The Best Whitewater Paddling Towns in the Colorado Mountains

Summer’s here, the sun is shining and the rivers are rising.  It is prime river sports time here in Colorado and that includes the venerable sport of whitewater kayaking!  Colorado is reknowned for it’s epic kayaking all summer long.  Read on for the 411 on the best kayaking cities and towns in the state!

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Dally Freestyle SUP – Photo Credit Chris Kearns Photography

With the snow finally melting and the rivers and temperatures rising, I thought now would be the ideal time to talk about Colorado’s pristine mountain communities that are great for everything from extreme adventures to fun family getaways.

While most people think of Colorado as a state that is buried under snow 9 months out of the year, Colorado is a surprisingly rad summer destination…especially for paddlers.

To make the Top 5 Best list, the town or city absolutely had to embrace the river and the people who partake in river sports.  It’s one thing to have a river in your town, it’s another entirely to fully support the activities on it and the people who utilize it.  It also had to be a small-ish mountain town.  No massive cities were even considered for this list.  Why?  Because so us, it’s about getting out of the sprawl and immersing ourselves in nature, forgetting ourselves really, and replenishing our souls.

So, without further ado, check out our Top 5 River Towns in Colorado. When you are done reading, be sure to add your favorite river city in Colorado and we’ll be sure to hit it up and hopefully meet up with you to paddle!!  🙂

Dan Kellogg - Photo Credit Kady Kellogg
Dan Kellogg – Photo Credit Kady Kellogg

Buena Vista, CO

Talk about a town with a view, in fact Buena Vista is Spanish for “Good View”!  Pretty fitting, since it’s nestled at the foot of the Continental Divide.  It is one of those rare outdoor towns that has also invested, like Lyons, in their youth.  From building a pump track and a bouldering park to an awesome skate park and whitewater features second to none, BV is the type of town where everyone would love to live.

BV made our short list because it lies along the Arkansas River and hosts CKS Paddlefest every May.  At Paddlefest, you will find one of the largest Cadet Class (14 & U), a nice family float down the Milk Run and even some fun stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) competitions.

Camping in BV is plentiful.  You can choose from private campgrounds like the KOA Buena Vista to roughing it and camping on the downlow at the end of South Main St. in the big gravel lot adjacent to the river and lower whitewater feature!!  🙂

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Brody Kellogg – Photo Credit: Susie Kellogg

Lyons, CO

Lyons was hit hard by massive flooding on Sept 12, 2013.  Since then, the town has made tremendous strides in rebuilding.  A mere 8 months after the floods, Lyons managed to make their annual Lyons Outdoor Games a reality and just this past weekend, yet another LOG took place which included a Creek Race, Slalom and Freestyle Kayaking.

Lyons is definitely a definitive leader in the area of getting kids interested and loving paddling.  They have a fantastic kids club and even bought the boats for the kids so that they would be able to jump into the sport without the financial stress.  That’s an investment in kids, that pretty much blows my mind.  I mean, who does that?

Camping is available at Meadow Park, right on the N. Saint Vrain River and conveniently located in the city! Camping is also available at Bohn Park during Lyons Outdoor Games. You can also try parking your vehicle right at Black Bear Hole and attempting to camp overnight … typically you’ll get away with it, can’t guarantee it, but it’s highly likely!  ;

FIBArk Raft Rodeo Photo Credit:  Susie Kellogg
FIBArk Raft Rodeo Photo Credit: Susie Kellogg

Salida, CO

Colorado is the land of amazingly good whitewater and Salida, CO has embraced the river in all mediums.  From slalom to creeking to SUP and freestyle, Salida has ensured there is something everyone will enjoy.  In the summer you will see countless local kids playing in the river by the boat ramp, tubing, and paddling all sorts of river crafts.

Salida also hosts FIBArk which is America’s oldest whitewater festival.  But, competition is not all FIBArk is about.  Like Lyons, FIBArk has partnered with Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) and together they successfully established a youth paddling program that encourages children ages 8-18 to become involved in kayaking and canoeing; even buying the equipment for their participants!

In my book, any city that rallies around it’s youth, investing both money and time, is a city that understands the value of the future!

Camping in Salida is a little less easily accessible than the last two towns.  Salida abhors overnight camping in their town.  If you’re in a vehicle, you’ll likely get away with it, if you are in an RV, you will not.  However, you can find private campgrounds in the surrounding area as well as free camping on BLM land.

Photo Credit: S2O Designs
Photo Credit: S2O Designs

Durango, CO

Durango is quite possibly the most authentic outdoor town in all of Colorado.  Here locals and visitors alike are all about the outdoors.  You only need to drop in a local bar or hit up a local grocery store to know this is true. It is in everyday life that you will see outdoor aficionados in all their gear. This is one of the things we LOVE about Durango. People here don’t take a break from their life to go outside, rather being outside is their life.

Once a frontier mining town, it now is now a bustling tourist destination for all outdoor activities.  Mountain bikers, rafters, kayakers, horseback riders, rock climbers, hikers, campers, hunters, fishermen and cowboys call this town home for a reason.

Durango’s paddling community is strong and thriving. Their new  whitewater park, complete with a whopping 8 features, is both fun and challenging and they throw their love of the river into the annual Animas River Days!

Animas River Days is a blast.  That’s all there is to it.  The paddling community shines here as it is about pure fun and adrenaline.  Kayaking, SUP boarding, rafting, even dog tricks are at the heart of Animas River Days.  Durango camping is easy.  Check out the Durango KOA ( and National Forest Land as well as a handful of state campgrounds to make your stay fun and cheap!

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Kady Kellogg, Photo Credit: Susie Kellogg

Glenwood Springs

And last, but not least, there is our hometown, Glenwood Springs.  It’s the city where we got started kayaking.  There are literally dozens of river runs within an hours drive and range from Class II all the way to Class V+.  And the whitewater feature on the west end of town, known as the Glenwood Wave, is good in both high and low water … a wave at high and a hole at low.   And, there are plans in the works, should water rights be granted, to build 4 more whitewater features on the Colorado River!

Glenwood Springs was recently named the Most Fun Town in America by USA Today/Rand McNally and for good reason.  From hiking and biking to rafting and paragliding and even a hometown, local mountain, Sunlight Mountain Resort, Glenwood Springs is an adventure mecca.

However, unlike any of the other cities and towns listed above, Glenwood Springs has yet to throw their support behind the whitewater community.  However, with the possible new features, this could very well change.  It made the list though, because it thrives as a paddling town despite the lack of support and I can only imagine how it will shine if the city ever embraces the community.

Camping is tough here.  There are no campgrounds worthy of mention anywhere in the city of Glenwood Springs.  However, there is ample camping in the surrounding BLM land and also in the Flat Tops Wilderness area … gorgeous, private, scenic and pristine.