Forming in the San Juan Mountains of San Juan County at the confluence of its West and East Forks, the Animas River is a free-flowing, cold-water stream running north to south through Durango and down into to Navajo Reservoir on the New Mexico state line over a distance of about 126 miles, some of which is actually navigable. Actually, most of it is navigable if you have the right stuff (skills, experience and equipment.) It is larger than most rivers in the area, and a lot more beautiful, offering great Class I-V whitewater (though not all in the same reaches) and excellent fishing opportunities. The season on the Animas River is longer than that of most Colorado streams. Heavy run-off from snowmelt and summer rains usually continues until mid-June, though the water may not be clear until well into July. The Animas may remain navigable into late August or early September, depending upon snowpack and summer rains. The river begins at an elevation above 13,000 feet msl, but the river above Eureka is dangerous and best avoided due to its massive gradient, huge boulders, Class V to V+ drops, swift current, cold water temperature and lack of access.
For advanced to expert level paddlers the Upper Animas River between Silverton and Baker's Bridge is a Class IV to V paradise of stunning beauty and whitewater excitement. This is where the hair begins! The run is long - 25.7 miles if taking out at the Tacoma power plant, or 31.5 miles if running through the Rockwood Box to Baker's Bridge - but the gradient is steep and the flow is fast. Access is all but impossible between Silverton and Tacoma other than on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train that runs on schedule between Durango and Silverton (who knew?) The train can serve as an attractive alternative to self-shuttling. It runs alongside the river for a spectacular view of the thrills and dangers that await the brave. The awesome and inspiring ride is about 3.5 hours from Durango to Silverton giving you plenty of time to scout the river on the way up and then decide whether to run the river or take the train back to Durango. And, the cost is less than that of a typical commercial shuttle for a trip like this one.
The Upper Animas River between Silverton and Durango is demarcated into almost equal length segments by three major drops - Garfield Slide, No Name Falls and Broken Bridge. This upper 31.5 miles can be run in kayaks or rafts down to Rockwood, but not canoes, and rafts should not attempt the river below the Rockwood Railyard. Paddlers should be expert level whitewater boaters. Canoes are not well-suited for this run regardless of outfitting or paddler skills, and rafts are just too big for this run below Rockwood. The water is cold ( 40° F ) so wear proper attire to protect yourself from hypothermia. A drysuit with base layers or a really good wetsuit with base layers will aid in comfort level. In addition to the aforementioned garment options, Neoprene or other insulating gloves should be worn to protect your hands.
The Animas River at and below Silverton can be a real mess. The water contains sulfuric acid from old mining operations along Cememt and Mineral Creeks, both of which enter the Animas at Silverton, Cement Creek from the right on the north side of town and Mineral Creek from the right on the south side of town. You will notice a decidedly different change in water color upon passing the Cement Creek confluence. Prolonged exposure to or drinking the waters of the Animas could cause health issues. In 2015, while the EPA was attempting to inspect the abandoned Gold King mine, an accidental discharge of mine tailings polluted the river turning it a yellow-orange color. Fishing for food is NOT recommended on this reach, though you will have little time to wet a line and little space to store your tackle between never ending major rapids anyway. This whole area was mined for gold, silver, uranium and other minerals over many decades and leeching still occurs, so be forewarned. As with most things, something great is offset by something not so great. (This info is probably not included in local travel guides, but paddlers need to be aware of their environment, especially when it has the potential to pose a significant health or safety risk.)
San Juan County, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains between Silverton and the Baker's Bridge near Durango. Nearby streams include the San Juan, San Miguel, Hermosa Creek, Lime Creek, Uncompahgre, Dolores, Rio Grande, Rio Chama and Gunnison Rivers, as well as many other excellent Colorado whitewater destinations.
Durango 47 miles; Grand Junction 217 miles; Denver 386 miles; Santa Fe 259 miles; Albuquerque 259 miles; Phoenix 501 miles; Oklahoma City 797 miles; Tulsa 903 miles; Dallas 911 miles; Austin 1,101 miles; San Antonio 1,181 miles; Houston 1,157 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally poor, though snow-melt cold. Minimum flows should be about 300 cfs and maximum flows for safe boating are about 3,000 cfs. Below 1,000 cfs the river channel can be rocky and may require excessive hiking, dragging, carrying or portages on Class IV water. Above about 1,100 cfs the difficulty rises to IV+ to V-. Above 4,000 cfs the river is (MORE) dangerous and can be deadly regardless of boat or experience.
