My Favorite Spots for Recreational Kayaking in Colorado

Horseshoe Bend Colorado River

Horseshoe Bend at the Colorado River

Colorado is a beautiful, expansive, and mountainous state in the midwestern United States. It is home to the legendary Rocky Mountains, and is a huge destination for winter sports enthusiasts. But Colorado offers awesome outdoor activities year-round! For kayakers, river rafters, and other water sports fans, CO is a paradise on earth!

I grew up in Colorado and I still spend a lot of time there. I absolutely love the raw, untouched nature you will find in this great state. I also love the contrast between that same nature and the thriving metropolises like Denver and Boulder. The nature is beautiful, the weather pleasant, and the people friendly – what more could you ask for?

But I’m rambling – you’re here to learn about kayaking in Colorado, aren’t you? Well, fear not – I’ve got quite a wealth of information to share with you today. I’ve been kayaking Colorado’s lakes and rivers for almost 30 years now with my favorite sit-on-top ‘yak, and I’m not about to stop any time soon! Below you will find a list of my personal favorite spots in the Rocky Mountain State. Enjoy!

Kayaking in Colorado

If whitewater thrill rides are what you seek, look no further than the awesome rivers listed below! Generally the whitewater season runs from May to September, with the best conditions coming in May and June. As always, we recommend checking the river water levels in Colorado before planning a trip!

Whitewater Thrills on the Colorado River

The beautiful Colorado River snakes its way through the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Baja California. This extensive and scenic river is home to some of Colorado’s best whitewater runs. What I love about the Colorado is that there are runs perfect for just about any age group or skill level.

Cruising the Upper Colorado River

The upper section of the Colorado is generally fairly calm and easy. It’s perfect for families, beginners, and folks who just prefer leisurely cruises over intense whitewater runs, just make sure you have a decent touring kayak. The Upper Colorado is mostly class I and class II, but sometimes during high water season you will encounter an occasional class III. Because of the beautiful surroundings and easy flowing water, this section of the river can get quite busy during peak season. There are a huge number of tour groups on this stretch, so if that’s what you’re into you will find no shortage of choices.

Whitewater Kayaking the Lower Colorado River

For thrillseekers, the lower Colorado offers some more exciting runs and whitewater features. It’s certainly not the most advanced river in the country, but it does provide a number of fun class III rapids and the occasional class IV. My favorite stretch of the Colorado is when it flows through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado’s most beautiful canyon (in my opinion). This stretch provides the perfect balance between whitewater thrills and beautiful surroundings. Just make sure to keep one eye on the river, or you may get bucked by an unexpected class III!

Whitewater Kayaking on the Arkansas River

Besides the Colorado, the Arkansas River is probably the most popular spot in the state for whitewater rafters and kayakers. It’s definitely not as beginner-friendly as the Colorado, so you will find significantly fewer tour groups and families here. What you will find here is some of the best whitewater conditions in the state!

The Arkansas River has TONS of fun class III’s, and several more technical sections of class IV and V’s. It’s a fast-changing river, so unless you’re a highly experienced kayaker, we recommend you go with a guide or someone who knows the river. At the very least, know what sections are the harder ones.

Generally speaking, although it varies year the year, the more advanced/technical sections of the Arkansas are Pine Creek and the Numbers. These sections are located near Granite Outpost, Buena Vista. These runs are just constant rapids, so be careful! If you are not 100% confident in your abilities, do not attempt this section. There are plenty of easier but still very fun sections of the Arkansas.

Family-Friendly Runs on the Arkansas River

If you’d like to bring the family along on a rafting or kayaking trip, or you just prefer easier sections, I would recommend Brown’s Canyon. It’s a beautiful area almost completely untouched by the modern world. It’s easy to just relax and become one with nature in this area of Colorado.

Brown’s Canyon is beginner-friendly, but it’s still quite fun, which is why I always recommend it. Depending on the time of year, it mostly offers class II rapids, with the occasional class III. But unlike some other beginner stretches, Brown’s Canyon has a LOT of rapids, so you won’t get bored. And even on the slow stretches, you will be able to sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the area!

Kayaking Colorado Lakes

If you prefer scenic and relaxing lake cruises over intense whitewater thrills, this section is for you. Colorado has a huge number of lakes, many of which are quite scenic and remote. There are simply too many to list here, so I’ll start with a few of my favorites!

kayaking in lake dillon colorado

Kayaking in Lake Dillon Colorado

Lake Dillon

Located about 58 miles west of Denver, in the town of Dillon, Colorado, is the large and scenic Lake Dillon. This huge and high-altitude lake is a popular weekend destination, but it’s big enough that you can find a little section to call your own. The water is clear and REALLY COLD, the air is fresh and the views are incredible – what more could you ask for? Oh yeah, and it’s also a good place to fish!

My favorite part of Lake Dillon is all the islands. There are at least a dozen small to medium sized islands within the lakes waters. It’s a lot of fun to kayak around (with an inflatable to be sure) and hop off to explore an island, have a picnic lunch, etc. One of the islands even has a lake on the island! Yup, there’s a lake on an island on a lake. Unfortunately I can’t remember what are of the lake it’s on – so you’ll just have to explore all the islands yourself and let me know!

A word of warning – given this lakes size and altitude, you DO NOT want to kayak it if it’s too windy. It can get very cold, and it’s not the type of water you want to fall in on a windy day. In my opinion, any winds over 15 mph are too much for this area. I recommend checking the weather forecast for Dillon lake before planning a trip. Also, I find that it’s usually much more windy in the afternoon, so morning trips are ideal.

Pueblo Lake

Many of Colorado’s lakes look very similar. And then there’s Pueblo Lake, which looks completely different! I suppose that’s why I like Pueblo – it’s just so eerily beautiful and serene, and it seems out of place in Colorado.

Located 110 miles south of Denver, Pueblo Lake is within Lake Pueblo State Park. There is a $7 entrance fee, but don’t let that stop you! Lake Pueblo offers stunning desert-like surroundings, clean and clear water, and some of the best lake fishing in the state! I’m not a big fisherman myself, but I have heard lots of good things about this lake from my friends who do enjoy fishing.

I also like Lake Pueblo because it’s very accessible. There are 2 marinas with boat ramps, kayak rentals, snacks, etc. There are also several campgrounds to choose from for multiple day stays. And when you are done kayaking, there’s plenty of hiking and mountain biking trails to enjoy. The only downside of this accessibility is that it can get crowded at times. I recommend going outside of peak season – although be sure to check the forecast, as high winds are a frequent occurrence in this area.

There you have it! These are my personal favorite kayaking spots in the great state of Colorado, but again, there are SO MANY options it’s hard to even narrow them down to so few. But I know from personal experience that you will enjoy any destination on this list. If you have some personal favorite spots, I’d love to hear about them!