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Arkansas River2023-05-15T18:38:16-07:00

Arkansas River: Colorado’s Most Popular Whitewater Destination

The Arkansas River is well-known throughout Colorado for providing some of the best whitewater to be had. Boasting over 20 named rapids in a 9-mile section, the Royal Gorge section is an adrenaline-packed trip. There is a train that runs parallel to a good portion of this stretch, which offers a unique experience as you are descending into some of the more chaotic rapids (make sure your paddle commands are loud…). Upstream, the Lower Bighorn Sheep Canyon section offers some mellower, yet still fun whitewater, while still having a Class V rapid for the more experienced boaters. These two sections can be combined to offer a fantastic, long single day trip.

Raft smashing through a wave on the Royal Gorge
Scenic downstream view on the Arkansas River
Class III rapids on the Arkansas River
Looking upstream in the Royal Gorge on the Arkansas river.

About this guide

This guide outlines The Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River. Put-ins and take-outs include links to their Google Map locations. Use these to accurately build shuttle directions.

River Info

The Arkansas River is most famous for the Royal Gorge – a 9 mile stretch of river with over 20 named Class III, IV, and V rapids. The shuttle is easy, the rapids are large, and the scenery is incredible. This river is one of the most commercially rafted rivers in the United States, so there can be points of congestion.


As water flows increase, rapids also get harder and some Class IV sections will bump into Class V. If the water gets high enough, a High Water Advisory is put into place. At these flows, commercial trips won’t operate but private boaters can still go out. In an interview, Rob White, manager of the AHRA, is quoted best: “For private boaters still planning on floating the Arkansas, White recommended never boating alone. He said boaters should be experienced, have run the river before and run it at these levels and have the right gear with them, noting that the water is colder and faster now with the increased runoff.”

In addition to high flows, it’s important to know that there is rebar on river left at several rapids. You will want to avoid this at all costs. This is especially true on Narrows Rapid. Commercial outfitters will advise non-experienced boaters to remain in the center of current if they have swimmers in this rapid.

There is also a train that follows this section of the river on river left. The train company does not want you to pull over on river left, so most scouting will be done on river right.

Finally, in the event of an emergency, there are AEDs and backboards throughout this section. Here are the GPS waypoints for these:


Permits are not required to run the Arkansas River. However, many access points require a parking pass, which can be bought for the year or per day.

Shuttle Info

The Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River has one put-in and take-out. The shuttle is about 20 minutes in each direction. The put in for the Royal Gorge is located at the AHRA Parkdale Recreation Site and the take-out is at River Station River Access in Cañon City. There is a $9 fee to park a car at Parkdale, but parking a car at take-out is free. The put-in is heavily used by commercial rafting companies and private boaters, so be patient and courteous with one another.

The Arkansas River typically peaks in mid-June as the snowpack of the Rockies begins to melt. These are rough guidelines for low, medium, and high water levels for the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River.

Low Flow: >700 CFS
Medium Flow: 700 – 2,500 CFS
High Flow: >2,500 CFS (above 3,200 is considered very high water, and will trigger a High Water Advisory)

Arkansas River Flow

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Arkansas River Map & Guide

WARNING: Conditions change frequently and may make this guide useless. This guide is NOT a replacement for sound judgment. Go with someone with recent Arkansas experience.

Class II Rapid

Class II rapid or river feature.

Class III Rapid

Class III rapid or river feature.

Class IV Rapid

Class IV rapid or river feature.

Class V Rapid

Class V rapid or river feature.

Put-In / Take-Out

The most commonly used access points.

Point of Interest

These include creeks, and old cabins.

Fun Zone

Well known surf waves, jump rock locations, and safe swim areas

Lower Bighorn Sheep Canyon  – Class II, III, IV & V

The Lower Bighorn Sheep Canyon offers excellent Class III whitewater, with one Class V rapid. There are multiple access points for this section, so you can pick your difficulty.


Pinnacle Rock River Access to Parkdale Recreation Site is 8.63 miles.


