Poudre Whitewater Kayaking
My arms are so wasted that I can hardly lift my yellow Big EZ out of the water. I notice that my wife is having the same trouble with her boat. A constant post-nasal drip confirms that I was spending more time upside down than right side up. We slowly haul our kayaks onto the beach, and grab dry clothes and cold Fat Tire Ales from our nearby truck. After three hours of surfing and playing on the Cache La Poudre River, we’re ready for a break. What’s the best part? We can perform this boating ritual after work every night during the hot front-range summers in Colorado. You can, too, if you are boating in Colorado.
The Cache La Poudre (pronounced poo-der) River is located near Fort Collins in northern Colorado. Originating in the snowy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, the river gains momentum and grandeur as it flows east from Cameron Pass, eventually gouging out a scenic narrow canyon composed of sporadic orange granite cliffs and ponderosa pine forests. The Poudre pushes out to the dry eastern plains, eventually flowing into the South Platte River.
The Cache La Poudre River gets its name from references to early trappers in the area. In 1836 a group of French trappers, employees of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, camped near the river. An early-season snowstorm pinned the trappers down, forcing them to lighten their wagons in order to continue their journey. They dug a large pit and cached supplies, including kegs of gunpowder. The trappers called the stash the Cache La Poudre, meaning “the hiding place of the powder.” The pristine river nearby took on the name.
The Poudre is the only river in Colorado to be designated “wild and scenic.” This means, among other things, that it is free flowing and possesses “outstanding scenic and recreational values.” The Poudre fits the bill with shining colors. Even though it is only 15 minutes away from a city of 125,000, you would never know it. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, black bears, and even mountain lions thrive near the river. I have often paddled right past bighorn sheep lazily grazing on the steep cliff sides. Overhead, golden eagles and peregrine falcons soar in the deep blue skies, searching for a meal. And if you like to fly-fish, take your rod because the river is loaded with trout.
But let’s face it. While scenic value is important, what about the recreational (i.e., kayaking and canoeing) value? The Poudre offers more than 40 miles of quality boating, from boulder-choked Class V+ hair boating to easy scenic Class III water. As with many rivers, the boating season can last from May through August, depending on winter snowpack levels. Some years the Poudre feels like a bony creek run, and you may see more inner tubes than kayaks and canoes. Other years the river floods its banks, cresting more than 3,000 cfs at high water, and even easy runs can get wild.
Getting There: Take I-25 north from Denver to the Highway 14 exit at Fort Collins (exit 269). Go west into Fort Collins, connecting with Highway 287. Take 287 north out of town headed toward Laramie, Wyoming. Turn west at Highway 14, which goes into Poudre Canyon.
Logistics: During a normal year, the Poudre can be boated from May through August. High water crests around the beginning of June. It is worth checking the river flows at phateye.com if you are planning a trip to the Poudre. In the canyon itself, check the gauge rock at mile 112.7, which has river levels painted on it. If the water is at three or above, you are in for a good run.
Lodging/Camping: Fort Collins, being a college town, is loaded with lodging options; check the visitors bureau at ftcollins.com. If you want to camp, Poudre Canyon has numerous campgrounds right along the river, but get a site early; by Friday many of the campgrounds are full. Contact the Forest Service at (970) 498-2700, or log on to www.fs.fed.us/arnf. Camping along the Poudre River is allowed in designated sites only.
While You’re There: If your arms are too tired to lift a paddle, then try a fishing rod. The Poudre has various sections designated as “wild trout waters” by the division of wildlife, and fishing for rainbow trout is good. Get a fishing license at any sporting goods store in town. If you are too tired to even fish, then head into old town Fort Collins and enjoy a micro brew from one of the breweries in town–you can’t leave until you have tried Fat Tire Ale.
Outfitters/Resources: Get the definitive guide to boating the Poudre River, Bryan Greene Maddox’s A User’s Guide to the Wild and Scenic Cache La Poudre River. This guide breaks down the river section by section, so you won’t find yourself paddling a Class V when you thought it looked like a Class III. Kayaks and canoes can be rented from various outfitters; call the Mountain Shop at (970) 493-5720 or log on to themountainshop.com, or contact Rocky Mountain Adventures–(970) 493-4005/ shoprma.com.
For a complete list of outfitters and guides, visit our Adventure Paddling Directory .
If you are looking for more challenge, then rey the classic Lower Bridges run, a Class IV section. It begins at mile 113 and ends at mile 114.7, not far up the canyon from the Filter Plant run. Technical boulder-strewn rapids and a few obtrusive bridge pylons characterize Lower Bridges. Play spots are numerous, and there are a few noteworthy holes, including Red House Suckhole, a monster you will want to avoid, but don’t miss the great play spot at the take-out!
My favorite section of the Poudre is the Filter Plant run. It is located at the bottom of the canyon, from Gateway Park to Picnic Rock, about a three-mile stretch. The section is Class III at high water, and gets easier as the water levels go down. What I like about this stretch is the mixture of scenic, mellow water and fun rapids loaded with play spots. It’s hard to beat surfing some of the great waves near Mad Dog and 360 Rapid. I like this run so much that I have done it three times in one afternoon.
These two runs are some of the most popular on the Poudre and see a lot of boaters, especially on weekends. If you are looking for more of a wilderness experience, drive up canyon 30 miles past the town of Rustic. These upper sections of the river see far less traffic and are as remote as you can get on the Poudre. Try the Class III Sleeping Elephant run, which begins at mile 79 and ends just before mile 83. Be aware of possible sweepers in the river.
My eyes are weary, and my fingers are getting so clumsy typing that I hit three keys instead of one. I aimlessly wonder how much time in my life will be spent in front of a compute–way too much, I conclude. The clock on the wall reads 4:50 p.m. The hot sun streams through my office window. That’s it, I can’t take it anymore. I blast out the door, jump in my truck (my kayak lives there in the summer), and start driving toward the mountains. There is only one thing that can fix my work blues–a run on the Poudre!
Tom Bol (tombolphoto.com) is a freelance writer and photographer in Fort Collins, Colorado.