What Are the Most Famous Rapids in the Royal Gorge?

Written by Ben Sack, 02.19.2024

Some of the most dramatic scenery and some of the finest whitewater rapids in Colorado await in the Royal Gorge, sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River.”

While not the only route we offer here at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, the Royal Gorge is our beloved backyard and the centerpiece attraction among our adventure rafting itineraries. In this article, we’ll introduce the best rapids Royal Gorge rapids: the spectacular wild water that draws river runners from near and far to this iconic destination.

view of Royal Gorge in Colorado

What is the Royal Gorge?

Rafting crews paddle into rapids in the Royal GorgeThe Royal Gorge describes the strikingly narrow, strikingly deep chasm, roughly 10 miles long, where the Arkansas River cleaves through the Rocky Mountain foothills—between the Colorado Front Range to the north and the Wet Mountains and Sangre de Cristos to the south—and out onto the Great Plains near Cañon City.

Some 1,250 feet at its deepest, and generally a mere 40 to 50 feet across, the Royal Gorge owes its existence to the regional uplift that, some three to five million years ago, caused the Arkansas River to gnaw through soft overlying sedimentary layers and into a buried arch or dome of harder granite, gneiss, and schist. The initial notch the down-cutting river made in this igneous and metamorphic mass committed its course eroding into and through this dome, even though the surrounding area offered more yielding sedimentary rock: hence the otherwise unexpected spectacular canyon here flanked by broader, gentler foothill valleys.

The Ark’s gradient and the resistant rock it’s gnawed through in the Royal Gorge ensure some world-class whitewater. Let’s get to know it!

The Best Royal Gorge Rapids

What class of rapids do we find in the Royal Gorge? In normal flow, this is primarily Class IV whitewater. Rafting here is no “float trip” (like some of our other packages): It’s an all-hands-on-deck, participatory experience, each member of the party contributing active and engaged paddling for the whole shebang.

During the highest discharge of peak June flow, some of the Royal Gorge rapids can increase into Class V territory.

What are the names of the best Royal Gorge rapids? Let’s introduce you to a few of the showstopper ones!

Sunshine Falls: This Class IV beauty—which turns into Class V during higher flows—delivers a sharp (and daunting) horizon line formed by a pair of five-foot drops. The Sunshine Falls rapids are among the biggest and most technical of Royal Gorge whitewater.

Wall Slammer: It’s pretty much all there in the name. This Class IV rapid edges you past a rock wall better than 1,000 feet high, and a couple of challenging features force rafts awfully close. There’s “Running Scared,” aka “Pyramid Rock,” which can give those following a line too far from the wall some trouble. But beware of “The Vortex,” which will pull you right into the wall if you get too close. If you can spare some glances upward, Wall Slammer harbors some of the most picturesque views in the canyon, with a fine prospect of the Royal Gorge Bridge roughly a thousand feet above.

The Narrows: This fantastic chokepoint along the Royal Gorge, consisting of continuous Class IV whitewater, encompasses three drops. “First Drop” or “Welcome Mat” is a large, sweet wave that funnels you into the tightest section of the Gorge at “Second Drop,” with the Arkansas River just more than 20 feet wide and boiling 1,250 feet below the canyon rims. A steep, stairstep-style section of rapids and plunges forms “Third Drop,” culminating in a final fab wave that sends you into what we call the “Fishbowl”: a grand finish surrounded by soaring walls on all sides.

Bear in mind there are some other fantastic Class IV rapids in the Royal Gorge, too: from the ripsnorting Sledgehammer to Boat Eater, which sees you rock-sliding through narrow slots at lower flows—and dodging the namesake “boat-swallowing” hole at beefier ones.

Experience the Best Royal Gorge Rapids

The compact, sublimely scenic Royal Gorge churns with epic whitewater that holds its own with any other route in the Centennial State—and it’s less than an hour from Colorado Springs!

Here at Echo Canyon, we’ve been getting people of all stripes and ability levels acquainted with the awesomeness of the Royal Gorge for more than 30 years. This whitewater canyon is intimidating-looking, sure, but with our rock-solid experience—and the most extensive and in-depth rafting guide training in Colorado—you can have a safe and spectacular ride through the best rapids Royal Gorge rapids.

Book your adventure on the best Royal Gorge rapids with Echo Canyon today!

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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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