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 Bradfield launch near Cahone is the start of what can be a trip of 19 miles down to the Mountain Sheep Point Recreation Area east of Dove Creek, or 47 miles to Slick Rock, or 28 miles from Mountain Sheep to Slick Rock, but the latter would entail a 5.5 mile slog on an unimproved county mountain road (CR 10) coming out of the Town of Dove Creek. The same would be true for a trip ending at Mountain Sheep Rec Area. Cahone and Dove Creek are both in Dolores County. Slick Rock is in San Miguel County. From Bradfield, the topography begins as gently sloping canyon walls covered with oakbruash and other indigenous shrubs. After a few miles the canyon walls get steeper, the canyons get deeper and sandstone, with its reddish luster, is everywhere. Flat ledges along the riverbanks are covered with Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine trees. The scenery is simply beautiful everywhere you look. But, looks can be deceiving. This section contains the most technical whitewater to be found on the Dolores River, though most of the run is straight-forward Class II to III rapids. The run starts in a forested setting and ends in a high desert that is home to yucca, various cacti and shrubs, Pinyon-Juniper trees and a drier canyon with decidely desert colors contrasting the reds and greens of the first few miles.
Groups are limited to 25 people. Permits are not required, but boaters must sign in at the put-in. Campsites are abundant, but this section is very popular, so finding a good campsite is not always easy. Campsites are available on a first-come basis, but be sure to read the discussion regarding camping etiquette in the "Campgrounds and Accommodations" section below. Memorial Day weekend will be the most crowded time for the Dolores, and it is essential to be courteous and considerate of others, both on the river and in establishing and maintaining campsites. Another option is to start a trip in the middle of the week when fewer groups will be there.
This section has a gradient of 23 FPM, with rapids in the Class II to IV+ category, depending upon water conditions. Elevation drops from about 6,466 feet MSL to feet msl between Bradfield and Slick Rock. This section is home to more whitewater than any other part of the river. About 27 miles below Bradfield is "Snaggletooth Rapid", a true Class IV drop that disguises itself as a Class V. Other than that, this section of the Dolores River is a fast-paced, almost continuous Class III whitewater thrill ride with excitement around every turn.
Dolores and San Miguel Counties, Colorado, near the western edge of the San Juan National Forest northwest of Dolores. Durango is a few miles to the southeast. The West Dolores, Animas, Piedra and San Miguel Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 78 miles; Grand Junction 180 miles; Denver 426 miles; Pueblo 350 miles; Santa Fe 290 miles; Albuquerque 290 miles; Phoenix 532 miles; Oklahoma City 828 miles; Tulsa 933 miles; Dallas 942 miles; Austin 1,122 miles; San Antonio 1,202 miles; Houston 1,198 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, but not drinkable without boiling or purifying by other methods. Below 900 cfs, this section is a solid Class III to IV run (Snaggletooth Rapid is the only true Class IV rapid), but any flow over 900 cfs will increase everything by one-half step, becoming a Class III+ to IV+ river. Canoes and kayaks need at least 200 cfs for good trips without dragging. Rafys shorter than 14 feet in length require about 800 cfs, and rafts over 14 feet need at least 1,000 cfs for good boating. Be sure to check the flow before you go. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, layered water-repelling garments, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.
Generally, the optimum season is from late spring through early 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 or May into early June. This section of the Dolores River is seldom navigable from mid June through late April due to insufficient water and extremely cold temperatures. Depending upon releases from McPhee Reservoir, the river may or may not have boatable flows at all.
This section of the Dolores River has more whitewater than any other section, usually in the form of boulder garden rapids where the streambed bends, and it bends often. The river is primarily a Class III to III+ run that poses few significant hazards at medium or higher flows. At lower flows the rocks are up, and the chances of pinning or damaging a boat are much greater. Snaggletooth (about 27 miles below Bradfield), a true Class IV rapid that closely resembles a Class V, is a boat-bender if run improperly. It includes a must-make move between two boulders followed by a run around a series of boulders and holes in the run-out. This rapid can also "bend" bones and make you swim in cold water! If in doubt, scout on river left at the clearing just before the beginning of the rapid! If still in doubt, then portage on the dirt road (CR 10) on river left.
Bradfield Access (N 37° 39' 23.33" / W 108° 44' 08.79") on river left at the boat ramp at 0.0 miles; Mountain Sheep Point Access (N 37° 47' 43.47" / W 108° 49' 32.99") on river left at about 19.2 miles; Slick Rock Access (N 38° 01' 47.89" / W 108°53' 06.65") on river right on the gravel bar adjacent to SH 141 at about 47.0 miles.
Bradfield Recreation Site on river left, 1/4 mile downstream from the Bradfield bridge, offers campsites at $8.00 per night with toilets, potable water, parking and a boat launch area; Mountain Sheep Point Recreation Site, about 6 miles east of Dove Creek on dirt and/or gravel roads, offers limited parking, toilets, a boat ramp and primitive camping a short distance downriver at the Box Elder campsite (no camping fees and no potable water). These campsites along and accessible from CR 10 out of Dove Creek are located at 18.80, 19.20, 19.70 and 21.00 miles below Bradfield. All are on river left just past Sheep Mountain Point. Contact BLM at 970-247-4874 for information. 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. Groups of ten or fewer should NOT set up camp on the larger beaches so that large groups can have adequate room for their camps. Sending boats ahead to establish a camp is a practice highly frowned upon and discouraged. 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!
Shuttle distance is about 40 miles (50-60 minutes) one way, so plan accordingly. Shuttle information may be available from the BLM at 970-882-7296 (Dolores) or 970-240-5300 (Montrose). 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 Dolores River is a beautiful place where canoeists can join kayakers and rafters to enjoy one of Colorado's premiere whitewater rivers. What it lacks in technical merit is more than made up for by its serene and spectacular scenery. The water is fast moving and cold. The season is short. The section between Cahone (Bradfield Access) and Slick Rock is the most popular section of the Dolores River, and will be the most crowded on weekends, especially around Memorial Day. With only one major rapid, the rest of the trip is a great Class III ride in fairly fast water. Putting in at Bradfield offers trips of 19 or 47 miles. Putting in at Mountain Sheep Recreation Site offers a trip of 28 miles. This section is usually a three-day trip, but it can be extended for those preferring a more leisurely pace and taking time to explore the riverbanks. It can be a two-day trip for those who want to paddle steadily. 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.