Colorado is a beautiful state; they don’t call it Colorful Colorado for nothing.
The Rocky Mountains alone should merit a visit if you’re into some near-perfect scenery. But I’m not just talking about sightseeing here; I know you’re here for the paddling opportunities.
Where does one kayak in Colorado?
Well, it’s a fair question. And the good news is:
Colorado has many lakes and rivers that would satisfy even the pickiest of paddlers out there.
It doesn’t matter what kind of paddling you’re into; Colorado has as many relaxing trails as it does whitewater rapids.
So, sit back – and let’s see where the best kayaking in Colorado is, shall we?
Kayaking & Fishing In Colorado: Laws & Regulations To Keep In Mind
Before I get the list started, it’s essential to go over some rules and regulations. You don’t want your kayaking trip to get cut short with a hefty fine, do you?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Here are some kayaking laws to keep in mind:
- In Colorado, a kayak/canoe is considered a vessel without a motor or sail, meaning you don’t have to get it registered.
- Motorized boats have to be operated by a licensed individual over 14 years old.
- Colorado’s BUI law states that it’s illegal to operate a vessel under the influence, with the 0.08% blood alcohol level considered as the legal limit.
- All vessels – including kayaks and canoes – must carry at least one wearable PFD for each person on board. Kids under 13 must wear a PFD at all times.
- Your kayak must display a white light between sunset and sunrise or during periods of restricted visibility.
If you’d like to cast a line from your ‘yak, you should probably check Colorado’s fishing laws, as well. As it turns out, that opportunity to catch some of the 35 species of fish in the state doesn’t come free:
- If you’re 16 and older, you need a valid fishing license if you plan on casting your lines on one of the fishable rivers and lakes of Colorado.
- The annual hunting/fishing combination license is available only for Colorado’s residents. Visitors will have to take out individual permits.
- Short-term fishing licenses are available for those who just want to have the option while paddling.
- You can purchase a fishing license online through the states’ of Parks and Wildlife website or from a local, licensed vendor.
13 Best Places To Kayak In Colorado
Alright, now that we have the laws and regulations figured out, how about we look at some of those paddling locations that deserve a spot on your bucket list?
Colorado has quite a bit to offer – the state has 158 rivers flowing through its territory, a large number of lakes and many beautiful state parks, too – so I won’t even attempt to cover every single Colorado kayaking spot here.
I figured a list of 13 great places to kayak should do the trick.
So, if you’re still wondering where to go kayaking in Colorado – let’s get you started!
1. Arkansas River
Best For: Whitewater paddling
Let’s start with the Arkansas River, the 6th longest river in the United States of America.
Now, I know that this 1469-mile giant doesn’t only go through Colorado – the river flows through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and, you guessed it, Arkansas.
Still, it’d be a shame not to mention it here.
It’s incredibly versatile and can be split into five sections, each giving you about a day’s worth of paddling. If you go all in, though, you’re looking at about two to five days of kayaking – with a bit of camping sprinkled on top.
The river starts off in the mountains near Leadville, and there are about 100 miles of whitewater that you’ll be able to rush through – along with some lazy sections, I’m happy to report.
If you’re up for serious whitewater kayaking, head to the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), which stretches for 152 miles along the river.
You’ll hardly be the only ones up there, though. This spot draws in heaps of paddlers from all over the world, and all of them are there for one reason – the adrenaline rush.
The most popular whitewater kayaking locations are found near Buena Vista, Salida, and Canon City, known as Colorado’s paddling towns.
Upstream, there’s Pine Creek, where you’ll find Class V rapids. Then the Numbers, where you’ll have Class IV-V whitewater rapids waiting for you. Up next, there’s the Narrows section (Class III-IV), Brown Canyons (Class III-IV), and the Bighorn Sheep Canyon (Class II-IV).
Continue downstream, and you’ll find the Royal George – one of the most spectacular sections of the river with its Class IV-V rapids and steep canyon walls.
If you would rather cast a line than tackle whitewater, head over to Lake Pueblo – a man-made fishing “hot spot.”
