OK, I might be in over my head, I confess to myself as I cling to a handful of grass along the riverbank as the icy ripples of the Roaring Fork River tumble past my craft. It’s late May—far too early for a newbie like me to tackle a paddle of this magnitude. Farther downstream, my husband and daughter are bumping through the whitewater in a shared inflatable raft. Curse my ambition: Late-spring runoff’s fast-and-high water is not the place for stand-up paddleboarding on a river.

I bumble down the choppy water, kneeling the whole way, too focused on staying upright to notice the new buds popping on the trees or the osprey nests hanging overhead. It’s a different experience, coasting by on the currents as the world passes in my periphery. This brand of paddleboarding requires more balance and skill than I am used to, but in return, I’m rewarded with a pulse of adrenaline and a new view of the valley floor.

When I catch up with the inflatable raft, I try to grab onto the grasses along the shore to anchor myself before the current sweeps my board from under me. I am safe, of course, but the embarrassment of watching my High Society paddleboard bob downstream without me on it will incapacitate me until August—when I try the route again.

A stand-up paddleboard floats on the Roaring Fork River
Stand-up paddleboarding the Roaring Fork River. Photo by Heather Balogh Rochfort

Then, I load up my dry bag—snacks, sunscreen, an extra layer, a first-aid kit, and water—and hit the put-in in Carbondale with a touch more experience and far improved conditions. Instead of whitewater, the Roaring Fork serves me a mellow current that’s never much deeper than chest-high. With its medley of doglegs, flatwater, and class-I sections, the seven-mile section to the Glenwood Springs take-out is perfect for an intermediate like me.

I can stand almost the whole route, and I notice the nuances of the waterway more. Glassy water slides over marbled granite, thickets of bright-green aspens crowd a bend in the river, and I spy a couple of babies in an osprey nest. Unlike paddling a lake, floating down the river presents me with new scenery every few minutes, and I appreciate the problem-solving inherent with navigating moving water that I need to match against a topographical map.

When I peel around a curve, I spy a black bear on the riverbank, lazily lapping water as I float by on my personal wildlife tour. He watches me glide along the currents until I disappear over the horizon, paddling toward the next fork in the river—and onto the next adventure.

5 Skills for First-Time River SUPers

Ready to move your stand-up paddleboard skills from a sleepy lake to a restless river? Follow these hard-earned tips.

  1. Find a gentle and calm river. You don’t want to tackle mega-rapids until you’re confident in your skills, so be sure to find a waterway with no higher than class-I rapids.
  2. Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD) and helmet. Stand-up paddleboarding on a river is much less predictable with eddies and rocks and currents. If you end up going for an unplanned swim, the safety gear helps keep you unharmed.
  3. Understand the leash debate. Leashes are commonly worn on lakes to prevent you from losing your paddleboard, but they are controversial on rivers. Some folks believe using a leash ties you to a “death trap” if you can’t break away. Advocates believe that not using one almost ensures you’ll lose your board down the river. (Not that I would know…)
  4. Use dry bags. No matter how calm the water and how suave your paddling prowess, your stuff will get wet. Pack everything into a dry bag—Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bags are my favorite—and secure it beneath the bungees at the top of your board. Bring your phone (in case of emergencies), but consider investing in a waterproof case because chances are it will swim at least once.
  5. Wear appropriate footwear. On lakes, many people opt to go barefoot—and you can still do that on extremely mellow rivers. However, you may end up walking through shallow sections or—ahem—standing at the side of the river for what feels like an eternity. Wearing water shoes (like the Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport) will protect your tootsies from sharp rocks and give you more traction on your paddleboard.

3 River Sections Perfect for Stand-Up Paddleboarding

Not all paddling is done on smooth lakes. If you’re an experienced paddler who is ready to try something new, here are three Colorado river sections primed for stand-up paddleboarding.

South Platte River, Denver

If you’re tight on time, this route has a lot of flatwater with a few class-II rapids to liven it up. The toughest bit is near the end, but the bulk of your legwork will happen before you hit the water—don’t forget to set up a shuttle for this one-way adventure.

Ruby Horsethief Canyon, Grand Junction

Save this one for the fall when both the water levels and desert temps are milder. It’s a 25-mile adventure through high-rising, red canyon walls, but you will need a camping permit if you opt to sleep under the stars.

Milk Run Section of the Arkansas River, Buena Vista

This is one of the best beginner-friendly stretches in the state—as long as you go during late summer or fall when the rapids are class-II and lower. Other than that, it’s mostly flat so you’ll have plenty of time to admire the Collegiate Peaks.