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 the Railroad Bridge at the bottom of The Numbers section to Riverside Park Access in Buena Vista.
From the Railroad Bridge Access at the bottom of The Numbers reach above to Riverside Park in Buena Vista lies a Class II to III+ run of about 6.8 miles that most people with intermediate level whitewater skills can safely navigate in a variety of watercraft including canoes, kayaks, rafts, ICs and IKs, maybe even an SUP if somebody is gutsy enough to do it, and somebody surely is. The run is quite scenic with the highway nearby, but out of sight because of the river elevation. And though it has smaller rapids spaced further apart the The Numbers, this reach known as The Fractions still offers plenty of thrills and excitement on cold, fast moving water that requires a lot of boat maneuvering to avoid boulders and holes. The run is fast and can be combined with loops or running reaches above and/or below here to extend the day. And if it is paddling season, then you can expect other boater traffic around here because the Buena Vista Town Run begins at the same ramp where this reach ends, and both reaches are popular.
The run is remote all the way into Buena Vista. There are private commercial campgrounds, B&Bs and primitive camping areas along the river, though few will use them as a part of a downriver trip due to the very short length of this reach. But, if staying in town is not your thing, then at least you have nearby options. The river may not be as intense as above, but it is every bit as beautiful and enjoyable for most boaters, especially those who have good whitewater skills they want to take to the next level. Just be sure to dress for the water, and possibly air, tempereature because this is all snowmelt and it is frigid at a minimum elevation north of 7,900 feet.
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.
Chaffee 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 to the north, Pueblo is to the east and Grand Junction is to the west northwest.
Durango 225 miles; Grand Junction 205 miles; Denver 126 miles; Pueblo 130 miles; Salt Lake City 484 miles; Albuquerque 308 miles; Phoenix 677 miles; Oklahoma City 710 miles; Dallas 816 miles; Austin 955 miles; San Antonio 980 miles; Houston 1,050 miles; Little Rock 1,050 miles; Kansas City 690 miles; St. Louis 937 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snow-melt cold. This section is rated Class II to III+ at flows below about 2,500 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 April or May through August or September, though the actual season may be longer or shorter, depending upon winter snowpack and summer rainfall amounts. The two major limiting factors are flow and temperature - water AND air!
This reach is filled with small boulders and holes that can flip boats, damage equipment and hurt paddlers if run improperly. While none of the rapids are technically hazards the fact that there are so many flip oppportunities leading to cold swims among rocks makes boat control super important. On a moderately steep gradient and fast current paddlers need to see the boulders and holes, and then avoid them whenever necessary depending upon paddling skills.
Railroad Bridge Rec. Area Access (N 38° 55' 23.25" / W 106°10' 14.97") on river left before the bridge at 0.0 miles; (Possible Access) Mt. Harvard Trail (N 38° 54' 23.06" / W 106° 10' 28.02") on river left before the bridge (small parking area) at about 1.3 miles; Buena Vista Riverside Park Access 1 (N 38° 50' 50.68" / W 106°07' 20.22") on river right at the boat ramp adjacent to the sports fields after the first drop at about 6.8 miles. There may be other unimproved access points along this reach, but most property adjacent to the river is privately owned, so please avoid trespassing whenever possible.
AHRA charges a fee for access at its sites. Current fee schedules can be found HERE.
AHRA Railroad Bridge Rec. Area Campground (N 38° 55' 23.25" / W 106°10' 14.97"), located at 33827 CR-371, Buena Vista, CO 81211, Phone: (719) 539-7289; Arrowhead Point Campground, located at 33975 US Highway 24 N, Buena Vista, CO 81211, Phone: (719) 395-2323; Arkansas River Rim Campground, located at 33975 US Highway 24 N, Buena Vista, CO 81211, Phone: (719) 395-2323; AHRA Ruby Mountain Campground, located at County Road 301, Buena Vista, CO 81211, Phone: (719) 539-7289; Cascade Campground, located at 11430 County Road 197A, Nathrop, CO 81236. Other campgrounds are available in each of the sections above this one.
Rentals, shuttles and/or other river related services are available from any of several outfitters located on or serving the Arkansas River.
The Fractions may be a fraction of the difficulty of The Numbers above it, but this reach still packs plenty of zesto for those looking for a wet and wild ride. At only 6.8 miles ending in Buena Vista, this is a superb run for those wanting some splashy fun where the shuttle is a breeze, access is easy and great, the rapids are exciting, but not hairy, and it is close to all the services you might need before and/or after your run. The channel owns a lot of rocks, so be ready for choppy water and a bumpy ride, especially in lower water conditions. This Class II to III+ run is excellent for canoes, kayaks and rafts offering enough thrills to keep you excited without risking life and limb in the process. After all, fractions are smaller than numbers, so things are as they should be in the natural world.
Because of its close proximity to Buena Vista and its excellent boating opportunities you can expect this to be a crowded place in the spring and summer months. Buena Vista has developed the whitewater park with superb access from the river or the street and integrated it into the city plan to promote tourism, which is great for boaters, but Colorado does a lot of these things to enhance the quality of life in its cities. And if all of that is not enough there is the gorgeous scenery from the river channel itself to enthrall and capture you.