Rafting the Arkansas River Through Browns Canyon

As part of an outstanding adventure packed summer vacation to Copper Mountain in Colorado, we booked a white water raft trip with Timberline Tours. And all 18 of us, ranging from 73 to 7 had an absolute blast and can't wait to do it again. When we called them, Timberline Tours suggested that we raft the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon - which is fun and suitable for all ages.

Browns Canyon on the Arkansas RiverHere are just some of the reasons why we can recommend this Colorado white water rafting experience with Timberline Tours:

  • first and foremost, the four guides who took us down the river were fantastic - as was all of the staff at Timberline
  • the scenery was beautiful
  • the rapids were fun and exciting, and
  • the lunch was outstanding

One of the reasons we picked Timberline Tours was because my oldest daughter was good friends with two of the guides with Timberline - Phil and Antony. They were on the same water ski team in college and have remained close friends with my daughter and family since college. Our family has known Phil and Antony for years - we have snow skied with them (they are both expert ski instructors during the winter), hung out and drank with them in way too many bars, and shared lots of laughs and good times over the years. They are both salt-of-the-earth genuine fun loving guys and I'm proud to call them my friends. Plus they are the perfect river guides - passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the river, the mountains, the surrounding area, and river rafting (both have over 20 years experience) and they love to share their passion as they guide you down the river. The other two rafts in our group had Oscar and Shane as their guides and they had lots of positive things to say about both of them. The guides were a huge part of what made this trip fun, informative, interesting, and exciting. As good as the guides were, the scenery was equally stunning but, unfortunately, I couldn't take my camera for fear of it floating down the river on it's own taking pictures of the river bottom.

Getting suited with jackets and helmetsOur adventure started by driving about an hour from where we were staying in Copper Mountain to Timberline Tours' Granite, Colorado location. We were warmly greeted, fitted with helmets and life jackets and then boarded a bus for the short drive to our starting point at Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River. The rafts were unloaded, we broke up into groups, met our guides, and then got some safety and paddling instructions. My group (my wife and I and three grandsons) was with Phil and he quickly taught us how to paddle based on his commands like "left side paddle hard," "paddles up," "all paddle backwards," and most importantly "paddle forward in sync with the person in front of you." Which in my case was my 8 year grand son with no paddling experience and a paddle as big as he is! This should be fun. .

Our rafting group on 18getting ready to goPaddling Instructions

Plus Phil taught us what to do if we got one side of the raft caught high on a boulder ("all quickly jump to the high side"), how to retrieve someone who fell off the boat, what the person should do if they fell in, and most importantly "have fun!" I don't know about you but when I hear if you fall out of the boat, try to swim back, or float down river with your legs in front of you so they won't get caught under the rock or if the raft tips over and more scary stuff, I start to get a tad nervous and develop a tic! I also wasn't too fond of his idea to try a rafting maneuver called "splat" which is where Phil will run the raft over a rock that's sticking out of the water  and then spin off of it. It's a playful move, he assured us - didn't sound like that to me!. 


Browns CanyonBrowns Canyon

After 5 minutes of instructions we all took our position in the raft and practiced what we learned. And then the excitement and fun began. This time of year the Arkansas River flows between 400 cubic feet per second to a fast and furious 2500 cubic feet per second - the average is around 1160 cubic feet per second. For our trip, it was flowing around 651 cubic feet which is low and defines our trip as "medium water with Ideal flows, a great combination of fun whitewater and some technical rafting!" Technical rafting means lots of exposed boulders, concentrated rapid flows of water between boulders, and the need to carefully pick your route through the boulders.

Rafting the Arkansas River at Browns CanyonAfter learning all of this and learning how to rescue someone who fell in, my knees were shaking and my teeth were chattering. I started to worry about how strong the three grand boys (8, 10, and 13) could paddle, if they remembered the paddling commands, and if they were strong enough to pull my wife or me to safety if either one of us fell in! They were our lead paddlers and placed in that position by Phil which gave me a little more confidence.

High five raftingWe set off in gentle but rapidly flowing water and continued to practice our paddle commands, high side jumps, and a couple other maneuvers. In 5 minutes we were an in-sync paddling machine similar to the Harvard rowing team - my teeth finally stopped chattering. Let's hit some rapids! As soon as I said that Phil shouted "right side paddle hard" and I see the rapids approaching - teeth were chattering again. But we aced it and clapped our paddles together high in the air as a celebration! Then Phil shouted, "left side dig hard" as we flew down another set of rapids. We were all yelling "yeah ha" and laughing with smiles as big as Texas on our faces.

For the next two hours we whooped and hollered, cheered as we rode through a rapid, marveled at the magnificent scenery, splashed the other rafts with water and got soaked in return, and enjoyed all that Phil taught us about the river, geology, wildlife, fauna, and more. I was, of course, very interested in learning about all of that but also where to have a cold beer after the trip - which was the very cool legendary Leadville Silver Dollar Saloon that has been around since Doc Holiday moved to Leadville in 1883 shortly after the infamous shoot out at O. K. Corral.