2. Bear Creek Lake Park
Best For: Afternoon on the water
If you leave the Rocky Mountains, just for a moment, you’ll stumble upon Bear Creek Lake Park at some point. Well, you’ll hit the lakes – that’s right, plural – that’s for sure; they’re pretty hard to miss.
Now, you might still be a bit wound up by the Arkansas River and all its whitewater rapids. But don’t worry; it’s time to dip your paddle into some relaxing greenwater.
If you’re in doubt, just follow the locals. Bear Creek Lake Park is just over 20 minutes away from the center of the city – and, as you can imagine, many Denver locals take advantage of the peaceful lake, too.
The people are as welcoming as the lake itself – and there are plenty of park rangers around to check up on you.
Again, the lake is all about taking things nice and slow. It’s a relaxing outdoor spot where you can go swimming, kayaking, motorboating – yes, motorized boats are allowed – and fishing.
And if Bear Creek Lake isn’t enough, you’ll be glad to know that this park has a couple more tricks up its sleeve. There are two more lakes to explore – Big Soda and Little Soda Lakes.
If you want to spend a lovely afternoon on the water – especially with your family – this is the place to be.
3. Upper Colorado River
Best For: Experienced kayakers
The Colorado River – the sixth-longest river in the United States – is another giant I’d like to talk about today. How long is it?
Well, the entirety of the Colorado River is a staggering 1450 miles long – and is a true marvel of natural beauty, dramatic canyons, and an incredible amount of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that keep this giant under control. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the most popular paddling destinations in the United States.
It stretches through seven states – and serves as a source of water for over 40 million people in the US.
I could quite literally stop right there and just tell you to go and see this scenic wonder of a river for yourself.
But we’re paddlers, aren’t we?
So, let’s focus on the Upper Colorado River Basin, one of the most popular river stretches in the state, known for its intermediate and expert-level sections, riddled with Class IV and V rapids.
Don’t get me wrong; you can easily go down to the Lower Colorado River – the slow-moving and wide section of the river with little to no whitewater. You’d be a long way from home, though; this part of the river flows through Arizona, Nevada, and California.
So, I figured it’s better to focus on the upper part:
When it comes to advanced kayaking, the Gore Canyon – home to Class V rapids – is the place to be. But there’s much more to do and see in the river; beginners will probably find the waters below Gore Canyon a lot more manageable.
Fishing, kayaking, hiking – the Colorado River is made up of opportunities.
You’ll need professional-level whitewater kayaking gear; let’s get that straight. The trails are not for beginners – and should be taken very seriously.
4. Shadow Mountain Lake
Best For: Relaxing with a view
Okay, now that we’re done with the behemoth that is the Colorado River, I’d say it’s time to step back and relax. And as every paddler knows, the best way to do that is to launch your ‘yak on a beautiful lake.
And the Shadow Mountain Lake delivers on both accounts – beauty and relaxation-wise.
Kayaking in Colorado has never looked this good; I promise you that.
With the Rocky Mounting serving as the greatest backdrop in Colorado, you’ll be able to paddle, fish, go jet skiing, sailing – and much more.
There are 1346 acres of stunning blue water and 8 miles of peaceful shorelines to explore here!
And if you feel like you need to take a break, you can stay in one of the 75 campsites in the Green Ridge Campground near the Shadow Mountain Dam. On that note, this is a man-made, high-elevation reservoir, in case I haven’t made it clear by now.
The Shadow Mountain Lake – or reservoir, as it’s sometimes referred to – is one of the five Great Lakes of Colorado in the Arapaho National Recreation Area (ANRA), along with Monarch Lake, Lake Granby, Willow Creek, and Meadow Creek Reservoir. Plus, it’s connected to Grand Lake – Colorado’s largest natural body of water – by a canal.
Oh, and did I mention that one edge of the lake is right up against the Rocky Mountain National Park? The opportunities are endless!
5. Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park
Best For: Whitewater kayaking enthusiasts
Did you know that Glenwood Springs was voted “Most Fun Town In America” in 2011? And once you learn more about one of its main attractions, you’ll be wondering why it doesn’t hold that title to this day.
