The 2023 Colorado Whitewater Rafting Season in Review

Written by Ben Sack, 12.20.2023

With the main Colorado white water rafting season in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to reflect on how 2023 went down in the river-running department—and, of course, to start looking ahead with anticipation to next year’s adventures!

Here at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, we’re proud to offer rafting trips on one of the most legendary of Colorado’s rivers: the mighty Arkansas, which in our backyard flows through the spectacular Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge. We also lead spectacular multi-day trips farther upriver, too, including through Browns Canyon, among the great Class III routes in the Centennial State.

Let’s take a look at this recently concluded season’s Colorado river rafting conditions, and indulge in a little speculation regarding next season…

Predicted Conditions for the 2023 Colorado White Water Rafting Season

Much of Colorado saw an impressive snowpack during the winter of 2022-2023, which reflected a broader trend across a big swath of the American West. As the National Snow & Ice Data Center noted in its monthly Snow Today report, the April average for snow-covered areas in the West was a record-setting 231%, with above-average snow water equivalent (SWE)—the amount of water that would result from melting a given snowpack—for all western states. Many of the same weather systems that produced epic snowfalls in California’s Sierra Nevada also brought plenty of the white stuff to the Colorado Rockies.

That said, not all parts of the state—or of the Rockies—received big-time snow. Indeed, some of the Rocky Mountain ranges in our vicinity, including the Sangre de Cristos, the Wet Mountains, and the Mosquito Range, experienced below-average snow cover last winter and early spring.

That regional pattern helps explain why, in a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service assessment of Colorado’s watersheds from early January 2023, the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins—partly fed by those three ranges—were the only major river basins in the state to hold below-average snowpacks then: 78% and 91%, respectively. By comparison, the Gunnison River Basin held 136% of its average snowpack at the beginning of the year, and the Yampa-White-Little Snake Basin boasted an impressive 146%.

Does that mean that we here at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, set on the Arkansas, experienced a lower-than-average rafting season in terms of flow, given the below-average snowpack the river basin experienced during the accumulation season? Actually, no! In fact, we ended up with one of the best river-running seasons we’ve had in a while. Other variables that came into play were responsible, not least a generally cooler-than-average and wetter-than-average spring, which helped slow the seasonal snowmelt and keep flows higher into early summer than they’ve been in the past few years.

Also, August brought some notable—and, from a rafting standpoint, beneficial—water exchanges. Normally, that month typically sees flow rates drop off quite quickly, but not this year: Because water entities were transferring water from Twin Lakes Reservoir (upstream of Echo Canyon) to Pueblo Reservoir (downstream of us)—a practice partly pursued to benefit rafters and anglers—we happily enjoyed medium-level flows throughout this past August.

Water Temperatures

Beginning about June, the water temperature of the Arkansas River at the end of the famous Royal Gorge route was generally somewhat cooler this year as compared to last. On the afternoon of June 11, 2023, for example, the river here in Cañon City, Coloado clocked in at 58.46 degrees F, compared with 65.48 degrees on the same date in 2022.

The transfers of water between the Twin Lakes and Pueblo reservoirs throughout August helped keep the river temps a bit cooler than they otherwise would have been during that month.

Water Flow

The Arkansas River’s flow this year was significantly greater than in 2022 for much of the Colorado rafting season. The USGS gauge on the “Ark” near Nathrop, Colorado—representative of conditions through Browns Canyon, one of the state’s topnotch Class III whitewater routes—registered peak discharges beyond 2,500 cubic feet per second (CFS) in late June, substantially higher than in 2022. Farther downstream at Parkdale, Colorado—the beginning of the Royal Gorge route—the Arkansas peaked in late June at flows above 3,000 CFS.

And higher flows this year as opposed to last continued later into the summer. On the afternoon of August 2, for example, the Arkansas near Nathrop was running at 967 CFS; the same time that date last year, the discharge was 769 CFS. There was quite a pronounced spike in discharge, too, around the close of August and the start of September.

What’s a good CFS for rafting? On the Ark, ideal flows for whitewater rafting run between about 700 and 2,500 CFS. This year, the Royal Gorge route enjoyed great, raft-ready flows from mid-May into the first half of September.

Safety Data

The 2023 Colorado River rafting season saw an uptick in accidents compared to last year. According to the statistics tallied by American Whitewater, there were 17 Colorado rafting deaths in 2023, along with five non-fatal injury events. 

Here at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, we take safety seriously: From our Coast Guard-approved Type V Personal Flotation Devices to our top-class, rigorously trained roster of staff and river guides, providing a safe—and fun!—experience is our utmost priority.

Preparing for Next Season

What might we expect for the 2024 Colorado whitewater rafting season? After three years of La Niña conditions—when ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific off South America are cooler than normal—we’ve now transitioned into a strong El Niño, with the opposite setup (warmer-than-average temperatures in the eastern Pacific).

El Niño can have pronounced impacts on precipitation and temperature in the western U.S., with generally warmer and drier conditions in the Pacific Northwest and generally cooler and wetter conditions in the Southwest. This could mean a greater high-country snowpack for our watershed, which, in turn, might bode well for the 2024 river running on the Arkansas. Of course, a heavy winter snowpack doesn’t always translate into primo rafting, because the timing and duration of its spring/early-summer melt-off matter as well.

Echo Canyon River Expeditions is Here to Help You Plan for 2024

After a very successful year with some awesome flows into late summer, we’re already getting psyched about the 2024 Colorado white water rafting season, needless to say. Come join us on the magnificent Arkansas River for unforgettable runs through Browns Canyon, Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and the iconic Royal Gorge: Start planning a rafting trip with Echo Canyon for next year!

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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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