Intermediate to Expert

Feet per Mile

The average drop of the Arkansas River from Pinnacle Rock River Access to Parkdale Recreation Site is ~34 FPM

Shuttle Time

Pinnacle Rock River Access to Parkdale Recreation Site  is 20 minutes round trip. Google Map directions.

Mile 0 – Pinnacle Rock River Access: River Right. $9 per vehicle fee ($4 without a vehicle).

Mile 0.74 – Wake-up/Prelude: Class III. This is a fun first rapid of this section. Start center right and ride the wave train following the main current from right to river left. After the slight turn continue on the wave train and avoid the pourover at the end of the wave train.

Mile 1.22 – Three Rocks Rapid: Class III-V. This should be scouted from the highway. At high water this is one of the most challenging rapids on the river and sees the most carnage. You will start to enter this rapid at the first right hand turn after Prelude. There are 3 lines at highwater and only run if you are a confident boater and all passengers are ok swimming. Learn more about Three Rocks Rapid. 

Mile 1.57 – Salt Lick River Access: River right. Salt Lick River Access has a AED and backboard in case of emergency. There is a $9 fee to use this river access.

Mile 1.87 – Five Points Rapid: Class III. Enter in the left channel for this long, splashy rapid. As the river bends right, watch out for a rock on river left, there is a good amount of current pushing into it. As you exit the rapid, there is a deck where curious folk staying at Five Points Campsite can watch your line.

Mile 2.0 – Five Points Camp: River right. Across the highway is a good camping option at Five Points Camp. There is no access to the river here, but it is a good place to set up a home base.

Mile 2.1 – Onlookers Point: River Right. Small deck offering great view at the end of the rapid.

Mile 3.79 – Spike Buck River Access: River Right. There is a $9 fee to use this river access.

Mile 4.05 – Spike Buck Rapid: Class III. Enter center. Look out for Decision Rock in the middle of the river at low-medium flows which can be passed on right or left – be sure to make your decision early. As the river bends left, work left to avoid a rockpile on the right-side. Don’t go too far left, as there are rocks on the left side to get stuck on. At high-water, you can stay right to enjoy some big hits.

Mile 5.20 – Shark’s Mouth Rapid: Class III. Wave to watch out in the center. Be sure to T this up.

Mile 5.35 – Shark’s Tooth Rapid: Class III. Enter center and work left to avoid boulders on the right-side. During high water, stay right, but avoid the right shore.

Mile 5.91 – Single Dip: Class II. Hit this small drop center-right.

Mile 5.95 – Double Dip Rapid: Class III. Hit the second drop right-of-center. There is a pourover to watch out for.

Mile 6.38 – Satan’s Suckhole: Fun surf wave in the center of the river. Washes out at high water and really low water.

Mile 6.51 – Puppy Rapid: Class II. Read-and-run.  There is fun, runnable wave at most levels. There can be some rocks on the left side depending on flows. At high water, be sure to T up all the waves.

Mile 7.2 – Last Chance Rapid: Class II. Read-and-run rapid. This is the last rapid before the Parkdale take-out.

Mile 8.1 – Parkdale Bridge: A bridge passes overhead. Parkdale take-out is downstream in about a half mile.

Mile 8.63 – Parkdale River Access: River Right. There is a $9 fee to use this river access. Below this point begins the infamous Royal Gorge section, with some burly Class IV-V rapids to contend with.

Royal Gorge  – Class II, III, IV & V

The Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River offers some of the best whitewater and scenery in Colorado. There are over 20 named rapids in this stretch, be ready for consistent, big whitewater.


Parkdale Recreation Site to River Station River Access is 10.54 miles.


Intermediate to Advanced

Feet per Mile

Parkdale Recreation Site to River Station River Access is ~40 FPM

Shuttle Time

Parkdale Recreation Site to River Station River Access is 30 minutes round trip. Google Map directions.

Mile 0 – AHRA Parkdale Put-In: River Right. The Put-in for the Royal Gorge is at the AHRA-owned Parkdale Recreation Site. This is a very busy put-in during the spring and summer months. There is a $9 fee per vehicle to be paid at the self-pay kiosk. Learn more about Parkdale.

