Rowin’ on the River: Paddling the Arkansas, Rowing Cataract
If you’re not out there running the rivers this season, what are you even doing with your life? The mucho grande snowpack from one of the snowiest ever seasons in the Rocky Mountains means this year’s whitewater rafting is stupidly splendid! Every watershed in the west has an average of 125% to 135% normal snowpack, which translates to a f*** ton more water in the rivers we run.
To that end, these are two nearby rivers you should float while the gettin’ is good.
If you prefer to paddle: The Arkansas River
Though the mouth of the Arkansas River is in Napoleon, Arkansas and is a major tributary of the Mississippi River, when people talk about running “the Arkansas” they are generally referring to a trip that starts somewhere in the Colorado Rockies near the Continental Divide.
The strangest thing about this river is that it flows west to east from Colorado through Kansas and Oklahoma on its way to Arkansas, and it just feels like it’s supposed to go the other way. Anyway, the Arkansas River boasts more than 100 miles of whitewater from Class I (basically bathwater) to IV+(come-to-Jesus) rapids, which makes it one of the most popular rivers to run out west.
Echo Canyon River Expeditions
I paddled with the folks at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, based in Cañon City, who offer package discounts for lodging and other outdoor activities paired with rafting. They also have tour bundles for other nearby attractions, like the Royal Gorge Bridge and Theme Park and the historic Royal Gorge Railroad. Yay train rides! You don’t have to be Ross Geller to enjoy the Dinosaur Experience next to the main building at Echo Canyon. It’s as close to a Jurassic Park visit as I can imagine, but you know, without the impending doom.
Paddling the Royal Gorge
Rafting the Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River is a singular adventure. In my boat, all seven of us (guide included) simultaneously clung onto our paddles and the raft while trying very hard not to “be a swimmer.” As we pushed our paddles through the fierce water, the raft lurched and punched through an aptly named rapid “Boat Eater,” which was flanked by humongous foreboding boulders and tricky drops. This is just one of the many exciting rapids on this stretch of the Arkansas.
Despite being in the middle of trying to champion this Class IV rapid, I was able to find a moment to appreciate the Royal Gorge Bridge situated conveniently above this particular rapid set against the backdrop of towering sandstone walls. It would have been a shame to miss this rare view of the world’s highest suspension bridge as we paddled our way through the raging waters, even if it meant I’d go for an accidental plunge.
After braving my way through the Arkansas, I went to the annual Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival in Cañon City to watch others perform feats of whitewater mastery and celebrate with boats, bands, and beers. This year’s Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival is June 21–23, 2019.
Where to Stay
If you haven’t tried glamping, Echo Canyon Lodging is a great place to try it out. If you prefer permanent walls, they also offer luxury mountain cabins with mountain views.
If you prefer to let someone else do the rowing: Cataract Canyon
In July of 1869, John Wesley Powell and his crew were among the first to run Cataract Canyon. He wrote, “On starting, we came at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decided to name this Cataract Canyon.”
I used to think it was so-named because the water is so splashy in the big rapids that you can barely see, but as it turns out, cataract is an old-timey word for waterfalls. In addition to the succession of Class III-V rapids o’ plenty, this canyon also offers some of the most beautifully remote landscape in the world, including a unique view of Dead Horse Point from far below. More than 300 million years of rock history presents its story through Anasazi petroglyphs, sandstone spires, and ancient granaries.
Running Cataract Canyon has been on my bucket list for a month of Sundays. It’s a must-do-before-you-die kind of thing. This spectacular 100-mile journey on the Colorado River starts near Moab, meanders through Canyonlands National Park, and ends in Lake Powell. Unless you chopper in, the only way to get to the good stuff is to row an oar boat through 47 miles (about three days) of Class I–II rapids until you get to the Confluence where the real action starts.
Holiday River Expeditions
I took a few turns rowing the boat in still water, and it made me really appreciate how skilled and strong the guides have to be to maneuver through this odyssey—they also did the cooking, cleaning, and entertaining. So basically, I just princessed my way down the river, switching between paddleboarding, kayaking, and oar-rafting, for five days. This too was exceedingly glorious.