Here's why rafting in Southern Colorado this summer will be a wild ride

Tracy Harmon
The Pueblo Chieftain

Arkansas River rafting outfitters are preparing for the “second surge” of business as the COVID pandemic loosens its grip on travelers and fully vaccinated boaters prepare to take to the great outdoors. 

“This summer is going to be like the second surge,” said Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center Owner Brandon Slate. “Last summer was kind of the fearless people who came out and this year there is going to be another group that is vaccinated and feeling more comfortable, so now it is their turn to get out and vacation.” 

Wilderness Aware Rafting Owner Brian Ellis agrees people are keen about getting back outdoors. 

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“I anticipate we will be just as busy if not more busy than last summer. I don’t think people will be traveling to Europe or far-away destinations just yet and will be exploring outdoors in America and hopefully Colorado this year,” Ellis said. 

The Arkansas River between Leadville and Pueblo is the nation’s most rafted river offering wild whitewater for thrill seekers and more gentle stretches for families looking for a bit tamer experience. It also is a boon to the area’s tourism economy, generating more than $66 million a year in economic impact.

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Wilderness Aware Rafting specializes in multi-day raft trips for those who want a full outdoor experience that includes sleeping under the stars.

Mother Nature helps with plenty of snow

As the rafting season moves toward full tilt in May, it also looks as though Mother Nature is cooperating. 

“The snowpack in the Arkansas Valley and Arkansas Watershed is looking really great right now. We are at 108% of normal,” Ellis said. 

When the snow melts in the high country, the river levels rise and provide for exciting boat trips. 

“We are tracking in terms of water a little better than we did last summer,” Ellis said. 

April and May can be good months for snowfall in the high country, too, Slate said. 

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Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center rafters take to some wild whitewater on the Arkansas River.

Rafting is big business even during a pandemic

It’s hard to imagine, but for rafting company owners, COVID concerns did not decimate business last summer. 

In his 10 years at the helm of the Buena Vista-based company that got its start in Howard, Slate has never been as busy as he was last summer despite the global pandemic. 

“Last year at this time the phones were not ringing at all and we ended up having the busiest season since I’ve been running the company,” Slate said. “It was crazy.” 

“Weddings, sporting events, rock concerts were all canceled but people could still could go play outside. Once you lock people inside they realize how important getting outside, playing and getting fresh air is — we were almost like a mental health facility,” Slate said.

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Ellis said he took over Wilderness Aware Rafting last January right before the pandemic hit but is seeing 50% more bookings so far this year than last year. His company specializes in multiday rafting trips which include overnight camping next to the river. 

“Those folks tend to plan farther than advance when you are committing to a trip that takes five days long as opposed to a half-day trip. We start North of Buena Vista and go 90 miles, finishing in the Royal Gorge, which is a great way to end a trip,” Ellis said. 

Rafting is expected to be a big draw for tourism this summer on the Arkansas River.

Slate said a lot of the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center’s day to day raft trips and kayak lessons are booked at the last minute. 

“We do kayak instructor training, stand-up paddle board instructor training, swift water rescue, raft guide training, rock climbing guide training and all that stuff is definitely filling up. People are expecting a busy summer and guides need to get certified to be prepared,” Slate said. 

Slate also is noticing a trend toward interest in private rafting trips. 

“What is becoming popular is the private trip because people want to be in their own group and they are willing to pay for that. Ironically, we are more like a niche company that customizes group trips and we’ve been doing that for forever, but we are definitely promoting that more now,” Slate said. 

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Andy Neinas, owner of Colorado’s largest outfitting company, Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Canon City, agrees private rafting trips are a boon. 

Echo added the option of booking by the raft and will continue to offer it. Starting at $395 a group of up to five people may have their own guided raft. 

Neinas predicts this year will be one of the strongest rafting seasons in years. He is seeing indicators such as strong advance bookings from people who are expressing a clear pent-up demand for travel and crave the mental and physical benefits of outdoor recreation. 

Rising gasoline prices are a bit nerve-wrackingwracking for rafting company owners, “but I think people are still going to travel and that will outweigh their economic concerns about the price of gas,” Ellis said. 

For details about Arkansas River and other Colorado River rafting adventures, visit

Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business and Fremont County news. She can be reached by email at or via Twitter at