How Snowmelt Affects Vail Rafting

Snow: It’s what makes Vail skiing a blast and Vail rafting a big adventure. In the late-spring, early-summer months of May and June, all of that winter snowpack melts, and the snowmelt feeds into the stretches of whitewater we raft in the Vail area, including Gore Creek, and the Eagle, Colorado, and Arkansas Rivers. When precisely the snow begins to melt and over what length of time are two key factors that determine which stretches of river are open for rafting–and for how long.

Basically, a good Colorado winter means good Colorado rafting in the summer. But water logistics are more complicated than that. Some good stretches of river for rafting in the Vail area are entirely snowmelt-fed, and others are more complex, with reservoirs and dams that affect water flows in addition to snowmelt. Here’s a basic overview of how snowmelt affects our area’s rivers to help you understanding why Vail rafting has seasonal variations, with different river sections being prime for rafting at different times throughout the summer:

Rockin’ Early-Season Rafting:
Gore Creek & the Eagle River

The Eagle River is the longest free-flowing river in Colorado, so since no dam controls its flows, snowmelt largely determines which sections are open for rafting. Gore Creek, which feeds into the Eagle River, is usually swollen from snowmelt and high enough for summer rafting at the end of May or early June. But just how long that season lasts depends on temperatures and weather patterns. If it’s hot outside, the snowmelt will release quickly, and Gore Creek will be prime for rafting for only a few weeks before turning back in to the tranquil current that flows through Vail all year long.

Snowmelt Affects Vail Rafting

Likewise, our other Eagle River rafting sections, Dowd Chute / Upper Eagle and Lower Eagle, all rely on spring snowmelt for their flows. Each of these sections operates under commercial rafting cutoff levels for safety reasons. As with Gore Creek, weather and temperatures influence how long river flows are optimal for rafting, but generally these sections are only high enough through late June. And when all of the snowpack has melted, the Eagle River rafting season is, sadly, over.

Same section of the Eagle River, early summer.

Mid-Summer Rafting:
The Arkansas River

Just as the Eagle River rafting season winds down, we begin guiding rafting trips on the Arkansas River’s Browns Canyon, The Numbers, and The Numbers & Pine Creek sections. Like the Eagle River, the Arkansas River is fed by snowmelt in the spring and early summer, but it is also dam controlled, with water reservoirs that feed the river. When snowmelt has this river raging, The Numbers and The Numbers & Pine Creek sections operate according to commercial cutoff limits for safety reasons, but Browns Canyon remains open all summer long.

Timberline Tours offers guided Whitewater Rafting trips down The Numbers on the Arkansas River in Colorado - photography by Doug Mayhew |

When the Arkansas River settles back down after all of that snowmelt washes through, its dam-controlled flow makes amazing rafting possible through around August 15, when the dam’s gates are constricted and the river returns to a low-water level for the fall and winter seasons.

All Summer Fun:
Rafting on the Colorado River

Like the Arkansas River, the Colorado River is also dam controlled and fed by snowmelt, which gives its rafting sections, the Upper Colorado River and Shoshone, a dynamic that’s similar to those on the Ark. But because water from the Colorado River supplies cities and towns from Colorado all the way out to California, its management is immensely more complex.

Timberline Tours Whitewater Rafting Shoshone in Glenwood Springs, Colorado - by Doug Mayhew | WhiteWater-Pix

In rafting terms, snowmelt makes for some nice, mild rafting on the Upper Colorado River from early summer, when it’s at its highest, and into the fall. Shoshone operates at a commercial cutoff for safety reasons when snowmelt combined with open flows from the dam really gets the Shoshone section raging through Glenwood Canyon early in the season. But for the rest of the summer, Shoshone offers great, consistent rafting with steady water flow supplied by the dam. Shoshone and the Upper Colorado River can technically be rafted and kayaked through the winter season…but then it’s again snowing, and the snowpack is building up again for another summer season full of Vail rafting.


Timberline Tours is the Vail-area’s premier whitewater rafting and backcountry jeep tours outfitter, also offering stand up paddle board (SUP) and duckie river trips on Colorado’s Eagle, Colorado, and Arkansas Rivers. All of our guided trips are open to Vail, Colorado visitors, locals, families, and corporate groups.

To book your Vail, Colorado adventure, call Timberline Tours at (970) 476-1414, or email us at