The Dolores River forms south of Lizard Head Pass in the San Juan Mountains of San Juan National Forest in Dolores County in southwestern Colorado, then flows southwest through Stoner to the Town of Dolores where it turns Northwest. A dam just north of Dolores forms McPhee Reservoir, from which the river flows in a generally north by northwest direction through or near the Towns of Cahone, Dove Creek, Slick Rock and Bedrock to Gateway, where the river then turns northwest and continues to its confluence with the Colorado River just south of Cisco, Utah. The river is usually described as the Upper Delores above McPhee Reservoir and as the Lower Dolores below the dam.
The Upper Dolores River flows in the late spring and early summer months when the snow melts, and runs about 24 miles between the Town of Rico and Stoner Bridge. Except for a 1-mile stretch about two thirds through the run, this is an easy Class II - III trip increasing to a solid Class III in the lower 14 miles below the Roaring Forks Creek confluence at flows above 700 cfs. Above Rico the river is almost never navigable due to its narrow, shallow, very rocky riverbed and steep gradient that does not hold water. It begins is a high mountain valley adorned with aspen trees and the first 23 miles of this reach are through a canyon-like cut opeing into a wide valley a mile before the Stoner Bridge take-out. The river drops at a rate of 49 fpm from a starting elevation of 8,155 feet msl down to 7,475 feet msl. The 1 mile of "bigger" water is a long, steady diet of waves and holes that will excite a good paddler and scare the bejezzus out of those who are not quite up to the task. As with other Colorado streams, the waters of the Dolores are cold, so be sure to dress for the conditions to avoid hypothermia.
The top of the run starts amid awesome, densely-forested scenery that only gets better as you paddle toward Stoner Bridge. The flow is usually fast and most of your work will be done choosing and hitting the best lines through the rapids. This is not the most popular run on the Dolores, so you may not see anybody other than those in your own group. Most likely, anybody else you do encounter will be an experienced whitewater river runner.
Dolores and Montezuma Counties, Colorado, in the San Juan National Forest northeast of Dolores. Durango is a few miles to the southeast. The West Dolores, Animas, Piedra and San Miguel Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 75 miles; Grand Junction 145 miles; Denver 414 miles; Pueblo 331 miles; Salt Lake City 430 miles; Albuquerque 287 miles; Phoenix 529 miles; Oklahoma City 829 miles; Dallas 955 miles; Austin 990 miles; San Antonio 897 miles; Houston 1,140 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, flowing clean, clear and cold. In years of normal snowpack the season runs from late April through early June. Minimum flow for canoes and kayaks is 200 cfs. Rafts up to 14 feet will require a flow of at least 800 cfs, and larger rafts (14-18 feet) will need about 1,000 cfs to prevent dragging. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
Generally, the optimum season is from late spring through mid 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 late April through early June. This section of the Dolores River is seldom navigable from July through early April due to insufficient water and extremely cold temperatures.
Generally speaking, the Upper Dolores River is not too hazardous for experienced whitewater paddlers. Most of the rapids are in the Class II category below about 700 cfs, and will escalate to Class III when flows exceed 700 cfs. About 5 miles into the run from Roaring Forks Creek (about 15 miles below Rico) is a 1-mile boulder garden stretch of long wave trains and holes that can be somewhat challenging, but not really dangerous if you have intermediate level or higher whitewater skills. The water flows fast, so you do need to watch where you are going and start control maneuvers early enough to avoid obstacles like the huge boulders in midstream. A swim will likely be cold and rocky. A drysuit with base layers will protect you from the water temperature, but you are going to need something else for the rocks!
