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Arkansas River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Rincon to Pinnacle Rock
~ 28.5 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.

Between Rincon Recreation Site and Pinnacle Rock Recreation Site the Arkansas River flows about 28.5 miles as a Class II to III (or perhaps III+ on a good day) stream with a lot of flatwater and enough whitewater to keep it fun and entertaining. The run begins in a tight canyon valley just off US Highway 50 on river right and CR 45, a dirt road, on river left for about 2.5 miles to Howard Creek where the valley opens wider for a couple of miles before entering Bighorn Sheep Canyon just after Vallie Bridge. Six tenths mile below Rincon sits Badger Creek Rapid, a solid Class III drop in two parts that is worthy of a scout if you have not run it before. Then, you have a nice ride of about 11.5 miles on Class I to II water before coming to Cottonwood Rapid (III), followed closely by Little Cottonwood Rapid (III) just above Cotopaxi after which you can kick back for another 9 miles (more or less) of Class I to II rapids and pools until reaching Texas Creek where the fun picks up a notch again. Texas Creek Rapid (III), Maytag Rapid (III) and Three Forks Rapid (III) are spaced fairly evenly apart over four of the last 7 miles of this trip, which ends at the Pinnacle Rock Recreation Site.

The river drops on a moderate gradient of about 25.5 fpm, so the current will be fairly swift and strong ... and the water will be cold! The run is long, but the speed of the current will get you to the end before you know it. Most of the run is through a tight canyon, though there are some open space valleys in the "densely populated" areas along the way, particularly around the booming metropolis of Howard, or Coaldale, Cotopaxi or Texas Creek, which probably have a combined population of less than 250. This scenic run is remote and relaxed with a few significant rapids to wake you up and get your attention. There may well be many others on the river with you, particularly between Rincon and Vallie Bridge, though any of several length trips can be taken here due to the incredible access at seven AHRA sites, as well as several possible roadside sites along the river. This is a run frequently enjoyed by kayakers sometimes resembling a Sturgis event on the water.

This reach of the Arkansas River is particularly well suited for intermediate level whitewater paddlers because it is challenging enough to develop skills without being hairboating. And if you are in a raft, then just about any able-bodied person can make this run. Paddlers should expect cold water and dress according to air and water temperatures. And when you finish you will be in the middle of nowhere, though Canon City is only about 20 miles or less away from the Pinnacle Rock Access where this reach ends.

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 197 miles; Grand Junction 200 miles; Denver 148 miles; Pueblo 88 miles; Santa Fe 230 miles; Albuquerque 291 miles; Phoenix 660 miles; Oklahoma City 657 miles; Dallas 763 miles; Austin 900 miles; San Antonio 927 miles; Houston 997 miles; Little Rock 992 miles; Kansas City 682 miles; St. Louis 928 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 II to III+. 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 April through August, or possibly September. The window may be longer or shorter depending upon winter snowpack and seasonal rainfall in the drainage basin.

Hazards to navigation

There are no major hazards to navigation on this reach of the Arkansas River, though there are some rapids that can be formidible if run improperly. Badger Creek Rapid (III) lies just six tenths mile below the Rincon put-in, and it can be scouted from river left along CR 45 and the railroad tracks of a defunct line. The rapid begins in a boulder garden drop into a short pool before descending into a second boulder garden with a large rock outcrop on river right. The other bigger rapids, which include Cottonwood (III) at about 11.3 miles, Little Cottonwood (III) at about 12.6 miles, Texas Creek (III) at about 22.5 miles, Maytag Rapid (III) at about 23.2 miles and Three Forks Rapid (III) at about 26.5 miles are pretty much read-and-run boulder garden rapids with lines that will change according to water level. For competent paddlers these rapids will be fairly straightforward, but less experienced paddlers will get a thrill ride and "possibly get a little wet."

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 Rincon Recreation Site (N 38 28' 21.05" / W 105 51' 55.86") on river right at ramp off US Highway 50 at 0.0 miles; AHRA Vallie Bridge Recreation Site (N 38 23' 29.50" / W 105 46' 27.91") on river left before the bridge at about 8.9 miles; AHRA Canyon Trading Post (N 38 22' 15.06" / W 105 42' 05.50") on river right nearing Cotopaxi at about 14.5 miles; AHRA Lone Pine Recreation Site (N 38 23' 24.25" / W 105 39' 17.77") at boat ramp on river right just off US Highway 50 at about 17.8 miles; AHRA Texas Creek Recreation Site (N 38 24' 35.17" / W 105 35' 26.97") at the boat ramp on river right at about 22.7 miles; AHRA Maytag Recreation Site (N 38 25' 33.47" / W 105 34' 06.48") at a footpath on river right at about 24.7 miles; 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 about 28.5 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

For me, this is a great run because I enjoy paddling a lot of miles in as few hours as necessary without burning myself out, and this one provides both the flatwater speed sections and some exciting whitewater rapids, many of which are in the Class II to III range at optimum flows. The current running down a gradient of about 25.5 fpm makes getting downriver easy, and if one is paddling, then a boat can move down this reach quickly. But, you will still have time to "smell the roses!" It will usually be cold in April when the river starts to flow at navigable (unfrozen) levels and the water will be nearly as cold. The air will warm up a little over the next four months, but the water will remain cold, so be prepared to swim one of the Class III's (or any of them, for that matter) just in the event it should happen. If you ain't swimming, then you ain't having enough fun! These rapids do not pose imminent threats to safety or life if you swim them, and recovery pools are long, so this is a great training ground for marathon boaters who enjoy rougher water.

The run starts and ends in the middle of nowhere ... literally! Canon City (pop. ~ 16,350+) below the take-out for this reach, or Salida (pop. ~ 5,200) above the put-in, are the nearest things to major towns along this run of 28.5 miles if you start at Rincon and go all the way to Pinnacle Rock. A lot of boaters will choose to utilize any of several intermediate access points for shorter runs on sections of the river that satisfy their requirements. If you want solitude, then your best shot is to go in the middle of the week, but that is not a guarantee because a lot of paddlers enjoy this run, which is ideally suited to intermediate or higher level whitewater paddlers in canoes, kayaks or rafts where the bigger rapids are located, and just about anybody in a raft on the quieter parts of the river. There are smaller rapids all along this run that can flip a canoe or kayak in a heartbeat if a paddler is not paying attention and controling his or her boat at all times. Because, well you know, it's kinda embarrassing when you hit that barely submerged rock and flip into the river on what appears to be perfectly flat, calm water! And, it's cold, too!

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III+
Length 28.5 miles
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 800 - 2,200 cfs
Maximum Flow 3,000 cfs
First Put-in Rincon Rec. Site Access
Lat/Long N 38 28' 21.05" / W 105 51' 55.86"
Last Take-out Pinnacle Rock Rec Site Access
Lat/Long N 38 26' 51.37" / W 105 31' 23.06"
Elevation 6,759 - 6,033' msl (-726')
Gradient ~ 25.5 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Nathrop
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts, SUP (?)
Season April through August or September
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 ]
[ Pinnacle Rock to Canon City ] [ Canon City to Pueblo Reservoir ]


[ Grape Creek ] [ Lake Creek ]

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