The Best Class IV Whitewater Rafting Spots in Colorado

Written by Ben Sack, 03.19.2024

Rafters are splashed as they paddle Wallslammer Rapid in the Royal GorgeFor many devoted whitewater rafters, Class IV is the sweet spot of rapids: big, fierce, intense water delivering top-grade adventure, but more manageable—and less outright terrifying—than the Class V category that really starts pushing the limits of recreational rafting. 

Colorado calls home some of the best Class IV whitewater rafting in the nation, and Echo Canyon River Expeditions has been showing it off to guests since 1978. We offer an array of high-adrenaline adventure whitewater rafting trips against a Rocky Mountain backdrop.

Here’s a tour of some of the most fabled Class IV rapids Colorado hosts, including routes we run here at Echo Canyon.

Famous Class IV Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

With its plethora of Rocky Mountain-sourced whitewater rivers, Colorado has no shortage of spectacular Class IV runs. That includes the following three understandably celebrated sections.

The Royal Gorge

Adventure Rafting in the Royal GorgeThis improbably deep and narrow chasm of the Lower Arkansas offers arguably the premier Class IV ride in the state. With multiple outstanding Class IV rapids during nearly all flows, including Sledgehammer, Wall Slammer, and Boat Eater, the Royal Gorge treats you to one heck of a wild water ride while dazzling with its majestic rock-walled scenery.

The fact that it’s a natural wonder of rural Colorado nonetheless easily reached from a major metropolitan area (Colorado Springs) only adds to the appeal of this so-called “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River.”

The Numbers

Numbers raftingThe popular Numbers section upstream of Buena Vista, Colorado includes fantastic Class IV whitewater close to the headwaters of the Arkansas River. Set between the Sawatch and Mosquito ranges of the Southern Rockies, the “Ark” here surges through six Class IV rapids during peak early-summer discharge.

Clear Creek

Clear Creek rafting near Idaho SpringsThis tributary of the South Platte River includes predominantly Class III rapids which, during early-season peak flows fueled by spring runoff between about late May and early June, crank into Class IV status. You can enjoy Clear Creek’s whitewater only about an hour from Denver, which is a big plus. That said, Interstate 70 hugs the route, which can somewhat detract from the natural beauty and experience.

(We’re mainly focused on the mighty Arkansas here at Echo Canyon, but we do offer some trips on Clear Creek as well.)

How Dangerous Are Class IV Rapids?

Anything can happen during whitewater rafting, and any rapid can be dangerous depending on specific circumstances. The wildness of running these vigorous, high-gradient, obstacle-staggered river routes is fundamental to the activity’s appeal.

A paddle crew takes a big piece of the biggest wave in Maytag Rapid at high waterConsidered against the full range of river-recreation experiences, one Class IV rapid might definitely be considered on the more dangerous end of things, while another isn’t—just characterized by bigger, more continuous, or tougher-to-navigate whitewater.

The Class IV designation derives from the International Scale of River Difficulty, which describes this grade of whitewater as “Advanced.” A Class IV rapid often includes “must-make” moves requiring a strong and confident paddle crew, and in theory may demand more aggressive swims for self-rescue. The Class IV rating can stem from a single feature within a rapid, or reflect other characteristics of a river reach, such as a lack of riverside evacuation or the sheer frequency with which a boat is actively underway through rapids.

Long story short, there are many reasons as to why a Class IV rapid may be classified as such, but the designation doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more dangerous than a Class III rapid—even if a swim in such a section tends to be more adventurous!

Can Beginners Do Class IV Rapids?

The short answer is “yes,” but they ought to be in good physical condition and know how to swim. At Echo Canyon, we personally recommend that guests who want to give Class IV whitewater rafting a go have at least some rafting experience in the Class III range under their belts.

But you can certainly consider a Class IV run for your first-time rafting experience if you’re a strong and confident swimmer, good at understanding and following directions, and comfortable in tense situations.

Experience Class IV Whitewater Rafting in Colorado With Echo Canyon River Expeditions

Ready to conquer the best Class IV rapids in Colorado? Book your adrenaline-pumping rafting expedition with us and experience the ultimate adventure!

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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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