The History of the Arkansas River in Colorado

Written by Ben Sack, 06.08.2020

The Arkansas River is one of the most popular whitewater rafting destinations worldwide. From exhilarating white-knuckling rapids to peaceful stretches, this pristine river is great for beginning rafters and experienced thrill-seekers alike.

As outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs, we thought we’d share a bit of history with you. Taking a trip through time reminds us of the rich history we’re surrounded by every time we head out on the gorgeous Arkansas River. 

Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range

The Formation of the Arkansas River

70 million years ago, the Rocky Mountain range formed where the Arkansas River would one day flow—the Sawatch Range near what is now Leadville, Colorado. Over the next 40 million years, rain and snow runoff sculpted the rocks, creating jagged cliffs and sweeping valleys. 

At around 29 million years ago, the Arkansas River valley formed. From that day until now, the Arkansas River carved stone and shaped the landscape all the way from the mountains of Colorado to where it joins the Mississippi River in Arkansas. 

The Arkansas River drops elevation rapidly along its first 100 miles. The river here is narrow and fast as it transverses mountain scenery. Once it exits the mountains and arrives at the great plains, the river widens and the pace slows. 

The Early Days

Ute IndiansFrom its earliest years, this fresh water was a life-giving resource for countless plants and animals. Many thousands of years before present, the first humans arrived in Colorado. Some of these native people used the Arkansas river as a source of water and food. 

European Exploration and the Gold Rush

Miners in ColoradoMuch of what we know about the history of the Arkansas River comes from European exploration. Spanish explorers are thought to have crossed the Arkansas for the first time in 1541 in Kansas. In 1672, Father Jacques Marquette referred to the river as the “Arkansas” in his journal. It wasn’t until 1806 that an American explorer ventured to the upper reaches in the Colorado mountains. 

From 1819 to 1846, the Arkansas River was the official border between Spanish Mexico and the United States. Only after the Mexican-American war did the entire Arkansas River fall within the boundaries of the USA. 

There was a brief gold rush along the Arkansas River. Placer gold discovered in 1859 attracted thousands to this Colorado mountain region. The gold was soon exhausted, and the gold rush moved elsewhere. 

The Arkansas River Recent History and Today

From 1890 to 1910, irrigation projects changed the Arkansas River geology from eastern Colorado through Kansas. The irrigation was so widespread that the river stopped flowing in July and August. 

While irrigation is still vast along the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, water management has helped to keep the river flowing throughout the year. Proper water management also ensures that visitors and locals can enjoy the river responsibly. 

The History of Arkansas River Whitewater Rafting

early days of rafting at Echo CanyonFrom its headwaters high up in the Rocky Mountains to Cañon City, Colorado, the Arkansas River drops 6,750 feet. This rapid drop in elevation has created a playground of rapids that attract visitors from near and far.

Rafting in Colorado goes further back than you might expect. Back in 1842, early European explorers surveyed some of the state by rafting the Platte River. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that whitewater rafting took hold, and then it was another few years before the first rafting outfitter led a group rafting trip on the Arkansas in the 1970s.

In 1978, we at Echo Canyon led our first group whitewater rafting trip along this glistening stretch of whitewater. As such, we were one of the first companies to guide outdoor adventurers through unforgettable rapids, such as those found along the Royal Gorge. 

Today, there are multiple companies that lead commercial rafting trips along the Arkansas River. Thanks to river management, the Arkansas rarely gets crowded, allowing visitors to enjoy Colorado wilderness and adventure at its finest. 

Arkansas River Recreation

Today, the Arkansas river is popular for more than whitewater rafting. River kayakers, fishers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all types soak in the sun’s rays and dip their toes in the water during Colorado’s warmer months. 

At Echo Canyon, we’re grateful to spend our days sharing this beautiful part of the state with locals and out-of-state travelers. There’s no better place to spend your days than out on a raft reveling in the wild wilderness and sun-soaked river. 

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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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