How Will the 2019 Snowpack and Water Levels Affect the Rafting Season?

Written by Ben Sack, 05.21.2019

Every winter the mountains of Colorado are covered in a thick layer of white, perfect for cutting your way through fluffy powder on a snowboard or a pair of skis. Come spring and summer, this snowpack slowly begins to melt, feeding the rivers with water perfect for warm-weather adventures.

Rafters, kayakers, and other river-lovers are always paying attention to the snowpack as that determines water levels for the following river adventure season. This begs the questions, how is the 2019 snowpack, and how will that impact the rafting season?

2019: Above Average Snowpack in Colorado

Snowpack is the measure of how much snow has accumulated and compressed upon itself, waiting for the warmth of spring and summer to begin trickling its way into streams and rivers. It’s the measure that we rafters use to determine how our summer rafting season will be.

In 2018, many rafting companies stopped rafting a few weeks early due to low water levels in the rivers. The cause? Very little snow accumulated during the 2017-2018 winter season, resulting in a low snowpack that trickled out early in 2018.

What about 2019? Fortunately, the Rocky Mountains experienced above-average snowfall this year, and the snowpack is full and ready to create a rushing river great for rafting trips throughout the rafting season.

snowpack graph

Water Levels Throughout the 2019 Season

Water levels vary throughout the year, with lower levels during early spring and fall, and higher levels during late spring and early summer. How much water is in the river is dependent upon snowpack, both by the early snowpack that accumulates before February, and the later snowfall that accumulates during late winter and early spring.

Adventure Rafting in the Royal GorgeThe early snowpack is what’s most important when it comes to the longevity of the rafting season. In Colorado, we experienced about 150% of average, giving reason for rafting companies and their customers to get excited. An abundant snowpack means that the rivers in Colorado will be fed with water for longer, allowing rafting trips to extend later in the year.

Additionally, plenty of snow at the end of winter and into spring has led to a great start to the Colorado rafting season.

How Does the Water Level Impact Rafting?

When rafting companies and enthusiastic rafters see that the snowpack is above normal, they know that they are in for a good adventure and exciting rafting season. Generally, the higher the snowpack, the more thrills there are to be had throughout the summer months.

Changes in Rapids Throughout the Season

introductory whitewater trips for familiesIf you go rafting along the same section of river at two different times during the rafting season, you’re likely to have vastly different experiences with each run. This is due to one thing: differing water levels.

At the beginning of rafting season, the weather hasn’t warmed to the point of melting lots of the snowpack. The warm-but-not-hot weather results in a slow stream of water into the rivers, and thusly low water levels in early spring.

As the state heats up, the snowpack begins to melt faster, feeding the rivers with much more water. This results in peak volume in the Arkansas River around the Royal Gorge area in early to mid-June.

Do Higher Waters Mean Better Rapids?

As a general rule, the higher the water volume the more adventurous the rafting trips. However, there are some exceptions to the rule.

Even though the level of challenge does have to do with water level, it’s not the only factor. While there are some rapids that will become more intense when water levels are higher, others can eventually disappear as water covers the rocks completely. This is referred to as rapids being “washed out.”

Conversely, during low water there are some rapids that become more challenging to maneuver, creating more excitement for rafters and raft guides to paddle through. Others will peter out and not be so fun and challenging.

The idea here is that the difficulty depends on the geography of each run AND the level of the water.

When is the Best Time to Go Rafting?

the most gentle river class - class IThere is fun to be had from the very beginning to the very end of rafting season. That said, most families and rafting newbies will have the best time in early July, when the water levels are high enough for excitement, but not so high as to result in too much of a challenge.

For experienced rafters and adventurous beginners, early to mid-June, when water levels are highest, is typically the favorite time to go rafting in Colorado.

Of course, there are many different climates and rivers in Colorado, each with a slightly different rafting season and peak rafting time. Contact us at Raft Echo if you want help planning the best section of the river and time of the year for your rafting trip.

Every group and every year are different, so it’s always good to do your homework before you set out on your canyon adventure or family float trip.

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About the Author

Ben Sack is the General Manager of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Colorado's largest white water rafting outfitter. He's also a raft guide, a photographer, and he loves exploring Colorado and beyond with his wife and two boys.
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