Rocky Mountain River Trips in Colorado That You Need Permits For

Written by Ben Sack, 03.16.2020

When you head out on a whitewater rafting trip with Echo Canyon River Expeditions, you won’t need to worry about permits. But if you’re a knowledgeable rafter looking to head out and explore gorgeous stretches of whitewater on your own, you’ll want to ensure that you’re fully prepared. And that often includes getting a rafting permit.

Why Do You Need a River Permit in Colorado?

Have you ever headed out into nature and been overwhelmed by the crowds? There’s nothing that can muddy an outdoor adventure like overcrowding. 

Colorado boasts some of the best whitewater in the country. Our crystal-clear waters and endless miles of fun draw explorers from around the world. And once you’re outside of Denver or Colorado Springs, the stretches of wilderness are the perfect canvas for multi-day trips. 

Dolores River rafting tripsColorado’s idyllic river systems are highly sought after. You can’t blame other outdoor enthusiasts from wanting to do exactly what you’re looking to do—explore the breathtaking landscape on your own. 

Before permits were required, some stretches of river became overcrowded. The crowds not only made boating less enjoyable, but it posed a risk to the wildlife with which we share our beautiful state. 

In a step to protect nature and encourage a good time for those rafting and kayaking, Colorado implemented permits for the most popular and sensitive stretches. 

Before you gather all of your supplies, take time off of work, and plan your dream rafting vacation, be sure that you check and see if you need a permit. And if you do, you might need to apply well in advance of your trip.

The Permit Requirements for Popular Colorado Rivers

Below is a list of many of the popular rivers in Colorado and their permit requirements. There are stretches that we didn’t include, and the information can change at any time. As such, check with the National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management long before you plan to set out on your river trip.

Colorado River

Westwater CanyonMany sections of the Colorado River require permits for both multi-day and single-day trips. The Colorado River permits must be obtained in advance, but there is no lottery system. You may be asked to pick another date if the date that you choose is already full. 

For the Ruby-Horsethief section, you may need permits for both rafting and camping, depending on the season. Visit recreation.gov for more details. 

Currently, you need only a day use permit to raft or kayak the Upper Colorado River Recreation Area from Pumphouse to State Bridge or Dotsero. At the time of this article, the fee is $5 per vehicle.

San Juan River

The San Juan River in southwestern Colorado a requires lottery application for multi-day trips. With challenging class II-V rapids that carve through picturesque canyons and remote wilderness, it’s worth entering if you’re an experienced multi-day rafter.

Yampa River and Green River

hiking in ColoradoThe most exciting way to explore Dinosaur National Monument’s remote landscape is by rafting the Yampa and Green Rivers. These stretches of whitewater are popular and the permits are limited. As such, there is a lottery for the high use season, and obtaining a reservation permit for low use season is extremely competitive. 

Explore more about this whitewater region and learn about its day-use and multi-day permit requirements at nps.gov. Private rafting trips in this area are best saved for the experienced rafter thanks to challenging and exciting class III and class IV rapids.

Piedra River

The Piedra River is one of the most challenging rivers that you can raft in Colorado. Located in the San Juan National Forest between Pagosa Springs and Durango, the Piedra River carves through rugged, remote canyons, making it a fantastic adventure for extreme thrill-seekers. 

With class V rapids, the Piedra is only suited for skilled and experienced rafters with top-of-the-line equipment. For those who are up for the white-knuckled challenge, you won’t need to get a permit.

Dolores River

Floating the Dolores RiverRafting the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado is a rare and thrilling experience. Thanks to its location, the best time to raft the Dolores is when other rafting spots in the state have yet to take off for the season. 

If you’re looking to explore this remote region, you will need a permit from Moab BLM office. But the most challenging part of planning a rafting trip here is knowing when to do it. The McPhee Reservoir upstream rarely releases enough water to raft, and when they do, outdoor enthusiasts aren’t given much notice. 

If you’re looking to explore this remote region, you will need a permit. But the most challenging part of planning a rafting trip here is knowing when to do it. The McPhee Reservoir upstream rarely releases enough water to raft, and when they do, outdoor enthusiasts aren’t given much notice. 

San Miguel River

You do not need a permit to raft the San Miguel River, but keep in mind two things. The first thing you should know is that only day trips are permitted. The second is that this stretch of whitewater is very rustic, and it’s challenging for private boaters to find a proper access point. For more information contact the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office.

Closing Thoughts

River rafting permits help to protect the wilderness and keep our rivers from becoming congested. While not all rivers require permits, most do. If you’re planning a self-guided river trip, we recommend figuring out where you want to go and learning their requirements at least two months before you plan your trip. That way you can raft the rivers that you’ve always dreamed of.

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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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