Rafting with Timberline sportsWe learned that all of the rapids had names, some of which included: pinball, widow maker, zoom flume, big drop, staircase, raft ripper and toilet bowl where we did a 360! My knees started to shake when Phil said "next up is widow maker followed by raft ripper" - sounds ominous to me. On one of the rapids I was admiring the scenery when we hit a big and surprising drop and Phil grabbed me by the life jacket just as I was about to slide into the white water - another debt of gratitude to Phil! I promised to buy him a beer at the Silver Dollar Saloon.

And the guides also pointed out several boulders because they resembled a hippo, elephant, the pink panther, an old man smoking a cigar (unfortunately the log that was his cigarette was washed away), and lots more. We hit a deep and slower moving part of the Arkansas River and Phil said it was ok to jump in - I tested the water with my hand and decided to stay in the raft, however the three grand boys jumped in floated and swam for a couple minutes and piled back in the raft with big smiles and a "that was cool!"

Just about the time my arms were getting tired from paddling, my bad back was hurting from sitting so long, my stomach was growling, and my cheeks were smarting from smiling all the time we pulled on to a sandy beach with a picnic table just up the hill and heard "come and eat in about 5 minutes!" The kids swam in the river, climbed on the boulders, and the adults reminisced about the first half of the trip.

I'm not sure but I thought I heard a dinner bell, quickly got out of the river, rushed up the hill, and was greeted by a picnic table full of food - where had it all come from. The table was loaded with a variety of breads and lunch meat (pastrami, roast beef, ham, and turkey), pasta salad, lettuce salad, a salad with fresh salmon, chips, and cookies. All of which was delicious and thank God there was lots of it. While we ate, one of the other guides, Peter, told some jokes, funny stories, and bantered jokingly with our group. Half an hour later, I was ready for a nap.

lunch while rafting

But instead it was back to the raft for another hour or so of exciting rapids, more beautiful scenery, some exciting maneuvers through the boulders, splashing the other boats, and a dip in the cool water. On one rapid, we somehow got caught on top of a big boulder in the middle of the river. While we sat there helplessly, Phil moved to the front of the raft and yelled "shake it" while he jumped up and down trying to get the raft to move. Tried the same thing in the back with no luck. Then Phil jumped out of the raft (oh, boy I was sure that we'd go floating off with out him and knew none of crew would take any orders from me - panic city!), was up to his shoulders in swift moving water, and calmly said "move to the front and paddle." Which we did, I was sure I was going to look back over my shoulder and see him sitting on the rock either waving or yelling commands on what to do. But he easily slipped back on the boat and started paddling through the rest of the rapid. All of the other rafts were waiting to see what happened and laughing as we quickly paddled by. During our float, in addition to how to get stuck on the top of a boulder in the middle of the river, Phil showed us how to do 360's, purposely bounce off boulders to keep us on our path through the rapids, slide over partially submerged boulders, and stay in the back wash of rapid going over a big boulder. I was ready to buy a raft and hit the river to try all of that on my own - yeah, sure, in your dreams.

Scenery on the Arkansas RiverOn one serious I rapid, I again almost slid backwards into the water but Phil miraculously grabbed me by my life jack and pulled me back into the boat. After that he knew my back was hurting and obviously that my sense of balance was off so he politely said "Mike you can stop paddling if you want and sit back and lower in the raft." No argument there until I realized that now I'm in a raging river, with my 5' 2" slight wife, and 3 young first time rafters with good but limited paddling power. I gripped the raft straps a little tighter. But everyone did a great job of getting us through the rapids as I sat in my place feeling like the captain of an old slave rowing ship - but I held off from issuing orders and enjoyed the ride and scenery. For the 10 miles that we rafted, the scenery was stunning - tall mountain peaks, rugged mountain sides, lots of trees, and no homes, freeways, or noise outside of the raging Arkansas River.

Another set of rapids on Browns CanyonI also had another white knuckle moment when Phil asked the 10 year old to sit in Phil's place and take us down the next set of rapids - oh boy! But he did fantastic and I'm still alive to talk about it! All too soon we were at our take out spot, back in the bus, and headed to Timberline Tours in Granite and then on to the Saloon in Leadville for several beers and lots of laughs about our trip.

Timberline Tours is widely recognized as a world-class outfitter well known for pioneering commercial rafting in the Vail area over the last 18 years and for having a team of expert, highly experienced guides. Most of their guides have over 15 years of experience and time on several different rivers. Most of the other river rafting companies hire college students for the summer with limited experience. We saw an example of lack of experience on one of the rapids with a raft from another company that was just in front of us and nearly flipped. We (all 18 of us) can't say enough about how fantastic our guides (Phil, Antony, Oscar, and Shane - and Peter added some laughs and giggles) were. They were all very personable and outgoing, passionate about rafting and the environment, funny and engaging, educational and informative, and a joy to be with. Oh, and they know how to show you a fun, exciting, and safe trip down the river.

Check out this video of Rafting Down Browns Canyon.

How could you not trust these pretty faces to take you down the river for a fun rafting adventure! From left to right is Anthony, Phil, Oscar, Shane, and Peter.

Antony McCoyPhil PorterOscar Colorado

Shane CruikshankPeter Larkin

Timberline Tours offers multiple back country jeep tours and guides whitewater rafting trips on the Arkansas, Eagle, and Colorado Rivers. If you come to Colorado you've got to experience a raft trip with Timberline Tours. Thanks to our guides and the Timberline Tours staff for making this a really outstanding trip.

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