Location: Southwestern Colorado, near Mesa Verde National Park
A Dolores River rafting trip begins in the deeply forested Rocky Mountains and flows down into steep canyons of flame-red rock. The river measures 250 miles from its headwaters in the San Miguel Mountains to its confluence with the Colorado River but typically only ninety-eight miles of this is rafted. Water levels are dependent on the releases from McPhee Dam and usually only last until early June during a normal water year. Still, the two most popular canyons-Dolores and Slickrock-contain numerous rapids, some rated at Class IV.
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Dolores Canyon / Ponderosa Gorge: Class III-IV / Intermediate
The contrast of colors in Dolores Canyon is stunning. The deep green of the Ponderosa Pines grows beneath sheer sandstone cliffs of burnt orange hue. Pinion pine, juniper and Douglas fir populate the canyon. A side hike to an Anasazi granary reveals secrets of a civilization long since extinguished. The whitewater in the beginning of this section is mild-mannered with mellow Class II rapids. Downstream the rapids get decidedly more rowdy, climaxing with the quarter-mile long Snaggletooth rapid-a steep, boulder-strewn cascade rated as a Class IV.
Slickrock Canyon: Class II-III / Beginner
Slickrock Canyon is the deepest canyon on the Dolores River. The sandstone canyon walls measure an immense 1,200 feet above the river. The water here is swift but only moderately difficult with just a few rapids impeding its calm flow. Side hikes to Indian rock art sites and fossilized dinosaur prints are second only to the twelve geological formations revealed in the canyon layers. While floating the fifty-one miles through the canyon, wild turkey, bighorn sheep and peregrine falcon sightings are common.
Season: May – June
Dolores River rafting trips are available in the springtime when the snow melts and the river is at high enough flows for rafting.