Mile 0.58 – Tallahassee Creek Confluence: River Left. Tallahassee Creek joins the Arkansas River on river left.

Mile 1.02 – Highway 50 Bridge: A mile below Parkdale, you’ll pass under the Highway 50 bridge. Your first rapids are just under a mile away.

Mile 1.87 – Primero Rapid: Class III. Appropriately named, El Primero is the first rapid of the Royal Gorge. You’ll start this rapid by entering left, moving right, and then finally – and this should be apparent – moving left away from the bottom right wall. At lower water, this rapid gets shallow with lots of rocks to avoid.

Mile 1.97 – Segundo Rapid: Class II. Read-and-run rapid.

Mile 2.08 – Tercero Rapid: Class II. Tercero is a read-and-run rapid.

Mile 2.6 – Pumphouse Rapid: Class III. Just before this rapid starts you will notice a concrete structure on river right, which is an old water pumping station. The river bends to the right, the main line is to start river left and work around the bend and avoid the major rocks or holes depending on the water flow.

Mile 2.81 – Caretaker Rapid: Class III. At high flows, there is a hole that forms on center-right. At most flows, stay center to avoid this feature. At medium to low flows, you can go through this feature for a big hit. Just below this rapid is an abandoned home on river right.

Mile 2.99 – Sunshine Falls: Class IV-V. We suggest you scout this rapid. The line at Sunshine Falls changes quite a bit depending on the flows. At high flows, enter right and stay right – be sure to T up to the lateral waves at the bottom. At medium flows, enter left, hit the main drop, and then work to the right before the second drop. At low flows, this rapid becomes very technical, enter right, and be ready for some quick moves. At all flows, stay right of the rocks on the bottom left. Learn more about Sunshine Falls.

Mile 3.09 – Grateful Dead Rapid: Class III-IV. Enter left-of-center to avoid a few large boulders on the right. Stay left of these, but avoid more boulders on the left. At higher water, be sure to T up to the bigger waves.

Mile 3.4 – Sledgehammer Rapid: Class IV-V. Sledgehammer is a 3 part rapid. High Water: Enter left, then after the first wave, work center. Hit big drop, which is large at higher water. Avoid the Envelope Wave in the center of the river (on the right or left). Hit second and third drop on river left. Low/Medium Water: Enter right to avoid a large boulder. Move back to river left. T up to the first wave and then start working back to river right. Hit the final two drops on river left.

Mile 3.61 – Hey Diddle Diddle Stay Out of the Middle Rapid: Class III-IV. Enter left at most flows and move right to avoid the main boulder in the center of the river. There is a rock dead center at medium and low flows, which becomes a boat-flipping hole at high flows. At higher water, the easiest line is to enter left and stay left.

Mile 4.1 – Spillway (Ski Jump): River Left. There is a spillway to keep runoff off of the train tracks. Around this bend lies Narrows Rapid.

Mile 4.23 – Narrows Rapid: Class IV. Pay attention here as there is rebar on river left and undercut rocks on river right. There are three drops in this continuous rapid. As water flows come down, these drops get smaller with more time between drops. If the water is high, clip the right side of the big hole of the first drop. At the second drop, you’ll come to a wave / hole that is center-left. T up to this with decent momentum. Below the second drop on river right is Lisa’s Lateral, which is a right lateral, which becomes large at higher flows. Finally, at the third drop, enter left, avoid the hole on the right, and T up to the wave on center-left. Again, keep your eyes out for the rebar on the left-hand side.

Mile 4.49 – Squeezebox Rapid: Class III/IV. At high water, this rapid washes out a bit and becomes read-and-run. At medium and low water there are a few entrances to this rapid. Be ready to pass over rocks if the water is lower. One option is to start in the center and work right towards the wall, then back away from the wall on the right. Another option is to enter center and work hard left just before the main boulders, but be mindful of the rebar.

Mile 4.58 – Royal Gorge Incline: River Left. There used to be rail cars that would come to river level from the rim to this building. Unfortunately, in 2013, this railway was burned during the Gorge Fire and is no longer functional.

