Although rafting was one of mankind’s earliest forms of transportation, the origins of Colorado whitewater rafting are relatively young, and can be traced back to Lieutenant John Fremont’s exploration of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region, including Colorado.
Working with inventor Horace H. Day, Lt. Fremont’s primitive raft consisted of four independent rubber cloth tubes and a wraparound floor. Its first known whitewater rafting use was surveying the Platte River in 1842, which Fremont wrote of in his journals.
In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell led ten men in four wooden boats on a scientific rafting exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Although their boats weren’t built for Colorado whitewater rafting, there were many times when the men had no choice but to hold on tight and ride the rapids; a practice still occasionally followed by newbies on their first Colorado whitewater rafting excursion.
Vintage - Shooting the Rapids
Come on in, the whitewater’s fast!
It wasn’t until the 1960s that commercial whitewater rafting began in earnest. At first, river runners used surplus military rafts to go Colorado whitewater rafting; eventually, these were replaced by more modern inflatable rafts and rafting equipment.
In the 1970s, attention was brought to whitewater sports when kayak slalom was included in the Munich Olympic Games. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the equipment and tools used for Colorado whitewater rafting continued to evolve, bringing it closer to that used by hundreds of thousands of Colorado visitors and residents every year.
In 1996, interest in whitewater sports grew again when the Ocoee River in the Tennessee Valley hosted the whitewater competition for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The international exposure created a huge surge in popularity for Colorado whitewater rafting, which has continued to this day.
The International Federation of Rafting was founded in 1997, and sponsored the first international whitewater rafting championship in 1999. In 2007, the United States was represented by two teams from Vail, Colorado, proving that Colorado whitewater rafting is among the best training grounds in the world.
Vintage - Salida Boat Race
Every June the world’s best paddlers answer the Arkansas’ siren call and descend on Salida, Colorado, bringing with them their kayaks, rafts and love for the “meanest stretch of whitewater in the world.” They come to test themselves against 25.7 miles of “whitewater hell” in the festival known as FIBArk (First In Boating on the Arkansas River), one of the most unique whitewater river races anywhere.
This one-of-a-kind Colorado whitewater event started with just 23 racers in 1949. During the first three years, every type of whitewater rafting craft imaginable was tried by various participants; however, the best times were consistently turned in by racers using canoes and folding kayaks.
In the ‘70s, a rafting division was added, and today the grueling course is recognized as the ultimate test of Colorado whitewater rafting skills, with a 26-mile rafting race open to everyone; the Bryan Deher Memorial Race, open to pros and teams from whitewater rafting outfitters; and the Raft/Rodeo Freestyle Competition, open to anyone crazy enough to enter.
In addition to being a showcase for some of the world’s sickest Colorado whitewater rafting skills, FIBArk is also one of the West’s top outdoor festivals, with authentic Colorado cuisine, arts and crafts, a carnival, beer garden and live music. But make no mistake: it’s the chance to challenge Colorado’s mighty Arkansas River that draws people back year after year. Even if you never plan on experiencing Colorado whitewater rafting for yourself, FIBArk is the one Colorado event you don’t want to miss.
Colorado Whitewater Rafting – The Best Keeps Getting Better
Over the years, as whitewater rafting equipment has become more specialized and made with higher quality materials, Colorado whitewater rafting has become much safer. The level of expertise among the guides at the various Colorado whitewater rafting outfitters has grown as well, further increasing the sport’s safety record.
Because of this, Colorado whitewater rafting is becoming more and more popular every year; over 400,000 people visited the Arkansas River last year alone, making it the most popular whitewater rafting river in the world, with something for everyone looking to experience the unbridled joy and exhilaration of Colorado whitewater rafting.