How River Water Levels Affect Colorado Whitewater Rafting

TAC staff - Zach

In Colorado, there is nothing very consistent about our rivers’ water levels.

So, those interested in whitewater rafting have to adjust to a wide range of flows.  Rafting may feel different at a trickle compared to a flood, but this adds to the challenge and excitement.

Since Colorado’s Rocky Mountains sit at such a high elevation, we tend to be quite close to where rivers begin.  Therefore, a river may only have a trickle of water coming from a spring at its source during the winter, but may swell to many times this size at peak snow melt.

There are some common misconceptions regarding the amount of water one is rafting upon.

Whether the amount of water in a river is high or low, we cannot expect a direct relationship to its difficulty.  When rafting, some rapids are easier at low flows while others are extremely difficult with very demanding and technical maneuvers.

At high water, some rapids “wash out” with obstacles so deep that they have less impact on the surface making them smoother while other rapids at high water may produce larger and more powerful whitewater features.

The difficulty of whitewater rapids when rafting is particular to each rapid, based on its unique structure.

Having a full understanding of the inherent risks associated with whitewater rafting in Colorado is very important to properly manage those risks.  Without even considering the difficulty of a rapid, varying water levels do affect risk.

The only thing consistent about higher water vs. lower water is that high water flows faster.  If problems occur while rafting at higher flows, there may be less time to recover from such problems, adding to its risk.

Managing risk is very important and commercial rafting outfitters, outfitters such as The Adventure Company make adjustments based on changing conditions to help ensure safety.

  • We only hire experienced guides because they are better at handling the challenge of high water.
  • Sometimes we use a downstream “safety net” in the form of a Safety Kayaker or Safety Cataraft as the farthest downstream boat in a pod, ready to help gather swimmers at higher water, due to its faster speed.
  • Lastly, eligibility requirements may be adjusted to compensate for increased risk like higher minimum ages or stronger fitness and swimming requirements.
  • We adhere to high water river closures recommended by Colorado State Parks.
  • Also, wetsuit rental gear can often help reduce the risk of cold water typically more common at higher flows in Colorado.

Often, rafting through larger waves and more powerful whitewater features can be more impressive at high water, compared to the opposite style of running whitewater where rock dodging and technical maneuvers create the biggest challenge.

High flows mean big splashes!

This summer, we can all look forward to the excitement of higher water, but it’s important to choose a trusted outfitter who can properly adjust for the unique influence of changing water levels.

Feel free to contact for questions or advice when tackling Colorado’s varying river water levels when whitewater rafting.

In Colorado, we will have a mix of levels from very low water prior to peak melt off, to high water during peak runoff and then back to lower water by the end of summer.  However, now in 2019 with above average snowfall, we expect above average water with a longer peak period and a longer season for big splashes and bigger smiles.

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