Mile 4.61 – Wall Slammer Rapid: Class IV. During medium and low water flows, enter center, then work right. There is a large wave coming off the right side of the river known as the Typewriter Wave. Clip this wave on the right side. Below the Typewriter Wave is a boulder on river left which you pass by on the right. Work away from the wall after missing this boulder. Unfortunately, there is a lot of current pushing towards the wall on river right, which can cause flips if hit sideways. At high water, enter center and stay center.

Mile 4.73 – Royal Gorge Bridge: The Royal Gorge Bridge passes over the Arkansas River at this point. It was built in 1929 and up until 2003, was the highest suspension bridge in the world.

Mile 5.14 – Boat Eater Rapid: Class IV. The main feature to watch out for in this rapid is the Boat Eater Hole at the bottom of this rapid. Enter on the right side and keep right to skirt this big feature. At high water, run right to avoid this hole. At medium and low flows, there are three large boulders in the center of the river (one after another). From right-to-left pass between the second and third boulders. Below here, pick a channel on right or left around Boat Eater Rock (the left channel can close out at lower flows).

Mile 5.59 – Corner Pocket Rapid: Class III. There is a large house rock (Soda Fountain Rock) in the center of the rapid. Stay right of this rock, then work hard left to avoid getting pushed into the wall on river right. At higher water, you can go left of Soda Fountain Rock.

Mile 5.63 – Below Corner Pocket Swimming Hole: River Right. Below Corner Pocket, there are some jump rocks and a good swimming hole on the right-hand side.

Mile 5.76 – Lion’s Head Rapid: Class III. At some flows a wave train forms in the bottom half of this rapid. As the water gets higher, these waves get bigger and bigger. During medium flows, go center-right to follow the wave train and be sure to T up to the bigger waves. At higher flows, this rapid washes out.

Mile 5.91 – Exit/Tombstone Rapid: Class III. The river bends to the right. In the center of the river, there is a large concrete pylon. Stay right to avoid getting pushed into this feature. At lower flows, this rapid becomes a bit more technical – be ready for a many moves to avoid rocks.

Mile 6 – Exit Waves: Class III. At higher water, hit these waves down the middle and T up to them. These are awesome waves that get smaller as the water goes down.

Mile 6.54 – Pipeline Rapid: Class II / III. This boulder-ridden rapid passes underneath a pipeline. Enter on the left at most flows to avoid the rocks in the middle, then T up to the main wave. Watch for hidden rocks at low water.

Mile 8.66 – Rockdam Rapid: Class II. Be mindful here as the channel will change from time to time. There is usually a sign here indicating where to avoid the obstruction.

Mile 8.89 – Grape Creek Confluence: River Right. As you enter Cañon City, Grape Creek enters from the right-hand side. In high water, some kayakers run this creek.

Mile 9.546 – Rockdam Rapid 2: Class II. The boat chute is on the left side.

Mile 9.67 – Arkansas Riverwalk Trail Bridge #1: The first of 2 pedestrian bridges passes over the Arkansas River. Just downstream lies a fun little riffle.

Mile 9.75 – Cañon City Riffle: Class II. Enter right for this read-and-run riffle.

Mile 10.22 – First Street Bridge: First Street Bridge passes overhead. This is the second of four bridges you will encounter in Cañon City.

Mile 10.36 – Centennial Park River Access: River Right. Centennial Park River Access is on the right-side, just downstream of First Street Bridge. Most people choose to use the River Station River Access just downstream on the left.

Mile 10.46 – Arkansas Riverwalk Trail Bridge #2: The second Arkansas Riverwalk Trail Bridge passes overhead, just upstream of the 4th Street Bridge. Your takeout is just below this next bridge on the left-hand side, so it might be a good time to start moving left at this point.

Mile 10.51 – 4th Street Bridge: The 4th Street Bridge passes overhead. Take-out is immediately downstream of this feature on the left.

Mile 10.52 – River Station River Access: River Left. This is the most used take-out for the Royal Gorge Section of the Arkansas River. The river continues flowing east from this point before converging with the Mississippi River, but you will probably want to take out before that.

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