Rico Access (N 37° 41' 51.43" / W 108° 01' 51.92") on river right above or below the SH 145 bridge, or on river left below the bridge, at 0.00 miles; N. Picker St. Bridge (M 37° 41' 23.99" / W 108° 02' 04.44") on the river left gravel bar after the bridge at about 0.70 miles; SH 145 Roadside Access (N 37° 38' 19.78" / W 108° 03' 36.82") on river left before the bridge at about 4.90 miles; Road 435 / Roaring Forks Creek Access (N 37° 35' 57.39" / W 108° 06' 46.52") above SH 145 MM 34 on river left after the bridge at 9.90 miles; Road 436 Bridge (N 37° 35' 34.56" / W 108° 08' 05.58") on river left after the bridge at about 11.60 miles; Priest Gulch Campground (N 37° 35' 07.18" / W 108° 09' 38.21") on river right at the bridge at about 13.40 miles (fee may be required); SH 145 Roadside Access 2 (N 37° 34' 31.24" / W 108° 10' 53.17") on river right after the bridge at about 14.90 miles; Put-in Road (N 37° 34' 33.01" / W 108° 11' 17.55") n river rght after the bridge at about 15.30 miles; and Stoner Bridge Access (N 37° 35' 19.79" / W 108° 19' 11.08") at SH 145 MM 21 on river right before the bridge at about 24.0 miles. There may be other roadside or bridge access points, but some are private property. Use private property accesses only with advance permission from the rightful owner or in an emergency situation where immediate egress is required.
There are two public campsites on river right on the Dolores River at Priest Gulch just above Stoner, and Layton, a little farther up the road. There are three public campsites on the West Dolores River above Stoner - Burro Bridge, on river left near the headwaters, Mavreese, on river left just above Stoner, and Forks, on river left between Mavreese and Stoner. Contact BLM at 970-247-4874 for information. There are at least two commercial campgrounds located along this reach of the Dolores River. Other natural campsites can be found along the river. Please observe these rules for the protection of the river area and the enjoyment of all who paddle the Dolores River:
1. Fire pans are required for all open fires. Debris MUST be carried out;
2. Porta-potties are required for all human waste, which MUST be carried out;
3. Dogs must be on leashes at all times in camp;
4. Dog feces MUST be collected and carried out;
5. Strainers MUST be used for dishwater, and food debris MUST be carried out;
6. A scrim material should be used for kitchen floors to collect dropped food. All food debris MUST be carried out.
Because of limited campsites, courtesy in setting up camps and not intruding, either physically or by noise, on other campers is expected. When meeting other groups on the way downriver discussions about campsites should be undertaken so that groups know where each other are going to be staying. Cooperation on these simple rules and common courtesies will go a long way toward making your Dolores River trip enjoyable for yourself and others who are on the river. If you pack it in, then pack it out. Take only photographs and memories - leave only footprints!
Rentals and shuttles may be available from any of several outfitters serving the Dolores and surrounding rivers. Other outfitters elsewhere in Colorado and other states may also provide services on the Dolores River.
The Upper Dolores River is a beautiful place where canoeists can join kayakers and rafters to enjoy one of Colorado's premiere whitewater rivers. The first ten miles of this reach are seldom paddled, and even more rare is anybody paddling above Rico where this reach begins. What it lacks in technical merit on its Class II to III water is more than made up for by its serene and spectacular scenery. The water is fast moving and cold, the season is short, and it is not as crowded as more popular stretches can be, especially on Memorial Day weekend, when the river below the Town of Dolores becomes very popular with pedestrian paddlers out for a weekend of fun on the river. The channel is choked with boulders that would make swimming less than fun, so this is a good place to stay inside your boat and keep it upright. But, the banks are a tree-lined mountain valley with incredible scenery (when you have time to look!)
Parking is limited, and you will have to self-shuttle, but once you get there you will find up to 24 miles of thrilling water, assuming there was a normal or higher snowpack the preceeding winter and depending where you choose to start and end your trip. If the snowpack was light, then there may be insufficient water to paddle, in which case you can take out the camera and photograph a lovely place to which you will want to return at another time. It is best to check with BLM or outfitters on the Lower Dolores for water flows before driving to the river. Be sure to wear layered water-repelling fabrics, wetsuits or drysuits to guard against hypothermia.