White Water Rafting Royal Gorge of the Arkansas

While visitors stream to Colorado’s ski slopes in the winter, in the summer they come for outdoor mountain activities such as whitewater rafting trips. The Arkansas River is perhaps the most popular rafting destination in Colorado. And, rafting in Royal Gorge is a particularly unique experience.

Header photo courtesy Echo Canyon River Expeditions.

As spring approaches I am looking forward to getting back out on the river. Rafting season in Colorado typically runs from around April to September. The rapids tend to be faster earlier in the summer with the snowmelt and slow as the season progresses. It isn’t too early to think about making plans.

Royal Gorge is one of our favorite day trips from Colorado Springs. But make it a weekend and enjoy all it has to offer by including Arkansas River rafting.

From above watching rafting in the Royal Gorge.
Looking down from the Royal Gorge Bridge to the specs of those rafting in the Royal Gorge.

2021 Summer Season of Rafting in Royal Gorge

“I am happy to report that the mountain snowpack is in good shape,” said Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Colorado’s largest rafting outfitter. “After a stretch of dry weather things are rounding into form.”

Statistics confirm his “research.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Arkansas River Basin Snowpack sits at 98 percent of normal as of February 26, 2021. With the state’s snowiest months still ahead, whitewater rafting season is on track.

The snowpack statistically reaches its peak April 11. The subsequent melt sends water flowing down the state’s drainages for the next several months. Much of that water ends up in the Arkansas River, the nation’s top whitewater rafting destination.

Rafting season with Echo Canyon typically begins in April and ends in September. Whitewater conditions change significantly during the long season. Spring snowmelt results in fast river flows. Early in the season experienced paddlers seeking challenging waters will find it on the Arkansas. As the initial, fast snowmelt slows, the flows become gentler. This makes rafting the Arkansas a great choice for rafters seeking a more relaxed adventure.

Neinas and other rafting outfitters are preparing for a busy 2021. 2020 saw a slow start followed by a rush of guests who discovered that whitewater rafting was a terrific activity during the pandemic.

“Between being an inherently conducive outdoor adventure and the protocols we outfitters followed, rafting was strong once the season got going,” said Neinas. “Small groups, space to spread out, fresh air and clear water make a great combination.”

What it is Like to Go Rafting in Royal Gorge

The first weekend of June my husband and I took an adults only trip to the Royal Gorge area. We were graciously hosted by Echo Canyons River Expeditions and stayed in a luxury Royal Gorge Cabin with panoramic views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain Range.

Without kids, we really had our choice of type of rafting trip to take. So we went for it.

We chose to raft the Royal Gorge, which is the highest level rafting trip offered. I was quite nervous heading into it. I love being on the water. But not being in it. So my biggest fear is landing in the river.

The river was running at about 1100 cubic foot per second (CFS) and combined with our excellent guide, Craig, was the perfect mix of adrenaline and fun for me.

We did run Class III through Class V rapids. They weren’t quite at their peak. Things warmed up the day we were on the river and the CFS quickly rose the following day. In choosing your raft trip talking to your rating guide about the river level will definitely help you choose your trip.

At 1100 CFS it was still an exciting white water rafting excursion. We had to paddle hard. I wedged my feet into the raft as tightly as I could. There was plenty of water splashed on us. I was glad for the wetsuit I’d squeezed on.

Being down in the gorge on the water is a really cool and unique experience. We saw old water systems, watched a train go by and looked up 1000 feet at the Royal Gorge Bridge as we rafted under it. We passed by a funicular that is under repair after a fire a few years back.

The Echo Canyon guides are experts at navigating the river, communicating to you how to navigate the rapids and keeping you entertained. It was a real treat getting to experience this natural wonder with such great company.

One of the things that is unique about Echo Canyon River Expeditions is their photography department. You will be able to buy some really great photos and even video of your rafting trip. That is me third back. Photo courtesy Echo Canyon Rafting Expeditions.