The “main attraction” I’m referring to here is, of course, the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park – the first-ever man-made whitewater trail to be built on any section of the Colorado River!
It’s one of the most popular sites – among whitewater paddling enthusiasts, that is. And there’s a good reason for that:
This whitewater park attracts kayakers and paddlers from all over the US thanks to its signature feature, the G-Wave – a standing wave with a flow that ranges from 4000 to 22000 cubic feet per second.
Here’s an interesting fact:
Glenwood Springs Park was chosen as the site for the US Freestyle Kayaking Team Trials back in 2009. Even since then, it has been a kind of “rite of passage” for all paddlers in the area – and beyond.
Sure, the Arkansas and Colorado rivers will give you more of a challenge, but let’s face facts here:
Colorado’s kayakers are incredibly grateful for this unique spot.
There are a couple of smaller waves for those who want to work their way up to the big leagues. And there’s a secluded area that gives everybody a complete viewpoint of everything happening on the main – and all the other – waves.
Seriously, it’s a must-visit for all paddlers who are in – or passing through – Colorado.
6. Clear Creek Whitewater Park
Best For: Whitewater kayak slalom
Here’s another whitewater park on my list – located at the very base, near the front range of the Rocky Mountains. And yes, I’m talking about the Clear Creek Whitewater Park, one of Golden’s most unique recreational paddling attractions.
Golden is a Colorado city with a population of about 20,000 people and is home to the nationally renowned kayak course – a short yet exciting trail – along the Clear Creek river. When I say “short,” I mean it:
The course is only a quarter of a mile long!
Still, it features a range of natural boulders and obstacles along the way and is split into three sections.
The top section features some drops and pools – along with some fast eddies. Then there’s the middle section, a combination of flat, broad surf waves and random boulders. And finally, there’s the bottom section, with its extreme waves, drops, and obstacles – reserved for advanced-level kayakers.
The park was opened in 1998 and has remained relatively unchanged – except for a few extra perks added in 2002. Speaking of those 2002 additions to the Clear Creek Whitewater Park:
The trail now features six additional drop structures located downstream from the course behind City Hall – and on either side of the Washington Avenue Bridge. So, with that expansion, Golden now offers seven city blocks of whitewater paddling activities.
Oh, and don’t worry if you’re a beginner; it also features an indoor pool where paddlers can take lessons.
So, hopefully, you won’t end up chasing your ‘yak downstream – although I guess that would be quite a show for the locals.
7. Lake Dillon
Best For: Wildlife viewing
Now, if you were to go west of Denver, you’d step into the scenic Summit County – and discover Lake Dillon.
It’s also known as the Dillon Reservoir, by the way; don’t get confused while checking your map.
The calm, freshwater lake is surrounded by three towns, Frisco, Silverthorne, and – you guessed it – Dillon, and was initially created as a way to support Denver’s growing water needs.
The story of the reservoir – much like many stories in this area – starts with the 19th-century gold miners:
Summit County experienced a massive influx of people when miners struck gold in the Blue River. This combination of gold-mining opportunities, railroad development, and other factors molded the Blue River Valley into what it is today.
It also led to the construction of the dam on the Blue River, responsible for our current topic of discussion – Lake Dillon.
Okay, I’m officially done with the history lesson.
There’s plenty to do here. With 3,233 acres of freshwater and 27 miles of shorelines, the lake offers many recreational activities for tourists and locals alike.
The calm, flat waters make it a prime destination for novice paddlers, offering some fun yet relaxing adventures – with all the scenery you’d expect in Summit County.
The wildlife is waiting for its golden hour, as well. Heck, you might even spot a black bear while you’re there!
8. Eleven Mile Reservoir
Best For: Recreational kayaking and fishing
I probably sound like a broken record with all the reservoirs – but it is one of the last ones on this round-up, I promise. With that said, the Eleven Mile Reservoir, located an hour west of Colorado Springs, is one of the more unique ones on here.
The reservoir stands about 135 feet above the South Platte riverbed and was created in 1935 – and today, it’s one of the best locations for fishing in Colorado.
