Dolores River raftable for the first time since 2019 due to snowpack

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado can be one of the best rafting destinations in the country when it has enough water. It offers gorgeous scenery in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau and history dating back to the ancient Anasazi, who used it as a highway to and from Mesa Verde not far to the south.

There are many years when the Dolores is not runnable for commercial rafting outfitters because of insufficient water, though. When they can operate there, as they will this year thanks to Colorado’s abundant mountain snowfall this past winter, rafters and outfitters rejoice. The last time the Dolores could support rafting was in 2019.

“We go three, four, five years regularly without having water,” said Alex Mickel, president and founder of Durango-based Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours. “It’s an amazing canyon. It’s incredibly beautiful. It’s unique southwest Colorado. You have a spectacular transition from the mountain landscape to a desert landscape and a slickrock canyon. You have an incredible mix of scenery — sandstone walls with all the different colors of sandstone, towering canyon walls covered in ponderosas.”

When snowpack is meager, runoff from the upper Dolores is stored in McPhee Reservoir near the town of Dolores for agricultural needs. This year, thanks to the great snowpack at its headwaters in the shadow of the 14,246-foot Mount Wilson near Telluride, there will be some left over for recreation, which happens down river from the reservoir.

“Many years, all of the water is impounded and sent off through canals, out of the river channel,” Mickel said. “It’s only in years such as this when we have lots of surplus water that they let recreational and boatable flows downstream. It should make for a couple-month season of really nice boatable flows.”

With rafting season beginning this week for many outfitters in the state, the snowpack in nearly every Colorado river basin is near normal or above, some way above normal. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basin this week stood at 88% above normal, and the adjacent Gunnison River basin was 71% above normal.

Drainage in the northwest part of the state — which includes the Yampa, White and Green rivers — is 41% above normal, and the Colorado River headwaters is 24% above normal. Colorado rafting companies are expecting good things.

“Across the state, everybody’s optimistic,” said Dave Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. “I think we’ll see extended seasons on many (river) stretches, which will be very nice.”

The Arkansas basin’s overall snowpack stands at only 78% of normal, but its flows can be augmented by diversions from places in the high country where snowpack is better. Those water management decisions are made primarily for other purposes, such as agriculture, but rafters get to recreate on that water first. The Arkansas is Colorado’s most popular river for rafting by far.

“There will be plenty (of snowmelt) in other parts of the state that can contribute, so they should have a very decent season,” Costlow said, adding that the snowpack above Salida actually is greater than 78%.

Front Range river basins have near-normal snowpacks.

“From a rafting standpoint, normal snowpack is just fine,” Costlow said. “The Cache La Poudre, they’re right around normal right now. I think they’ll have a very decent season. Clear Creek, west of Denver, they’re sitting just a little bit below normal, but that’s certainly better than we saw last year. Most outfitters on the Front Range are pretty optimistic we’re going to have a fairly normal year.”

The Blue River, north of Silverthorne, may be runnable this year. It didn’t have enough water for rafting last year and had adequate flow for only a short time the year before, according to Kevin Foley, owner of Performance Tours Rafting. Rafting on the Blue happens downstream from the dam that creates Dillon Reservoir.

“It’s still kind of up in the air,” Foley said. “Denver Water Board determines how much water to send down the Blue. Their first obligation is to fill the reservoir and from there, they have Roberts Tunnel and they can divert water to Denver or send it down the river that we raft on. If they send enough water down the river, we’ll be rafting it. We had above-average snowpack, and that’s coming from Hoosier Pass, Fremont Pass and Vail Pass. We’re hoping that results in more runoff and snowmelt, and that there’s enough excess that they can send down the river.”

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