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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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