Located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado is an obvious draw for adventure lovers. And why not? With scenic mountains, clean rivers and almost 300 days of sunshine a year, the state offers a never-ending supply of outdoor adventure.
Colorado is my home state, and while I’ve climbed, biked, hiked and fished, I’ve never spent much time exploring the state by river, a fact that shocked my Colorado friends.
“Take a canoe trip,” a wise friend advised me. “It’s easy going, and a good way to start. You’ll get to see parts of Colorado that you can’t see any other way.”
In some cultures, there is peer pressure to look good and make a lot of money. In Colorado, there is a local expectation that you WILL get out there and explore Mother Nature. We brag about climbing “fourteeners” (14,000 ft. peaks), about our latest hiking trip and where we biked last weekend.
In my opinion, it’s a good kind of pressure. So I gave in, and booked a canoe trip.
You don’t have to brave Class 4 rapids to see some of Colorado’s most remote river country. The 31-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Fruita, Colorado, and Westwater, Utah, runs through steep-walled canyons, sandstone cliffs, and past ancient petroglyphs.
While occasional drought can lower water levels in the river, the mighty Colorado flows on. And unlike river rafts, a canoe needs only six inches of water to maneuver, so canoeing is possible when other water sports are not.
The best way to kick-start my canoeing career, it seemed, was to learn from the professionals. Centennial Canoe Outfitters have been guiding trips down Colorado rivers since 1985. Even better, they provide all the canoe equipment, as well as gourmet cookouts along the way. Their three-day canoe/camping trip seemed perfect for someone who wanted adventure, but wasn’t sure how to do it.
What did I have to lose?
The sun was just peaking over the horizon when we put in our canoes from Rim Rock Ranch in Fruita. Mike Wymore, our fearless river guide, gave a demonstration and then our group of 11 canoes floated free in the water.
Many of the others – a diverse group of Coloradans from all walks of life – had canoed for years. Huge grins covered their faces as they soared down the river, not even looking back.
Although it took a bit of practice to get the rhythm of paddling down, canoeing is easy to learn. Within minutes we had floated away from society and into the natural wonders of western Colorado.
Wild turkeys cavorted in the nearby river grasses, while bald eagles soared overhead. The only sounds were the soft lullaby of the river, the dipping paddles pushing the canoes ahead, and the occasional gut-wrenching scream of a group member being blasted by a water gun.
All the gear we needed, including the super-duper water shooter hidden beneath the seat, was carried in our canoe. Our tent, clothes and sleeping bags were bundled tightly in waterproof bags, while water jugs sat up front.
One of the river guides carried the group’s food, wine and portable kitchen; the other carried the highly-coveted “tented groover,” the latest in portable camping toilets, and other necessary gear.
One benefit of canoeing with a guide is that they know the best spots to stop along the river. Shade trees are a rarity here, but they are worth gold during a hot Colorado summer.
Within minutes of pulling up for lunch at one such shaded area, our trusty guides had river fare on the grill, while the rest of us sat around and talked.
“It’s good to go with a guide like this,” Chris Christian of Franktown noted. “It gives you a chance to learn how to paddle and read the river, then you can come back later on your own.”
“I’m here for the cooking,” a man from Littleton, Colorado added. “My own river fare isn’t edible!”
Guide Dave Sigrist offered a different viewpoint: “I enjoy the people, and the river – the sounds, the smells. You bring your worries with you, but you soon forget them.”
Back on the water that afternoon, we paddled at a leisurely pace; just enough to push ourselves, but not too fast to enjoy the views.
We made camp early, providing plenty of time for hiking or reading before dinner. Then after a hearty meal, we headed down to the river banks.
Centennial offers “theme” trips, like “women only”, “wine tasting”, or geology trips. This was the “star-gazing” trip, and astronomer Tito Salas had joined us. Lying on the river banks beneath a canopy of stars, we gazed into the dark heavens as Tito pointed out constellations and told us stories of a world beyond our own.
The next day’s hiking expedition was even better. After paddling all morning, we pulled up onshore and hiked into McDonald Canyon. The narrow trail meandered through red-walled passages, opening up into a natural amphitheater.
A hike through McDonald Canyon opens up to a natural ampitheater where guides show their musical abilities.
Small pictographs covered the walls, left behind by early Native American visitors, and the acoustics of the place meant that even a whisper could be heard.
One of our guides pulled out a guitar and an Indian flute. The soft strains of their ethereal music floated up and out of the canyon.
The rhythm of paddling seemed natural now, as we continued down the river that next afternoon. The heat was our only enemy, but there were remedies for that.
“Just point your feet downstream, and let yourself go,” our guide said, demonstrating his “river-style” surfing technique. Sporting a life vest, he went to the middle of the river, found a rippling current and let go.
The ride bounced him up and over the waves like a roller coaster, and the grin on his face convinced others to follow.
“So THIS is the Colorado that I’ve been missing all these years,” I thought as I bounced along the river swells, peering up into a deep blue sky. “Well, better late than never,” I decided, swimming back to shore, ready to try the adventure again.
If You Go
Check with the Bureau of Land Management for camping and river care instructions.
Centennial Canoe Outfitters