There’s an incredible amount of Kokanee salmon on the east side of the reservoir, while the rest of it offers opportunities to catch cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout, and northern pike species.
Located in the 7662-acre Eleven Mile State Park, the alpine-style lake is surrounded by distant mountain views, rock formations, and hiking trails – if you’d like to explore the beautiful Colorado scenery on foot.
The actual reservoir is 6 miles long and covers a 3405-acre surface, so you generally don’t have to worry about the crowds.
Eleven Mile is Denver’s most extensive water system located in Park County, only 11 miles – the name had to come from somewhere – south of Lake George.
Swimming, wading, scuba diving, and windsurfing aren’t allowed, so make sure to check in with the locals to get the best advice on how to have fun – and not get in trouble.
What’s not prohibited, though, is kayaking. Yay!
Granted, the reservoir doesn’t offer the most exciting paddling experience in the world – but the fishing and scenery make up for the lack of the adrenaline rush.
9. Yampa River – Steamboat Springs
Best For: Whitewater rafting for urban explorers
I told you that we’d take a break from all those reservoirs – and here we are.
Yampa is a beautiful Colorado river that stretches through the Rocky Mountains for about 250 miles. As with all bodies of water found in the Rockies, the scenery alone is worth the trip.
But let’s talk about Steamboat Springs.
The scenic downtown of this city offers a couple of things that might interest adventure-seeking outdoor enthusiasts. There are hiking and biking trails, and most importantly, the steamboat whitewater park – since the Yampa flows straight through it.
At its peak, this free flowing river can present a tremendous challenge for beginners. Class I-II rapids aren’t for everybody – especially when the water’s pretty darn cold – so you’ll have some difficulty if you capsize.
Don’t worry, though; the downtown area of the river is perfect for beginners who want to up their game!
You put in at Doctor Rich Weiss park and start at the Ambulance Hole (or A-Hole) – between 9th and 10th street – which will take you down to the Double Z wave. Next up is Charlie’s Hole (C-Hole), located at the Bud Werner Memorial Library at the 13th Street Bridge.
And after that, you’ll be greeted by the D-Hole – a lateral wave built in the 2000s.
It genuinely is quite an adventure, going down the city while conquering rapids on the river – and because of it, I honestly think that it’s one of the most interesting places to kayak in Colorado for the urban explorers.
But if Steamboat has you suffering from over-stimulation, and you want a soothing few days away, then head up to the Yampa State Park’s Elkhead Reservoir for a relaxing day or two.
The Elkhead reservoir is a year-round playground and promises fun for the whole family. It’s well known to be ideal fishing waters, but it also offers ATVing, hiking, horseback riding, and camping at one of its many designated campgrounds.
10. Pueblo Lake
Best For: Kayak fishing
I already mentioned Lake Pueblo – but I figured this all-year-round destination deserves its own spot on my list.
This great lake is situated in the Lake Pueblo State Park, has 60 miles of shorelines, 4600 surface acres of water, and almost 10000 acres of land. I’d say that’s more than enough!
It’s a perfect spot for two things – kayaking and fishing.
The Pueblo Dam that forms the lake was constructed back in the 70s across the Arkansas River and is home to an incredible amount of species. The top of the lake has loads of crowds as well, as it’s one of the busiest lakes in the state.
I seriously recommend making this a multi-day trip. That way, you’ll get to experience a little bit of everything Lake Pueblo State Park has to offer – from kayak fishing and wildlife viewing to camping at the State Park.
One day simply isn’t enough to take it all in.
I have to warn you that it’s one of the busiest lakes in the region, so don’t be too surprised by all the boat traffic – especially when the weather is nice. Given its size, it’s safe to assume that you won’t be crashing into other kayaks and canoes any time soon.
This lake might not offer the adrenaline rush of Colorado’s whitewater rivers, but why not take it slow and enjoy the scenery?
If it’s not your cup of tea – well, then just scroll up and take a look at the rest of the list. Colorado has pretty much everything a paddler can wish for – you just have to look for it!
11. John Martin Reservoir
Best For: Combining kayak fishing and camping
Now, this next location, the John Martin Reservoir, is referred to by many as the sapphire on the plains. I’d say that tells you quite a bit about its beauty, huh?
