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King of the River

Why one of the world’s best kayakers keeps returning home to Colorado’s rushing waters.

May 2014

Spring, when the state’s snowpack fattens our rivers, has always been Ben Stookesberry’s favorite season. In his youth, those longer days signaled that it was time to drop his kayak into the bumpy waters. Now when the Greeley-bred adventurer returns to Colorado—like next month, during Vail’s GoPro Mountain Games (June 5–8)—it’s as one of the world’s top kayakers.

Stookesberry was inducted into the International Halls of Fame: Bicycling, Rowing, Canoeing, Kayaking primarily because he specializes in first descents (being the first to navigate a stretch of water). He’s checked off 120 in 32 countries, but he’s not done. This fall, Stookesberry will scout kayaking’s Holy Grail: China’s Yarlung Tsangpo river. (Tibet and China’s disagreements over the land have made gaining access difficult.) “It’s the biggest objective in white-water kayaking,” he says. “Imagine if the Mississippi had a 150-mile section that had never been boated. This thing screams epic.”  

Despite a passport full of international stamps, Stookesberry regularly revisits the rivers he grew up on. His Colorado go-to is a three-day excursion on the Los Pinos River, nestled in the San Juans, which strikes a balance between wild waters and beautiful serenity. Below, we break down Stookesberry’s favorite stretch of home water. 


Test the Waters
Four of Stookesberry’s other beloved river runs have features fit for beginners and experts alike.

  1. Poudre Park Run, Poudre River
    Put in just downstream from the rockin’ Mishawaka Amphitheatrefor rapids that don’t rate above Class 3.

  2. Upper Colorado Run, Colorado River 
    The appeal of this long stretch of Class 2 water lies in its remoteness. “There’s this big open ranchland, with no signs of development,” Stookesberry says, “and it’s accessible to anyone.” 

  3. Town Run (through Durango), Animas River 
    Mountain towns, Stookesberry says, “have really embraced their rivers.” This five-mile, Class 3 route is a prime example of a waterway rehabilitated by the community it runs through. 

  4. Clear Creek
    Squeeze in a quick run after work or make it a daylong learning experience. Some sections are mild enough for beginners; others will challenge experts. 

5280.com Exclusive: Watch the trailer for Stookesberry's movie, "Walled In," below.