Snaking through high sandstone cliffs of brilliant orange and red, past sky-high ponderosa pines, the Dolores River was once on the bucket list of almost every whitewater enthusiast. But the Dolores has been inaccessible to most of them for many years now. The construction of the McPhee Dam in 1984 to divert water for agriculture and human consumption, combined with a recent two-decade draught, left sections of the Dolores with barely ankle-deep water during the worst periods. Translation: the recreational rafting appeal of the river was curtailed and commercial trips became a rarity. Thanks to the epic snowfall this year, however, things are looking up for river aficionados dreaming of checking the Dolores off their list.
The ‘Goldilocks’ conditions required to run the Dolores rely on heavy snowpack in the mountains coupled with a cool and wet spring. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Dolores “flows for more than 200 miles through southwestern Colorado, starting high in the San Juan Mountains and descending to its confluence with the Colorado River near the Colorado-Utah border. In an above average snowpack year, the river is boatable from late April to early June, while in a dry or even average year, there may be no boatable flows at all.” This year's heavy snowpack has led to bountiful spring runoff, providing ideal conditions and making the targeted first rafting day for the Dolores between April 11 and 16 possible. Boatable conditions will continue through early June. Plans call for the McPhee Dam to release at 2,000 cfs for several weeks, with minor adjustments for increased inflow leading up to a 4,000 cfs spike for 5+/- days around the third week of May. The flow will drop back to 2,000 cfs for the Memorial Day weekend and to the end of the spill in early June (2,000 cfs flow rate is considered medium-high for this river).
If you're keen to float the Dolores through alpine scenery, high desert, canyons dotted with whitewater, ancient ruins, and untamed wilderness, now's your chance. Holiday River Expeditions, one of the few companies offering commercial rafting trips on the Dolores this spring, has two trips lined up for the first time in 20 years. Imagine yourself running down a 33-mile section of the river from the put-in at Gateway to the confluence of the Colorado River and navigating the Stateline rapids (class IV) and various others ranging from class II to III. “We are looking at an epic and historic rafting season for 2017. The fact that we haven’t run this stretch commercially for two decades has all of our guides and ardent past guests thrilled and energized!” says John Wood, Co-Owner and President of Holiday River Expeditions. Snag your spot on one of their two trips on May 5-7 and May 12-14 for just $675, plus a per-person BLM fee.
Companies Rafting on the Dolores River
Holiday River Expeditions isn't the only rafting company gearing up for this expedition. Here are a few others offering trips on various portions of the Dolores River to check out.
Arkansas Valley Adventures - Choose a few sections or go for a complete 10 day adventure hitting landmarks like Ponderosa Gorge and Slick Rock Canyon.
Echo Canyon River Expeditions - Two multi-day packages either going through Ponderosa Gorge (47 miles) or Slick Rock Canyon (51 miles).
Red River Adventures - Pricing with this Moab based company includes a scenic flight to the put-in and offers 2 or 3 day packages and includes rapids like Diversion Dam, Stateline, Big Rock, campsites that are inaccessible except by boat, and a side canyon hike.
Dvorak Rafting and Kayak Expeditions - Get wet anywhere on 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, or 10 days of Class II-V white water trips featuring petroglyphs, Anasazi ruins, and the landmark wilderness of the Dolores. For a group of 6+ persons, they'll work to adjust dates and rates.