When I first moved to Kansas in 1994, I was certain my new coworkers were trying to make me look foolish when they told me the river running through the city was the Ar-Kan-sas. After all, these were the same newsroom cohorts who sent me on assignment to El Dor-a-do.
Skip ahead 24 years and now I have trouble pronouncing the Arkansas River the way everyone outside the state of Kansas does.
So when we showed up at Echo Canyon River Expeditions near Cañon City, Colo., for a half-day raft trip, we quickly gave away our origin when we spoke about the river we were about to ride.
“That is certainly unique to our friends from Kansas,” said Andy Neinas, who started his Echo Canyon venture on the Arkansas River in 1978 and has grown it into the largest commercial white water river rafting outfitter in the state.
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They see a good amount of Kansans each season (typically mid-May through mid-September) coming to raft and explore a river that looks much more enticing coursing through the Colorado landscape of red rock canyon walls, ponderosa pines and cottonwood groves and offering clear water, sections of churning rapids and a chance at seeing bighorn sheep.
It’s not just Kansans familiar with the Arkansas River who visit, though; about 25,000 guests will raft with Echo Canyon this season and nearly a quarter of a million will raft the river among all commercial operators in Colorado.
“The Arkansas is the most popular river for rafting in the U.S. because of the quality and the variability of the white water,” he said. “The river starts up in the Rocky Mountains and goes through quite a bit of elevation drop here in Colorado. That means it also goes through a lot of climatic zones, so you’ll see different bird life and plant life as you move through the various ecosystems the river flows through.”
The Arkansas River is one of the longest rivers in the country, starting near Leadville, Colo., and flowing nearly 1,469 miles through four states to its confluence with the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas.
The stretch near Cañon City where Echo Canyon operates gives rafters a variety of water conditions, from calm-water floats good for families with small kids to adrenaline-fueled adventures through the Royal Gorge’s class III to V rapids that have names like Sledgehammer and Boat Eater.
We opted for the in-between option: the half-day Bighorn Sheep Canyon trip that gave us a taste of the exciting rapids but wasn’t overwhelming for two infrequent rafters. We worried about it being too tame, but with seats in the front of our raft we got plenty wet on the class I, II and III rapids.
Water levels this year are modest compared to the immense snowpack the past three years.
That hasn’t hurt business so far this year, Neinas said; in fact, the hotter-than-normal temperatures in Colorado this summer have residents and visitors flocking to the river to cool off.
We went in late June and the sky was overcast the morning of our trip, so we opted to rent wet suits. That was our best decision of the trip. The water was cold and while we didn’t take a dip (intentional or accidental), we got splashed plenty.
We spent three hours on the excursion, including two hours in the raft with a family of four and our raft guide McIver, a 15-year guiding veteran and East Coast transplant with a love (and education) of history and the outdoors. We covered about eight miles and had fun paddling through rapids with names like Sharks Tooth and Double Dip.
While we didn’t see any bighorn sheep on this trip, we learned about the area’s flora and fauna and the history of the river corridor.
Outfitters like Neinas have learned that many visitors want all-inclusive options. At Echo Canyon headquarters, you can rent all the gear you need and have a meal before or after your trip at their 8-Mile Bar & Grill (the facility is about eight miles northwest of the town of Cañon City). Across the road, Neinas recently added nine mountain modern cabins and eight glamping tents.
“We brought Breckenridge to Fremont County,” Neinas said. “These are luxury with all the amenities.”
After our morning raft, we wanted to see what others in the area offered so we walked next door to the White Water Bar & Grill that is part of the Royal Gorge Rafting and Zip Line Tours operation. The food was great and the outdoor seating area even better; we dined on burgers and sandwiches while enjoying the views of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
Most of the outfitters here offer packages for visitors to further experience the Arkansas River corridor. In addition to the 150 raft-able miles on Central Colorado’s Arkansas River, 102 miles offer gold medal trout fishing. There are also opportunities to hike, mountain bike, rock climb and camp.
The Royal Gorge
If you don’t opt for the more challenging Royal Gorge raft trip, you should find another way to explore what is referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River. You can see the 1,200-foot-deep, 10-mile-long canyon carved by the river on a two-hour scenic and historic train ride operated by Royal Gorge Route Railroad or visit the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park.
We opted to see the gorge from the bridge, and then we stayed the night in a little-known lodge perched on the edge of the chasm. While the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park celebrates 90 years in 2019, most of the visitor areas have been rebuilt since a 2013 wildfire destroyed 48 of the 52 structures at the 360-acre site.
The 956-feet-high, 1,260-feet-long bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the U.S. It was built in 1929 and survived the fire with only about 100 scorched boards.
This is a tourism attraction through-and-through, and the $27 adult/$22 child entrance fee is steep to some. To get the most out of your ticket, take advantage of the unlimited aerial gondola rides, watch the film on the park’s history, view original artifacts and spend time at the three-story playground. A zip line, a skycoaster and some of the kids activities cost extra.
Walking across the bridge and taking the gondola across was fun, but the best views of the bridge were from the Bighorn Mountain Top Lodge, a 1,500-square-foot lodge in view of the bridge but unnoticed by most visitors. The park operates the lodge, and overnight guests get discounts on admission tickets. There are three bedrooms and two bathrooms, though you are charged by the person so a couple can rent it for $250 per night during peak season while a family of four would pay $350 per night, a group of six $450 and so on.
With it being warmer than usual this summer, the air conditioning wasn’t quite strong enough to make the bedroom as cool as we wanted but the views from the huge family room made up for it. We couldn’t decide between having dinner on the outdoor patio near the grill with views of surrounding mountain ranges or inside in front of large windows that put you right inside the canyon.
Intrigued by the new perspective of a river that flows just a few miles from our house in Wichita, we took seats in two rocking chairs positioned next to the windows. We watched rafters navigate the river 1,000 feet below us and kept an eye on the changing colors of the canyon walls as the sun set.
No matter how you say it, the Arkansas is a spectacular river.
Canon City, Colo.
Where: 470 miles west of Wichita, 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs
Rafting: mid-may through mid-September; Fishing: year-round
More info: Arkansas River in Colorado