Big thrills during a short season

Upper Dolores flows should be raftable for Dolores River Festival next week

Rafters slide their boat down to the water to begin their trip on the Dolores River.

The lower Dolores River below McPhee dam will not showcase its world-class rapids and canyons this year for boating enthusiasts.

But rafters need not despair. The Dolores River upstream from the town of Dolores is a raging torrent right now, if only for a limited time.

For 37 miles from Rico to Dolores, the river offers beginner and expert boaters excellent whitewater thrills. Flows climbed into the 1,000 cubic feet per second range, but are dropping as the last of the winter snowpack gives way to warmer weather.

The ideal run is from the West Fork confluence to Dolores, a distance of approximately 12 river miles. Expect a three- to five-hour trip depending on flows; it takes longer than it looks on the map!

The moderate river trip is peppered with lively rapids, featuring boulder fields, wave trains and swift water. Enjoy the scenery as you cruise alongside rolling ranch lands, thick pine forests, and rural river neighborhoods lined with cottonwood groves.

The stretch parallels Highway 145 and is ideal for all types of rafts, dories, kayaks, inflatable duckies, and whitewater canoes.

Tom Wolfe, owner of Soft Adventures Rafting in Dolores, reports a brisk business in his second year offering tours on the river.

"We've been busy with locals and tourists; it has been a good runoff and everyone is having a fun time," he said.

The river peaked in early May around 1,600 cfs, but has dropped recently to the 700-800 cfs range, he said. Wolfe said he was running the river in March at 400 cfs and found it to be sufficient flow for boating.

"I think there will still be boatable flows for the Dolores River Festival (June 1)," he predicted.

Be prepared for decent rapids on the upper Dolores. Below the West Fork, there are two drops to watch for. Both are generally run straight down the fast-flowing middle, with momentum.

Mansion Rapid is signaled by the modern home on the right. The other, dubbed Little Niagara, is located at the fish hatchery, below Stapleton Bridge. On a rapid difficulty scale of Class I (easiest) to Class V (extreme), the most difficult rapids on the upper Dolores rate between Class II and Class III.

Rafters should remember the river runner's credo: "When it doubt, scout!" Translation for novices: "Beach your boat before the rapid, take a stroll and scout out the whitewater section for the safest route through or around."

Other hazards to keep an eye out for are rusted car bodies, used in the 1940s for bank stabilization. There also can be occasional barbed wire along the beach or in the current.

Wolfe raves about the quiet, natural experience of floating the Dolores River.

"Sure, the Animas (River) has some bigger rapids, but you are also looking at the back of grocery stores and malls and there are other boaters all around," he said. "The Dolores offers an uncrowded, more pristine experience in a very scenic, meandering canyon. There is some whitewater, but it is moderate, and people are looking for that more relaxing experience."

Boaters here experience a unique perspective on the natural world only seen from the river as they float beneath the cliff faces of Haycamp Mesa and enjoy views of rugged Italian Canyon while ducks, geese and great herons fly upstream and down.

Around an obvious right angle bend, the Dolores heads west towards town, but it is still a good stretch to enjoy the spectacular canyon scenery and fun fast-water sections.

Approaching Dolores, the river drops at the library, offering some lively rapids. The Dolores Town Run is a fast Class II+, and ends with a Class III known as Hell's Hole, a popular surfing wave. Along the way enjoy the good-sized wave trains, angled drops, unexpected holes and some reflection waves ideal for kayak surfing.

Most of the larger rapids can be skirted by attentive boaters. During low water, inner-tubing the Town Run is a popular pastime for local residents on warm summer days.

For a shorter trip, there is a nice put-in at Highway 145 mile marker 16 known as Big Rock that makes for a 2-hour trip. This is private property, and use is tolerated, so be respectful. Colorado is a "right to float" state that allows passage on rivers through private property as long as the bottom or banks are not touched. Stopping or fishing from the boat should be avoided.

The main take out is at Wagner Park, at the confluence with Lost Canyon. Access is from the Fourth Street bridge.

Wetsuits are standard equipment for kayakers and canoeists on Dolores River above Dolores. The water is frigid snowmelt.

Patrick Tubbs, of Lake City, warmed up in the sun at the take out beach after running the river.

"It was great, my first time on the Dolores," he said. "It got cold fast when the sun went behind the clouds. It's a fun beginner run."

Tubbs ran the river in a pack raft, a specialized inflatable boat designed for expeditions into remote river stretches.

"It folds up small and weighs like four pounds. It handled pretty well," he said.

The unique boats are custom made by Alpacka Rafts, local company out of Mancos.

For a Dolores river tour, equipment rentals, shuttle services, and information call Soft Adventures at (970) 882-RAFT.


Sam Green/Cortez Journal Tracie Hughes and Chris Bouton raft down the Dolores River.


Sam Green/Cortez Journal Graham Messinger prepares to take off with his dad, Ivan, from the West