If you’ve never been on the river with a professional whitewater raft guide, there’s really only one part of the trip to mentally preparing for: bad humor that makes one smirk, then cringe:
What’s the difference between a raft guide and a large pizza?
A large pizza can feed a family of four.
What's the difference between a female raft guide and Bigfoot?
One's a big, hairy, stinky animal and the other is a mythical creature.
How can you tell if a raft guide is lying?
His mouth is moving.
What do you call a raft guide without a girlfriend?
You get the point. However, there’s nothing funny about the vital service a good raft guide provides to safely navigate you down a rocky river while you’re giggling in delight, screaming in white- knuckled fear, or clenching your paddle for a watery rollercoaster ride.
These aquatic creatures go by a few different names: river otters, river rats, or river gods. They act as the captain at the helm of a rubber ship, navigating an inflated vessel through craggy rushing waters and making sure you get off the river the same way they got on: alive, with limbs in tack.
Whether you’re a family looking for a day outing or an extreme sports adrenaline junkie, Aspen is wonderful base camp for a Colorado whitewater rafting adventure. Some of the best natural whitewater in the United States is within a few hours drive of downtown Aspen, with a few spectacular trips embarking immediately outside the city limits. Between Aspen and Woody Creek, the Roaring Fork River flows through a shallow, rocky, and swift gorge filled with waterfalls and class IV rapids. This section starts at Henry Stein Park, on the far west end of town near the mesa along Cemetery Lane. Appropriately known as “Slaughterhouse,” a rafting trip in this section includes a plummet over a roaring waterfall - the same roaring waterfall on the cover of John Denver’s top 10 album Rocky Mountain High. Therefore, it is recommended for advanced rafters only. During the Roaring Fork’s peak flow in early summer, the water – which was just snow pack a few hours before – is a frigid 34 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning rafters will want to sport a wet suit along with the obligatory helmet and portable floatation device. Yet the dry air and sunshine means you’ll warm up and dry off naturally after splashing downstream for six miles.
Other trips further down valley are great for families, the novice, or the timid. A challenging half-day trip along the Upper Roaring Fork River includes class III rapids through the red-stone Woody Creek and Snowmass Canyons. As the river widens between Basalt and Carbondale on the Middle Roaring Fork River, the rapids trickle into mellow yet thrilling class II and class III portions before intersecting with the warmer waters of the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.
In the complete opposite direction, many Aspen guides offer trips on the other side of Independence Pass, past the Continental Divide near Leadville. The headwaters of the Arkansas River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, are internationally acclaimed for world-class whitewater. In the mountains of Colorado the Arkansas River drops nearly 4,600 feet in a 120-mile section, making for fast water, picturesque canyons, and untamed rapids. Extreme rafters will opt for “The Numbers” and “Pine Creek,” a 10-mile section starting in the town of Granite, Colorado with class IV and V rapids. Many guides offer shorter trips focusing exclusively on The Numbers. Further down the Arkansas River is Browns Canyon, a slightly less intimidating section of class III & IV rapids that snakes through a 16-mile long gorge.
Gearing up with a trained river outfitter is key to a memorable adventure and day on the water. Before stepping foot in the boat, the guide will give a detailed safety crash course, reminding you - above all else – to not stand in the rapids if you happen to be thrown from the boat and how to the whitewater swim position (that is, on your buttocks and feet first to bounce like a frog off downstream rocks). In Aspen, there are two notable guide services offering hotel pick-ups: Aspen Whitewater and Blazing Adventures, with a rafting service known as “Blazing Paddles.” A transplant from New Zealand, Scotty Gibsone runs Kiwi Adventure Ko. His guide service offers a slightly more intimate – albeit hair-raising - experience with river trips in miniature 8-foot-long rafts, each able to facilitate one guide and two passengers per boat.
There are other great trips within a day’s drive from Aspen, including sections of the Colorado River through the Glenwood Canyon, the Shoshone Rapids further downstream, and Gore Canyon. Wherever you go, expect to get wet, have fun, and laugh at a corny joke. As the river guides say in jest, “If you can't breathe, you can't laugh… or drown.”
Aspen Rafting Outfitters
P.O. Box 5068
Aspen Whitewater Rafting
520 Durant St. (inside Hamilton Sports)
Aspen, CO 81611
Kiwi Adventure Ko
P.O Box 3353
Aspen, CO 81611