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.
From Bedrock to Gateway the Dolores River flows about 46 miles through Montrose and Mesa Counties in far western Colorado as it nears its confluence with the Colorado River in Utah. This run passes through Paradox and Mesa Canyons, two gorgeous geological wonders that accentuate the natural beauty of this reach. Bordering the river on the east is the Uncompahgre Plateau and Uncompahgre National Forest. There are no towns along this section of the river, but SH 141 parallels it from the confluence with the San Miguel River about 8 miles after the Bedrock launch to Gateway, where the river and the road diverge.
This section offers a lot of flatwater, a few Class I to III rapids, awesome scenery and many excellent natural campsites along the river. Starting at an elevation of 4,958 feet msl, the river drops about 400 feet in approximately 45.9 miles with an average gradient of about 8.7 fpm. The current is gentle (especially compared to reaches above Slick Rock), but the season is short in late spring and early summer depending almost entirely upon dam released water from McPhee Reservoir north of the Town of Dolores. Sandstone canyon walls rise from the river and give a perspective of just how tiny we are in the overall scheme of things.
The riverbanks will have some poison ivy, though not quite as much as the Slick Rock to Bedrock run, and Tamarisk trees grow in profusion along the river banks making access somewhat difficult at times. Native American culture is openly visible in the form of petroglyphs adorning canyon walls and telling stories of how things were many years ago in the Dolores River valley. The natural beauty of this area is beyond description. This is truly a wilderness run that few will ever experience. Side canyons offer excellent hiking and exploration. Bring your camera, and save some of that Calamine Lotion from the section above, because you may need it down here, too!
Montrose and Mesa Counties, Colorado, just a few miles southwest of the Uncompahgre National Forest between Grand Junction to the notheast and Dolores to the southeast. The West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, Gunnison, Colorado and San Miguel Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 160 miles; Grand Junction 128 miles; Denver 374 miles; Salt Lake City 413 miles; Albuquerque 372 miles; Phoenix 614 miles; Oklahoma City 1,000 miles; Dallas 1,158 miles; Austin 1,075 miles; San Antonio 983 miles; Houston 1,225 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 800 cfs, this section is a Class I to II+ run, but any flow over 800 cfs will increase everything by one level. Be sure to check the flow before you go. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool air temperature, layered water-repelling garments (non-cotton) 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 May into early June. This section of the Dolores River is seldom navigable from July through late April due to insufficient water. In drought periods the Dolores River may not flow at a navigable level at any time during a year.
This section of the Dolores River has some Class II-III rapids, but none that pose significant hazards at or above normal flows. Bring plenty of drinking water, food and supplies, because there is no place along the way to resupply.
Bedrock Access (N 38° 18' 14.89" / W 108° 53' 37.51") on river left in primitive campground at 0.0 miles; Y11 Road at San Miguel River confluence (N 38° 22' 47.44" / W 108° 48' 11.33") on river right at about 11.20 miles; R13 Road (N 38° 25' 34.95" / W 108° 49' 24.71") on river right before the bridge at about 15.10 miles; Possible access at SH 141 Bridge (N 38° 27' 09.67" / W 108° 51' 40.60") on river left before or after the bridge (rough access) at about 21.30 miles; Primitive access off SH 141 (N 38° 33' 51.79" / W 108° 55' 05.09") on river left just past the creek entering on the left at about 35.25 miles; Gateway Access (N 38° 40' 50.76" / W 108° 58' 49.98") on river left just after SH 141 bridge at about 45.90 miles. There may be other rough roadside access points on this section of the Dolores River.
There are no campgrounds along this section of the Dolores River. However, abundant natural campsites are available. Please observe the following use rules to insure that the river remains a pristine and wonderful place to paddle:
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!
Shuttle distance for this section is LONG (2 hours, or more) one way on paved roads, 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.
This section of the Dolores River is off the beaten path for most river runners for reasons unknown unless it has something to do with the general remoteness of the area and the length of shuttles. However, for those who venture here the run will be worth every effort, assuming there is adequate water to paddle. The Bedrock to Gateway reach can be run in canoes, kayaks and rafts. Intermediate or higher level whitewater skills are recommended due to the remoteness of the area and the few rapids in the Class II to III range that will be encountered. If you like nature at its finest, then this section will be right up your alley. It is very photogenic, so bring your camera, but secure it in a drybag or waterproof protective case that is lashed to your boat. If you have made it this far, then you may as well go on down to Dewey Bridge in Utah, doubling the distance and quadrupling the enjoyment.