The very best hiking, camping, paddling, fishing, climbing, mountain biking, and road cycling within two hours of Denver.
WHITE WATER PADDLING
Still Learning The Chutes South Fork of the South Platte River About an hour’s drive from the Mile High City (take U.S. 285 south to the South Foxton Road exit) is a stretch of river known as The Chutes, located near Deckers. (Note: While it’s generally considered a beginner run, do not attempt if you are a novice.) You can put in about three miles past the bridge on SW Platte River Road off South Foxton. You’ll mainly encounter Class II water, and one slightly hairier Class III rapid that jostles you through a rock-wall chute into a mild flat-water pool below. If you take a spill and can’t right yourself in the froth, the slow-moving calm at the end is a manageable recovery or practice zone. Navigate one more chute before paddling to the confluence of the North and South forks for takeout. The dirt road that parallels the river makes for easy scouting and shuttling, which can even be done with a mountain bike. allaboutrivers.com
Screaming Deal: After a day working the waves, you’ll deserve a hearty meal. About halfway between your South Platte adventure and Denver is the historic Sedalia Grill, where you can fill up on the Friday and Saturday special: prime rib, twice-baked potato, and salad for $9.95. 303-688-1249, sedaliagrill.com
Seeking a Challenge Bailey Canyon North Fork of the South Platte River With mostly Class IV rapids and three Class V drops—plus portage eddies that may be difficult to recognize for inexperienced paddlers—this 10.5-mile run is a standard for advanced boaters. Although you can scout from the old railroad grade that follows the river, first-timers should go with a guide to make sure they don’t miss key danger zones or hit a Class IV or V drop unprepared. Use extreme caution when water levels are high, especially above 600 cfs (cubic feet per second), as this run can become an unforgiving series of rapids. Put in at Bailey and take out at the Pine Valley open space park (take CR-126 off U.S. 285 to Pine). Flows are often good through late summer in this stretch of river, so check out the third annual Bailey Fest (August 10 to 12) for a celebration of all things white-water on the North Fork. coloradokayaking.com, allaboutrivers.com
Chow Down: Just upriver from Bailey, you can’t miss the delightfully out-of-its-element Coney Island roadside hot dog stand that’s housed inside a building shaped like, yes, an enormous hot dog in a bun. Order a dog with all the fixings and scarf it down on the “boardwalk” outside. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 303-838-4210
Best-Kept Secret Coors Falls, West Fork of Clear Creek Near Berthoud Pass Looking for a good set of vertical drops to hone your skills and test your limits? This tucked-away waterfall is a great spot to give it a go on a short, fast run; although the river largely parallels U.S. 40, it’s set away enough from the road that most people drive right by without ever knowing the falls are there. Look for a pulloff a few miles past Empire (if you pass Mizpah Campground you’ve gone too far) where you can park and walk your kayak in. Enjoy the meandering float around the first couple of bends before approaching Coors Falls; while its 15-foot plunge is the largest on the run, it’s the easiest of the drops. Beyond that, the river dumps you into a series of fairly harrowing Class V gorges and steep rapids—portaging, scouting, and advanced skills required. Take out can be tricky; watch for private property. coloradokayaking.com
Small-Town Charm: Slide through Empire’s eclectic Lewis Sweet Shop (303-569-2379, lewissweetshop.com) for a house-made sliced brisket sandwich or tacos carnitas, or hit the Dairy King (303-569-3103) for an old-fashioned burger and root-beer float.
ASK THE EXPERT Jonathan Kahn Owner, Confluence Kayaks
Q: How can I get started, and how can I meet people to go with?
A: Take a lesson from a certified instructor to learn the basics and master the roll. Try Confluence Kayaks (confluencekayaks.com) or Renaissance Adventure Guides (raguides.com). And join Colorado Whitewater (coloradowhitewater.org), one of the oldest paddling clubs in the country.
Q: How cold is the water?
A: In Colorado the runoff is cold, usually between 40 and 50 degrees. Make sure to dress for a swim—meaning a wetsuit might be a good idea. Going later in the summer is best if you get cold easily.
Q: How much does it cost to gear up?
A: A complete package of new gear usually runs between $1,500 and $2,000. But there are lots of deals on used gear out there, and often you can get completely outfitted for well under $1,000. Make sure to do your research on used gear and inspect it carefully.