Best Easy Whitewater Rafting Routes for Non-Swimmers on the Arkansas River

Written by Ben Sack, 02.21.2024

The Arkansas River ranks among the premier whitewater streams not only in Colorado but in North America as a whole. And it’s earned that reputation partly because of some big, boisterous water delivering exceedingly thrilling rides for rafters and paddlers.

But another reason why the Ark is coveted for on-the-water recreation—besides the spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery it rolls and tumbles its way through—is its accessibility to river-runners of all skill levels, with plenty of opportunities for easy whitewater rafting experiences. Here at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, we cater to the whole beginner-to-advanced spectrum of experience, and some of our trips are even suitable for those who can’t swim.

Read on to learn more about the beginner-friendly Arkansas River rafting we offer here at Echo Canyon, and how to approach this outrageously fun activity if you’re a non-swimmer.

Whitewater Rafting as a Non-Swimmer

Can non-swimmers go whitewater rafting? Yes, they can.

But let’s get this straight off the bat: It’s always preferable that you have some swimming ability before going on a rafting trip. That’s definitely the ideal situation, wherever you’re rafting. Even if you can’t swim, though, or consider yourself minimally comfortable in the water, the whitewater-rafting door certainly isn’t closed to you.

rafting the Numbers on the Arkansas RiverIf you’re a non-swimmer considering a rafting trip, you should always convey your ability level to the outfitter and river guide. They can then help you select a rafting itinerary and style that’s safe and suitable for you, targeting a section of river with rapids in the Class I to Class III vicinity, and with a low likelihood of you falling from the raft.

To be clear, that’s always a possibility, but non-swimmers on the right kind of friendly whitewater and properly suited up in a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) face lower stakes should they take a dip. Listening closely to your guide and following all instructions will further minimize the risk.

Many non-swimmers and beginner rafters find themselves most comfortable riding in a paddle-assist boat, wherein the guide has more exclusive control over the raft and guests simply hold on and savor the ride.

Class I-III rapids in a paddle-assist raft will still deliver a delightful and exciting experience, without the magnitude of consequences and commitment that higher-tier whitewater entails.

Easy Arkansas River Rafting Routes Appropriate for Beginners & Non-Swimmers

Our heavily trained and deeply experienced guides run trips on many different sections of the Arkansas River, including beginner-level reaches that those with minimal swimming ability and rafting experience can safely tackle. From Upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon floats to Browns Canyon whitewater rafting, here’s a look at some of the best options for newbies and non-swimmers!

Bighorn Sheep Canyon

If you ask us, Bighorn Sheep Canyon is the premier family-friendly section of whitewater in all of southern Colorado. There are exhilarating rapids, but they come widely spaced with calmer in-between stretches, furthermore, a riverside highway (Highway 50) runs the entire reach of the canyon, allowing for mid-trip egress should that become necessary.

That road accessibility and the mildness of Bighorn Sheep Canyon’s whitewater go a long way toward making non-swimmers feel more at ease, knowing they’ll have gentler reaches to recover between rapids and a way out if the experience proves too rough for them.

Nestled amid splendid scenery and serving up top-notch wildlife-viewing opportunities, Bighorn Sheep Canyon rafting is a standout choice for a family river adventure. If you’re looking for whitewater rafting for kids, then this is it. It’s suitable for youths ages about 6 and up and also appeals to more seasoned rafters who still enjoy peppy rapids and stellar sightseeing.

Upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon—Scenic Float

Beginner rafting on the Arkansas RiverBeloved for its scenery and critter-viewing opportunities, Upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon delivers a tranquil, rewarding Class I-II float with the guides typically rowing paddle-assist crafts themselves so guests get to kick back and relax. Particularly during spring runoff, which brings bigger and wilder whitewater to the Arkansas, we typically steer non-swimmers to the Upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon rafting itinerary.

Milk Run

The Milk Run refers to a short, highly beginner-friendly section of the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Salida, Colorado, with a Johnson Village put-in and Fisherman’s Bridge take-out. Rated at Class I to II, the mild-but-pleasantly-bouncy whitewater of the Milk Run reach is absolutely ideal for first-time rafters, families, and anyone looking to try out rafting on a very forgiving flow.

Browns Canyon

Rafting through Browns CanyonThis upper run on the Arkansas serves up grand Southern Rockies scenery and family-friendly Class I-III whitewater between Fisherman’s Bride and Salida, Colorado. Fun rapids on Browns Canyon whitewater rafting trips come staggered between calm flatwater for getting recombobulated (and scanning for mule deer, birds of prey, and other wildlife).

Compared with Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Browns Canyon is a bit more remote, with only certain river-access points, and at higher flow nudges up in grade to Class IV—not the best idea for non-swimmers. Consider this stretch for mid-level flows only in July, for example.

Book an Easy Whitewater Rafting Adventure in Colorado With Echo Canyon

Thanks to well-trained guides boasting extensive experience running the Arkansas River, high-quality rafts, Coast Guard-approved PFDs, and other safety gear, beginners — even non-swimmers — can feel confident booking a Colorado rafting experience with Echo Canyon River Expeditions.

Just remember to always be open and honest about your ability and comfort levels on the water, and we’ll help you choose the best whitewater itinerary for you!

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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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