Colorado, Colorado Destinations, Colorado Hikes, Southwestern US, US National Parks

Rafting the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument

The final day of our Memorial weekend trip was upon us, which meant one thing: whitewater rafting time!

We were signed up for a full-day trip on the Arkansas River with Noah’s Ark Rafting. I booked this trip back in January, at which time I debated between Saturday or Sunday and joked that, no matter which day I picked, the other one would have better weather. And sure enough, as the weekend approached and I began watching the forecast closely, it became clear that Saturday was shaping up to be warm and sunny while Sunday – rafting day – was looking cooler and cloudy with a chance of rain. Fortunately, we were able to rent wetsuits and the rain held off until we were back in the car… but it definitely wasn’t an ideal day to be getting drenched with cold river water.

The Arkansas River arises in the Sawatch Mountains in central Colorado and flows generally southeast through the state. It’s the most popular river in Colorado for whitewater-based recreation. Our trip took us along 18 miles (29 km) of the river, more than half of which is encompassed by Browns Canyon National Monument. Browns Canyon is a relatively new monument, established in 2015 and managed by the BLM. It is fairly undeveloped, so this would be a good way for us to immerse ourselves and see parts of the monument that are otherwise difficult to access.

We entered the river at Noah’s Ark and began making our way downstream. There were eight other people on our tour, and we split up into two boats – Pat and I with another couple and a guide in one boat, and a group of six friends with a second guide in the other. We didn’t really have much contact with the other boat, but we got along well with our boat mates and guide, which was a lot of fun. The morning stretch of the trip covered about 10 miles (16 km) and included multiple sets of class II and class III rapids. We got very wet, and a couple of the largest ones sent me flying into the boat, but none of them threw me out of the boat, so I’m considering that a win.

As we entered the canyon, brown rock walls rising on either side of the river, it became clear why the monument is named Browns Canyon. It’s not the largest, deepest, or most picturesque canyon I’ve ever seen. But it was a scenic trip nonetheless.

(Please excuse any blurry splotches in these photos, my phone was in a waterproof case)

At midday, we stopped at a take-out point where everyone else got picked up – they’d all signed up for the half-day trip – leaving just us and our guide for the second half of the day! They put some kind of contraption into the raft that allowed him to sit in the middle and paddle with both arms, meaning Pat and I didn’t have to do much work anymore and mostly just sat back and enjoyed the view while chatting with the guide. We stopped at a small beach for lunch (provided by the company) and then continued downriver. This afternoon section had fewer rapids, but two of them were class IV. To our recollection, these were the first class IV rapids we’d ever experienced. They were definitely challenging to navigate, and we got wet, but we still stayed in the boat.

Lunch with a view
Arkansas River views

By the time we’d made it back to Noah’s Ark and changed into dry clothes, it was about 2:30pm…  plenty of time to squeeze in a hike before dinner. Just up the road is the Ruby Mountain Recreation Area, which includes picnic and camp areas, a boat launch, dirt paths for offroading, and a hiking trail into Browns Canyon. We parked at the Ruby Mountain Trailhead and set off along the Turret Trail. This trail curves around Ruby Mountain and then roughly parallels the Arkansas River through the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area. It weaves through dry scrubby forest, dropping into washes and climbing to high points with views across the Arkansas River Valley to the towering Collegiate Peaks.

Mount Princeton, as seen from the Ruby Mountain Trailhead
Ruby Mountain
Views from the high point of the Turret Trail

Eventually, the trail flattens and meanders through a meadow next to the river. Storm clouds were building so this is where we turned around, but the trail continues for many miles.

L-R: Mount Shavano, Mount Antero, Mount Princeton

On the way back, we followed the unmaintained trail up to the summit of Ruby Mountain. It was short but steep, and I’m glad we took the detour because these were the best views of the day!

Views from the Ruby Mountain summit
Browns Canyon handstand

Back at the trailhead, we headed over to a picnic table down by the river. Ruby Mountain charges a $9/car day use fee, so we figured we might as well make the most of it and stick around through dinner.

Arkansas River at the Ruby Mountain boat launch

But by dinner time, the weather had deteriorated to the point that it was far too windy to cook and eat at a picnic table. So we found a scenic place to park and set about cooking and eating dinner in the car. When we bought Fiona, our Subaru Forester, we never could have imagined how multi-functional she would become. We’ve driven her over high mountain passes and down rough dirt roads. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve slept in her. And we’ve eaten many a meal in her when inclement weather disrupts our plans for a picnic.

Tacos, however, is the most complicated car meal we’ve ever attempted. It wasn’t easy to find a place to dice the avocado and tomato. And there were a lot of ingredients to not spill. But in the end, there wasn’t any food splattered in the car and neither of us were wearing our tacos, so I’d call it a success.