Royal Gorge Rafting Trips with Echo Canyon River Expeditions

Experienced rafters looking for an adrenaline rush can choose the Royal Gorge Rafting Trips. Take on challenging Class III up to Class V, with this trip. It makes its way through the 1,000-feet deep Royal Gorge of the Arkansas.

On the Royal Gorge trip you’ll raft through white water a thousand feet beneath the Royal Gorge Bridge. Taste extreme Colorado white water rafting as you explode over class III to V rapids. These rapids include Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, and Boat Eater. See astounding geology, witness local wildlife, and feel the history of the Arkansas River and the Colorado Mountain West. Suggested minimum age is 14.

Rates are $95 per person and $475 for private rafts for 10-mile, half-day trips and $159 for 20-mile, full-day trips. Full-day trips include gourmet boxed lunch served at a scenic private site overlooking the river.

Last year Echo introduced an option for groups of up to five people to reserve their own “private” raft for a flat fee. Rafters interested in this arrangement should call 1-800-690-3246 in advance to reserve.

Rafting the Royal Gorge. Photo courtesy Echo Canyon River Expeditions.

Other Raft Trips

The Bighorn Sheep Canyon trip is recommended for families with children six and up as well as intermediate rafters. The trip combines mild whitewater with calm stretches featuring wildlife watching in a spectacular natural setting. Rates per person are $79  and $395 for private rafts for half-day trips and $139 per person for full-day trips. Full-day trips include a gourmet boxed lunch.

The Gentle Family Float is a half-day, five-mile excursion that also takes place in the Bighorn Sheep Canyon. This trip is suitable for multiple generations, including kids as young as four and grandparents. Easy Class II and gentle Class III rapids are mixed with plenty of floating time. Rates are $79 per person and $395 for private rafts.

Echo Canyon provides all rafters with a personal flotation device and helmet. They also offer rentals of water shoes, wetsuits and splash jackets.

royal gorge cabins in the mountains of Colorado
The Royal Gorge Cabins are a slice of luxury in an area known for outdoor adventures.

Where to Stay and Eat in Royal Gorge

Located across the street from Echo Canyon River Expeditions are the Royal Gorge Cabins. This property is a complex of one- and two-bedroom luxury cabins. All come with fully equipped kitchens, living areas and private outdoors spaces. They also offer queen and double-queen Glamping Tents with private patios and fire rings.

Glamping tents at Royal Gorge Cabins.

The 8 Mile Bar and Grill is currently open on weekends. It offers a 16-tap bar with Colorado brews and popular favorites. The menu offers delicious salads, burgers, sandwiches and entrees. More than half of the restaurant’s seating is outside, and large bay doors allow for plenty of fresh air.

Whitewater Bar & Grill is another great option. This restaurant serves up casual food for you (and your pup!). Plus they offer expansive outdoor seating, sand volleyball, axe throwing and a little park.

Views from the patio of 8 Mile Bar & Grill.

Are you a rafter? Where have you rafted? Would you take on the Royal Gorge? Tell us in the comments below!

White Water Rafting Royal Gorge of the Arkansas

Liana Moore

Liana Moore is a third-culture kid with a hangover from those days that is a severe case of wanderlust. She is more comfortable driving the cliffs of Amalfi, Italy or the dirt roads of Costa Rica or attempting to decipher the street signs of Osaka, Japan than navigating the theme parks of Disney World. But she loves it all. She doesn't believe a vacation is complete without an adventure. Her husband and kids know well that "adventure" often is code for mishap or challenge and it usually results in a good story. They seek outdoor experiences whether in the mountains, on a beach or in the jungle of a tropical country. Her favorite vacation is... all the ones she hasn't yet taken, as well as those she plans on taking again. And, that list is so, so long. But she continues to extensively explore her home state of Colorado, spends lots of time wandering Texas, California, New Mexico, Costa Rica, Mexico, Norway and has even explored Kazakhstan.

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