Rafting the Royal Gorge

Royal Gorge Rafting.
Whitewater rafting through the Royal Gorge.

The Ever-Changing Royal Gorge

By: Emily Sievert, Adventure Writer

“See where that photographer is standing guys?” said Luke Miller, our river guide, as he pointed out a platform about 15 feet above the river to our left. He continued by telling us the platform is underwater when it’s flowing 5,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), and “man is it crazy”. We all waved at the photographer in awe as we tried to comprehend just how much water would be rushing down the Royal Gorge at those levels.

The Arkansas River is home to some wild whitewater that boasts as much history as excitement, and each Royal Gorge rafting season is different based on the past winter’s snow pack.

Royal Gorge Bridge
First view of the Royal Gorge Bridge from the Arkansas River.

One of the things Luke described in between rapids was his past experiences with the higher water levels. In 2010 and 2011, the Arkansas River peaked at around 5,000 cfs, which caused most of the sections to close or to be given higher classifications than usual. The Bighorn Sheep Canyon contains rapids like “Three Rocks” that become a class IV, while the Royal Gorge becomes more continuous whitewater with class V rapids like ‘Sunshine Falls’ and ‘Sledge Hammer’.

The Royal Gorge is not commercially rafted above 3,200 cfs (a recommendation set by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area) and although the Royal Gorge did not go above 2,900 cfs in 2013, the high water marks were still visible that day when flows were around 700 cfs.

“The Royal Gorge is fun at every water level and becomes even more difficult at some of the lower flows,” said Travis Hochard, operations manager at River Runners.

Travis said the Royal Gorge is one of the few rafting sections in Colorado that is considered runnable year-around with steep and technical rapids as low as 300 cfs, which it usually maintains through winter.

Our fearless river guide Luke Miller.
Our fearless river guide Luke Miller.

“That is why we do what we do. This river is never the same and you’re always rafting through varying conditions,” said senior raft guide Alan O’Brien. Alan spent some time reminiscing about the 1995 season when the river peaked at over 7,000 cfs.

Alan explained the only other time the Arkansas River is known to have gotten that high due to flooding was in 1921 when there were no devices in place to gauge water levels, but it was estimated at 7,800 cfs.

“At those water levels all of the rocks are covered and the hydraulics created in rapids like “Three Rocks” will flip any and every boat,” said Alan about the 1995 peak.

The Royal Gorge and the Arkansas River hold an even more interesting allure with the history found all along its shores. Customers are not only treated to a fun and wet whitewater rafting trip, but also a two-hour long history lesson about the gold mining, railroad and engineering along the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River.

An old caretaker house, a 15-mile wood pipeline built in the early 1900s, remnants of the gold rush, barricades from the Railroad War of the late 1800s, and the Royal Gorge Bridge (built in 1929), all can be seen on your Royal Gorge rafting trip.

Sunshine Falls
The photographer’s platform and high water marks.

“The history lessons were honestly one of my favorite parts of the trip,” stated one of the customers on the Royal Gorge half-day with me that day. “The towering walls of the Royal Gorge seemed to have preserved the history in such a way that it’s almost like you’re rafting through a museum.”

More recently, the Royal Gorge Fire affected this region of Colorado. The Royal Gorge Bridge and park, situated more than 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River, was decimated by the fire, which left only a few buildings (out of 53). The iconic suspension bridge, however, was saved with only minor damage to some wood planks that have already been replaced.

The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park has plans to rebuild with construction to begin as early as spring 2014 and Royal Gorge Bridge only tickets should be available by the end of August.

Overall, this river is its own beast that should be respected and hopefully enjoyed for generations to come. Whether the changes affecting the river are due to rising water levels, falling water levels, or raging forest fires; the Arkansas River has so much to offer that is constantly leaving people aching for more. With the season coming to an end, the time is now to book your Royal Gorge rafting trip.