Region II. Colorado Rockies
Boating in the Colorado Rockies is a breathtaking experience -- literally. This region, which includes the mountainous heart of Colorado as well as neighboring portions of Wyoming and New Mexico, is by far the highest area in the West. Of the 67 peaks in the West over 14,000', 52 are in Colorado. The put-ins for two river runs in this region -- the Upper Animas and Upper Rio Grande -- are over 9,000'. Even the lowest spots are high: the bottom of the awesome Black Canyon of the Gunnison is more than a mile above sea level.
Like most of the 5,000-mile-long Rocky Mountain range, the Colorado Rockies are really a collection of distinct subranges, including the Sawatch, Front, Park, Gore, Medicine Bow, Sangre de Cristo, San Juan and others. Most were formed by powerful tectonic forces between 70 and 40 million years ago. The great San Juan Range in southwestern Colorado -- largest of the subranges -- is an eroded volcanic plateau formed 20 to 35 million years ago.
Running down the spine of the Colorado Rockies is the Continental Divide, which separates the Colorado basin to the west from the Rio Grande and Mississippi drainages to the east. Storms moving in from the Pacific drop most of their moisture on the west side of the Rockies, and as a result the rivers of the west slope carry roughly three times as much water in total as their counterparts on the east side. Even runoff on the west slope is not especially heavy, however: most of the snowfall in the Rockies is light powder which is great for skiing but produces less water than the dense, wet snow of the Pacific Coast states.
The rivers of the Colorado Rockies are generally small, steep, constricted, and technically demanding. Broad rivers and extended moderate floats are the exception rather than the rule. Also, wilderness runs are few and far between because roads, highways, and railroads in this rugged terrain generally follow river canyons.
In these conditions the kayak was long the craft of choice on the region's rivers. The Colorado Rockies are home to many of the West's greatest wildwater kayakers. Until fairly recently, rafting and canoeing were often left out in the cold. But with improvements in technique and the advent of self-bailing boats, rafters are successfully running many of the region's most demanding rivers. The canoe, traditionally an Eastern craft, is catching on throughout the West, including the Colorado Rockies.
The northern limit of our Colorado Rockies region is the Great Divide Basin in southern Wyoming, a 100-mile breach in the Rocky Mountains. The only Wyoming rivers included in this region are the Encampment and North Platte, both of which begin in Colorado and have runs that extend only a short way into Wyoming.
At the region's eastern limit the Rockies give way to the Great Plains. Here the rivers of the east slope turn flat as their gradients fall off to just a few feet per mile. The southern ends of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Ranges mark the lower boundary of the Colorado Rockies. Farther south, both elevation and precipitation diminish as the Rockies fade out. The only New Mexico rivers included in the Colorado Rockies region are the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, both of which have their headwaters in Colorado.
The region's western boundary is a matter of geology and aesthetics. The same rivers that tumble down the west slope of the Colorado Rockies extend westward into the Canyon Country. In western Colorado, where they leave the Rockies behind and enter "red rock" territory, all the major rivers -- the Yampa, Colorado, Dolores, San Juan and others -- metamorphose into muddy desert streams.
The rivers of the Colorado Rockies have suffered many abuses. Mining, especially in the mineral-rich San Juan Range, has left many river canyons scarred and polluted. Highways mar a number of canyons, and hydroelectric dams have drowned several fine runs, most notably some outstanding sections of the Gunnison River.
But the greatest damage has come from diversions of water from the west side of the Continental Divide to the east side. In Colorado, as in California, the distribution of water and people is badly out of balance: the west slope of the Rockies has 70 percent of the water, but 80 percent of the people and most of the agricultural land are on the east side of the range. The result has been the development of an elaborate system of dams, ditches, and tunnels that each year suck more than 600,000 acre-feet of water (about 200 billion gallons, or twice the average flow of the Piedra River) from the Upper Colorado and its tributaries to slake the ever-growing thirst of east slope farms and cities.
More rivers are in danger. City dwellers and farmers on the east slope continue to press for more diversions and larger storage reservoirs. Colorado is one of the most laggard states in the West in terms of river protection. As of 1993 the Cache la Poudre is the only National Wild and Scenic River in the state -- and even here a new dam has been proposed that would flood the Poudre right up to the Wild and Scenic boundary. Other seriously threatened rivers include the Gunnison, Animas, Yampa, and Blue.
There are some brighter notes. An EPA decision derailed the massive Two Forks Dam project on the South Platte. National Wild and Scenic protection of the Gunnison and other rivers is being discussed. The dramatic growth in the sport over the past 15 years has helped to foster a new appreciation for the remaining wild rivers of the Colorado Rockies both in the public at large and among a growing population of river runners.
Ironically, the same appreciation that may save some rivers from dams and developments has put others at risk of being loved to death. Boating use has skyrocketed as "whitewater fever" has swept the Colorado Rockies. Commercial rafting is concentrated on a relatively few rivers, most notably the hugely popular Arkansas, which ranks as the West's most frequently-boated river with 260,000 user-days (both commercial and private) in 1993 -- over half the total user-days for the entire region. Much of the remaining commercial boating is on the Upper Colorado, Cache la Poudre, Animas, Rio Grande, and Rio Chama.
Though non-commercial boaters also frequent these very popular runs, private use is spread somewhat more evenly among the area's rivers. As a result, private boaters do not presently face the kinds of use restrictions that are so common in the neighboring Canyon Country and Idaho - Northern Rockies regions. In the Colorado Rockies today, private use is limited on only one river, the Chama. Still, the number of private river runners continues to grow, especially in towns like Salida, Aspen, Durango, Glenwood Springs, and Steamboat Springs.
Excerpted from Western Whitewater from the Rockies to the Pacific