How to heat up taco meat and dice vegetables without getting blown away
Car tacos with a view

And lest you think this was the end of the finicky weather, let me assure you that it was not. The mountains were already enveloped in clouds the next morning when we emerged from our tent, and we had just finished packing up our campsite (I kid you not, we were placing the last item into the car) when snow started falling from the sky at a fairly horizontal angle. So we ate yet another meal in the car, and by the time we finished the sun was out again and the clouds were lifting.

Why yes, it is snowing at the end of May
Fifteen minutes later

But we’d had enough. It was time to bid the Arkansas River Valley goodbye and head back to Denver, where – after driving through three more brief snowstorms – sunshine and warmer temperatures awaited us.


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the main entrance to Browns Canyon National Monument is located off Highway 285 about 10 miles (16 km) south of Buena Vista, Colorado
  • Fees and passes: $9/car day use fee at Ruby Mountain Rec Area; interagency passes are NOT accepted
  • Hiking: we hiked about 4.2 miles (6.8 km) roundtrip with 650 feet (200 m) of elevation gain on the Turret/Ruby Mountain Trail; see this trail map for more Browns Canyon hiking
  • Rafting: we booked the Browns Canyon all-day trip with Noah’s Ark Rafting and had a good experience
  • Where to stay: established camping is available at Ruby Mountain, dispersed camping is available nearby on National Forest land, and there are many camping and lodging options in Buena Vista
  • Other: Browns Canyon is not well-developed so plan to be fairly self-sufficient, especially if you venture onto the trails or into the canyon on the river… phone service is minimal

45 thoughts on “Rafting the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument”

  1. What an adventure! You weren’t really lucky with the weather, but witnessing snow in May is quite incredible! It seems like you had an amazing time! I have never tried rafting (noly kayaking) but it seems really fun. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post, Diana! I enjoyed the scenery and the narration and the memories that came back to me.

    I had always wanted to take a raft trip. I am glad I finally went, once with my children in Pennsylvania, and once with my children and my sister in Idaho. They were fairly tame trips, but I was already in my fifties. Now in my seventies, I cherish the memories. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a cool place to whitewater raft! I can totally relate to chopping vegetables in the back of the car haha We’re constantly improvising when we car camp. Thanks for sharing! Sounds like an awesome Memorial Day Weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always wanted to try whitewater rafting. Sounds like an exhilarating experience, perhaps even more so because of the weather. At least you were able to rent wetsuits. I applaud your efforts to make tacos in your car. It’s something I am very familiar with. Maybe not making tacos, but certainly trying to make food in your car when you’re camping and the weather isn’t ideal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t believe you’ve never been rafting! You should try it, I bet you’d love it. My fiancé went rafting in Quebec when he was in high school, so I’m sure there are some places to go a little closer to where you live as well.

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  5. I can empathise with the fickle weather. Here in Scotland, it’s not uncommon to experience all four seasons in a day up in the hills… even in the summer! Hats off to you both for making tacos in the car. We’re never that adventurous with cooking when on a camping trip (just-add-water couscous sachets are our go-to!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest, I pre-cook all the components so all we have to do is heat them up. I’m not adventurous enough to bring raw meat in my cooler or anything like that. So it’s not too different from a just-add-water type meal.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hadn’t even thought of doing that! You’ve inspired me to re-think meal-planning for an upcoming trip… more variety in evening meals would definitely be welcome on trips when we have the car with us 🙂 Pre-cooking meat is a sensible strategy – reduces the chances of food poisoning.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. A very busy day. Love the name of the rafting company. We have rafted several times on the mountain streams up here and the companies provide wetsuits, as the water temperature is seldom above 40 F in the mountains. The hike looks good too Diana. It is nice to find someone else who names there vehicles as we do. In car dining is higly under rated when bad weather is about. Cheers. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You and I seem to not be alone in our vehicle naming and car dining! I suppose all of us who adventure in the mountains are bound to get thwarted by weather now and then.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely always worry about falling out, but your feet are tucked in to help hold you in place, and I always lean in a bit when a rapid is coming up so that if I do fall, I fall into the boat instead. I’m sure I’ll fall out one of these days, though

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah, the river rafting looks like so much fun – great pictures! And how nice to end the day with yet another hike – beautiful views from the Ruby Mountain summit. Your car tacos looks as good as any meal in a restaurant! Snow and sunshine in a matter of 15 minutes … my word!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It must have been a unforgettable experience. Thanks for sharing this adventure. I also likes the cactusflowers and the Indian paintbrush. You also seem to have a practical kitchen in your car and of course, a great hand stand 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Looks like a cold day to be rafting, but a scenic one nevertheless! Tacos in a makeshift van kitchen don’t look half-bad, haha. Glad you had a wonderful time on the Arkansas River!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was definitely cold. Fortunately the sun periodically came out, and the paddling helped us keep warm. But as soon as we were off the river, we were both suddenly freezing.

      Liked by 1 person

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