Generally, the optimum season is from late May through August, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains.
The Upper Animas River has many rapids in the Class IV to V range between Silverton and Baker's Bridge, and most are accompanied by great surfing holes. The holes are not "keepers" as a rule, though some are, but paddlers should not be lax in navigating through and out of them. There are also some major drops requiring technical maneuvering skills to execute properly. The 20.3 miles from Silverton to Rockwood Railroad Depot can be run by advanced to expert skill level kayakers or rafters. Below here the river should only be run by expert kayakers. Canoeists should go somewhere else to play! Most paddlers should NOT attempt to run the Lower Rockwood Box (now called Baker's Box) regardless of boat or paddling experience! This is a Class V to V+ reach with Class VI or higher consequences. Rescues here would be difficult and slow in coming unless one can rescued by those in his or her own group, and forget making a cellphone call. Even a satellite phone may have problems because of the surrounding mountains.
For the most part this run should be considered as an almost non-stop whitewater thrill ride from top to bottom. The few slow times will mostly be between Silverton and the top of the canyon less than a mile downriver. The steep average gradient of about 80 fpm means the water will be flowing swiftly, so constant vigilance is required to successfully and safely run this river. Bring your "A" game!
Silverton 14th Street Access (N 37° 48' 39.98" / W 107° 39' 33.08") on river left after the bridge at 0.0 miles; Midway RR Depot (N 37° 35' 40.74" / W 107° 46' 41.28") on river left at about 20.3 miles (0.3 mile below Lime Creek confluence); Tall Timber RR Depot (N 37° 34' 03.93" / W 107° 46' 56.77") on river left at the depot at about 22.5 miles; Tacoma Power Plant parking lot (N 37° 31' 26.88" / W 107° 46' 57.14") off Forebay Lake Trail on river right at about 25.7 miles; Tacoma RR Depot (N 37° 31' 28.88" / W 107° 46' 55.05") on river left across from the power plant (if taking the train) at about 25.7 miles; Rockwood Railyard (N 37° 29' 18.57" / W 107° 47' 29.81") on river right at a clearing leading about 0.6 miles to the railyard at about 28.6 miles; Baker's Bridge Access (N 37° 27' 30.92" / W 107° 47' 57.36") on river right immediately after the CR 250 Bridge at about 31.5 miles. There may be other possible accesses along this reach of the river, but it is not likely.
South Mineral Campground off US Highway 550 above Silverton is a public camping area; Purgatory, off US Highway 550 above Electra Lake and below Rockwood Box is a public camping area; There are numerous commercial campgrounds with tent camping, motels accommodations, supplies and other amenities on or near the Animas River. Contact the USDA Forest Service Office at Durango (970-247-4874) for information on campsites and restrictions.
No known commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the Animas River.
The Upper Animas River below Silverton is a scenic run that is best left to highly experienced kayakers and rafters ... until you get to Rockwood, after which it is best not run at all, or at least by expert kayakers only. The Class IV-V rapids and accompanying holes make this no place to learn whitewater river skills. The setting is stereotypical Colorado wilderness, with the San Juan Mountains providing the backdrop and a narrow gauge railroad track running alongside the river most of the way. The train also serves as a shuttle back to the Silverton access if your cars are parked up there, or back to Durango if you parked there and then took the train upriver (which would smarter considering when you will arrive back in Durango.)
Because the water is cold and the sun is often blocked by the mountains, wearing wetsuits or drysuits is advisable for most paddlers. The Upper Animas would not be a good place to become hypothermic. Ear plugs would be advisable to keep the cold water out of your ear canals, a situation that can lead to serious aural complications from repeated and prolonged exposure. Canoes should not challenge the Upper Animas. Swiftwater rescue and emergency medicine skills would be advisable for all paddlers running the Upper Animas River. Go ONLY with paddlers whom you personally know to be competent for this run! This is definitely not Disneyland.