And indeed, the sapphire on the plains doesn’t disappoint – whether you’re there for the views or the endless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking, biking, camping, paddling, fishing, and wildlife viewing, you name it – and John Martin Reservoir probably offers it.
Besides being a sportsman’s paradise, it’s one of the largest reservoirs in Colorado – located on a high-desert prairie in the southeastern part of the state, roughly 100 miles east of Pueblo.
Anglers will be thrilled to learn that they can catch some bass, walleyes, crappies, Saugeye, and catfish here. And when you get tired of all your outdoor adventures, you can retreat to one of the 109 electrical and 104 non-electric campsites – depending on your camping preferences.
Oh, and did I mention that this area is also a haven for wildlife – with over 370 documented bird species and other animals, including deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs?
Seriously, if you’re looking for the perfect location for an uncrowded getaway – with plenty to do and even more to see – I highly recommend visiting the John Martin Reservoir and exploring its expansive waters.
Best For: An exciting family-friendly getaway
Situated in southwest Colorado – in between and south of Durango and Pagosa Springs – this state park is a jewel for watersports in the southern Rockies. And right in the middle of it is the gigantic Navajo Lake.
Seriously, the Navajo reservoir is over 25 miles long, boasting 15,000 surface acres of water, making it Colorado’s biggest lake – well, at least the biggest one that’s not entirely in the state. Otherwise, that title goes to the Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison.
On that note, I’d like to mention that the biggest chunk of the park is actually in New Mexico, but that doesn’t mean that the Colorado side doesn’t have much to offer.
For starters, it’s a fantastic one-stop destination for those seeking a fun, family-friendly getaway. It features a host of exciting outdoor activities, from boating and biking to hiking, picnicking, and camping!
Oh, and if you’re a history buff, you’ll probably be thrilled to discover the fascinating artifacts of the Anasazi Indians displayed at the Visitor Center.
You’ll have a chance to catch record-size northern pike, Kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, catfish, and large-mouth bass. And don’t miss the opportunity to see wildlife, such as foxes and deer, in one of Colorado’s most historic and oh-so-scenic areas.
Plus, there’s a campsite if you’d like to extend your stay for more than a day – and I recommend that you do.
Once you visit the Navajo Reservoir Lake for the first time, it’ll become a place you keep coming back to time and again – and trust me, you’ll discover new things to love about it every time you do.
13. Sylvan Lake
Best For: Year-round recreational kayaking
Sylvan Lake State Park – located only 15 miles south of I-70, about 30 minutes south of Eagle – is an off-the-beaten-track type of destination.
And when I say “off-beaten-track,” I mean it; there’s no cell phone service there, so I guess your Instagram feed will have to wait until you return to civilization. But I’m pretty sure you won’t mind taking a break from your smartphone – especially since this beautiful alpine lake has so much to offer.
The 42-acre Sylvan Lake is nestled in a valley, surrounded by the White River National Forest, which further adds to the secluded feel. The mountainsides are covered in pine, fir, and aspen woodlands, adding to the already scenic vibes.
It’s pretty much the definition of a secluded alpine lake – and a perfect place for a short camping trip. On that note, you’ll be glad to know that there are 46 campsites in the area – and you could even rent a cabin and make it a proper vacation!
I have great news for those that consider fishing rods a standard part of their kayaking gear, too:
Fishing is permitted on the Sylvan Lake – and if you’re up for it, you could also cast a line in the nearby West Brush Creek.
So, if you want to kayak and relax in a peaceful atmosphere, be sure to add Sylvan Lake to your list of places to visit in Colorado!
If you ever needed proof that owning a kayak in Colorado is a good idea, I think this list has that covered.
The state of Colorado might not be the first thing to pop in most people’s minds when looking for paddling locations. I get that. But I hope it gets a special spot on your bucket lists because it is a beautiful place with a lot to offer.
So, if you want beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes, wildlife, and whitewater adventures – look no further than the best places to kayak in Colorado covered in this guide.
Oh, and if any locals are reading this, please feel free to chip in and share your favorites!