Colorado Rafting History

Rafting has a rich history in the American West – Read all about it!

Although rafting was one of mankind’s earliest forms of transportation, the origins of Colorado 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 rafting 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 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 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 rafting in Colorado for yourself, FIBArk is the one event you don’t want to miss.

Rafting In Colorado – The Best Keeps Getting Better

Over the years, as whitewater rafting equipment has become more specialized and made with higher quality materials, rafting has become much safer. The level of expertise among the guides at the various Colorado rafting outfitters has grown as well, further increasing the sport’s safety record.

Because of this, rafting in Colorado is becoming more and more popular every year; over 400,000 people visited the Arkansas River last year alone, making it the most popular rafting river in the world, with something for everyone looking to experience the unbridled joy and exhilaration of rafting.