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Colorado Packrafting Extravaganza

Posted: Fri Jun 19, 2020 9:07 am
by MS2
Recently I joined a couple of friends from Arizona and Utah on a week’s long packrafting extravaganza of Colorado whitewater. The tour included the Piedra, EF & WF San Juan, Mesa section of the San Juan, Arkansas, Roaring Fork, Crystal, Gore Creek and the Eagle river.

With so much incredible whitewater and scenery, it’s hard to distinguish the most spectacular runs as they all have their own distinctive intimate character. With that said, and strictly from a whitewater perspective, my list for the most butt-puckering, hand sweating, I have to pee again are listed below in order of difficulty.

1. Roaring Fork - Slaughter House run. We hit this at perfect packraft flows of just north of 1000 cfs. This is 5 miles of a solid class 4 run with Slaughter House Falls being the crux. It rocks and rolls right from the beginning and all the way to the take out. I would say this section is doable up to 1500 cfs in a packraft. After that, Slaughter House Falls would become a monster with high plenty points for not hitting your line (think frowning hole), and the rest of the run would be constant class 4+. Luckily you are right next to the Rio Grande bike path and the Town of Aspen, so if you do get in trouble at least you are not far from help.

2. Arkansas – The Numbers. This is 5 miles of class 4 we hit at around 1200 cfs. Lot’s of carnage that day from rafters, kayakers and people in our group. I think rapid 1 and 5 are the most difficult, but we had swimmers in 2 and 3 as well. Perfect flow for packrafts, although there were quite a few kayakers who warned us not to do it. Anything above 1700 cfs in a packraft is probably asking for a swim in every rapid as it really would start to get sticky and pushy.

3. Piedra – 1st and 2nd Boxes (19 miles). Fabulous wilderness run in box canyons that we hit at around 1000 cfs – last year we ran it at 2000. The crux of this run is Eye-of-the-Needle, and it is definitely a 4+ at the flows we saw. There are 3 or 4 other named rapids in these two sections, and they all deserve respect. However, the 1st box is the most challenging with confused water and river wide hydraulics that cannot be skirted. The incised canyon does not allow egress if you get in trouble, and if you lose your boat, you are running the whitewater in your life jacket (ask me how I know). I would have placed the Piedra at number 1, except that it is pool and drop in nature and not as continuous as the Roaring Fork or the Numbers.

4. Gore Creek (750 cfs) & Eagle River (1700 cfs). We ran Gore Creek (7 miles) from main Vail down to the confluence with the Eagle river at Dowd Chutes (4 miles), and then continued down the Eagle River all the way to Edwards (9 miles). Gore Creek was super fun at this flow. Lot’s of splashy 3+ face shots with three or four 4- rapids thrown in. Once we hit the Eagle, we were immediately challenged by the ¼ mile long Dowd Chutes rapid, which was a solid class 4 with a big ugly hole right at the end. One of our guys didn’t think the hole looked that bad and decided to swim it. He only got recirc’d a couple of times, but his boat had to be pitoned out of the hole by some very gracious kayakers. We hit these two at perfect packraft flow, and I would run Gore up to 1500 cfs, and the Eagle up to 3000.

5. Crystal River – Bogan Canyon Section (800 cfs). This section is from Marble to Redstone. Perfect flows with easy class 3 splashy fun. There might be a 4- right before the take out at Redstone as we had one person swim and get pretty banged up on the rocks. I would run this up to 1600 cfs without any hesitation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that we all ran open, self-bailing packrafts. I’m sure that with a skirted packraft and bomber roll you could run everything mentioned above at higher flows. However, for me, one of the challenges of packrafting that I enjoy the most is the cerebral boating that is required to move around big hydraulics when you are in an open rig. If I want to go hole hunting, I just get in my hard shell.

Re: Colorado Packrafting Extravaganza

Posted: Sat Jun 20, 2020 6:29 pm
by hellcat
I'm envious. It's been 7 years since I've had the pleasure to tramp about Colorado. If I had two hundred years I still couldn't be satisfied with exploring the US alone, alone. I love the Arkansas basin but my favorite is the Flat Tops. Never had a chance to do anything in the San Juan, but its on the bucket list. I'll get there some day. Sure love some Crested Butte, CO though. Look forward to some future postings MS2.

Re: Colorado Packrafting Extravaganza

Posted: Fri Jul 10, 2020 6:57 pm
by MikeC
Good TR.

Flows are subjective, of course.

I've run everything you listed at about the flows you listed.

Perhaps I'm just getting old, but I wouldn't want much more water than what you had for any of 'em.

It's been ~10 years since I ran EF and WF San Juan. Did you run the burly hike-in box on the WF?

Re: Colorado Packrafting Extravaganza

Posted: Mon Jul 13, 2020 6:48 am
by MS2
Hey Mike, first let me say that I follow Big Wheel Building and have gleamed more ideas and used your beta on more trips (Chetco, Elwah, WF Bruneau, etc.), than any other source. So thank you for taking the time to post your trips up.

We hiked from the Rainbow TH to the hot springs and scouted the WF, but it is not runnable at this time. There are multiple 20' tall wood strainers in the box canyon section that cannot be portaged. I would have loved to have seen it before the beetle kill event and avalanches of 2019 because it looks like an amazing piece of whitewater. We ended up running from the Rainbow TH down to the confluence, and then down river to the first highway bridge across the San Juan. I will say that the first mile of the WF was a blast with a bunch of 3+ stuff and maybe one or two 4- rapids right at the beginning. After the confluence is a really fun section of 3+ rapids for a couple of miles as well.