other rapids on this short 5.2 miles are also challenging for experienced boaters. The fact that roads parallel the river on one or both sides for nearly the entirety of the run means that you have options for getting out if things go south.
This run will be a snap for highly experienced paddlers, a challenge for those in the intermediate to advanced level, and potentially hazardous for those with less experience, the exception being as a paddler or passenger in a raft guided by a seasoned oarsman. If you have any problems on this reach, then do not attempt the Numbers reach immediately below because it is more intense with bigger rapids, bigger holes and a steeper gradient. For many whitewater paddlers this run from Granite to The Numbers Launch Site will be more than enough excitement for one run. And if not, then the options include running it again or proceeding on downriver through more challenging water. Or, you could just drive into Buena Vista and get something to eat or drink.