Vail Rafting History

Timberline Tours has an adventurous history from beginning in the ski tourism industry to developing into the world-class Vail rafting and jeep tour outfitter that it is today. Along the way, Timberline Tours guides have pioneered rafting on Vail’s rivers and on those elsewhere in Colorado, and they have also raced on the US men’s and women’s raft teams, contributing to Timberline’s rich racing heritage.

Timberline Tours guides have played an important role in Vail rafting history, and this adventurous legacy continues to shape Timberline’s current guiding staff while adding depth to the experience Timberline brings to you on Vail’s rivers and trails.

Vail Rafting History: The Early Days

In the mid-1970s, Timberline Tours owner Greg Kelchner got introduced through friends to Colorado rafting, a relatively new activity in those days. He was already running his business as Timberline Ski & Mountaineering, an adventure outfitter that focused on cross-country skiing and guided ski tours. At that time, only two rafting outfitters existed in Eagle County and were based out of Rancho del Rio.

Vail Adventures Granite 1971

The Upper Colorado River was the primary river section where people went to go whitewater rafting on oar boats in Eagle County, and at the same time, rafting was beginning to open up on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista. Shoshone, which is now considered a family-friendly rafting trip on the Colorado River, was not yet open to commercial activity, as it was thought to be too dangerous. The Eagle River was also considered too dangerous at that time, and local law enforcement had the power to close rivers to commercial and recreational activity.

Into the late 1970s, Colorado whitewater rafting didn’t have highly developed safety measures. Life jackets—or what we now call personal floatation devices (PFDs)—weren’t always available or worn. Recreational whitewater rafting seemed like an exciting prospect, but the rafting community was still gaining skill and experience. While boaters were trying to run new, and more difficult, sections of rivers near Vail, rafting gear was still being developed, along with the skills of those who were beginning to pioneer these river sections.

Rafting Technology Evolves

In the early days of Colorado rafting, rafts were built quite differently from today’s rafts. Timberline Tours owner Greg Kelchner’s first raft was twelve feet long and was “like a mini raft or a dinghy,” Kelchner recalls. The raft had a wooden frame made out of two-by-fours and wasn’t even lashed to the boat; the frame pressure fit down into hard oarlocks, and these kinds of rafts would fill up with water quickly on more difficult sections of whitewater.

Nonetheless, Kelchner was excited to put his new watercraft into the Eagle River to raft down Dowd Chute in high water. Even when his crew of friends hit the bridge pylon and flipped–taking, of course, a long and rough swim—he wasn’t deterred. “We learned a lot about rafting then in the same way that many people still learn to ski or kayak today. We learned from our community of friends. We tried new things, and we found out what worked—and what didn’t. And we shared knowledge with each other so that we could get better,” Kelchner says.

Vail Rafting History

The development of self-bailing rafts was the key that made it possible to raft many difficult sections of whitewater in the Vail area for the first time. Prior to this development, boaters had to stop rafts frequently along stretches of river to bail out water that collected inside of the raft. Once self-bailing rafts showed up on the scene, boaters were able to pioneer more difficult river sections, and Timberline Tours guides embraced the adventurous spirit needed to do just that.

The Development of Commercial Rafting in Colorado

In the mid-1970s, the process for obtaining a rafting permit was a simple walk-in process. Recreational and commercial boaters could easily get a permit through the forest service to raft rivers in the Vail area. “At that time, the forest service was more concerned with managing timber resources than with regulating recreational river traffic,” Kelchner explains, but as the Vail ski area began to grow in popularity, and as the ski industry began getting even larger, the forest service became more involved in managing recreational activity on the area’s land and rivers.

By the mid-1980s, laws had changed to allow private and commercial recreation on Colorado’s rivers, and these laws also regulated the permitting process. Timberline Tours originally operated its rafting business under the name of Eagle River / Timberline Tours with a staff of two guides and a total of two rafts. In the late-1980s, a few of the smaller rafting companies in the area were merged under the Eagle River / Timberline Tours name. Eventually, the Eagle River name was dropped when a partner left the business, thus continuing the Timberline Tours brand with its sole focus on rafting.

While some commercial rafting outfitters were operating out of Rancho del Rio at this time and guiding rafting trips on the Colorado River, Kelchner set up his business in Vail to become the first Vail-based outfitter offering guided commercial rafting trips on local rivers. From its beginnings with commercial rafting, Timberline Tours picked up guests from local accommodations in Vail, as it continues to do today.

Pioneering Vail’s Rivers

By the mid-1980s, the Upper Colorado River had been established as a place for commercial, family-friendly rafting. Guides rowed guests in oar boats on relatively calm stretches of water. The Shoshone section of the Colorado River also began opening up to commercial rafting shortly after laws allowed it. But when self-bailing rafts made it possible to run more technical sections of river in the Vail area, boaters turned their sights on exploring even greater opportunities for adventure. Dowd Chute, Gore Canyon, Pine Creek, and The Numbers sections of whitewater on the Eagle, Colorado, and Arkansas Rivers were all considered too challenging for rafts, but that was about to change.

Timberline Tours guides, under the leadership of Billy Mattison, began pioneering Class IV and V river stretches on the Eagle, Arkansas, and Colorado rivers in the mid-1980s with the idea of running commercial rafting trips in these areas. Also at about that same time, Timberline began pioneering rafting on the Colorado River’s Class V Gore Canyon section and was the first rafting outfitter to open up Gore Canyon for guided commercial rafting trips.

During this timeframe, a few other rafting companies began guiding commercial rafting trips in the Vail area as well, and while many rafting companies today call the Arkansas River their home, Timberline Tours was the original outfitter in the early 1990s to offer Vail guests guided rafting trips on the Pine Creek and The Numbers sections of the Arkansas River. In around 2000, Timberline Tours opened up its boathouse in Granite, Colorado, on the banks of the Arkansas River. For many years, Timberline Tours was the only outfitter to offer commercially guided rafting trips on the Pine Creek and The Numbers sections of the Arkansas River as well as on the Eagle River’s Dowd Chute and on the Colorado River’s Gore Canyon.

As Timberline Tours began developing a reputation for pioneering Vail’s rivers, the company began attracting more expert-level guides throughout the 1990s, including U.S. Raft Team founder Mike Reid and Chris “Mongo” Reeder. With solid leadership and expertise, Timberline Tours continued to build a team of local river experts and international guides for an all-star crew.

Vail Rafting History

Timberline Tours continues to attract and retain highly experienced international guides who come to Colorado to guide on Vail’s expert stretches of river along with local guides whose experience also runs deep. With a world-class team of guides in place and decades of experience guiding on the Eagle, Arkansas, and Colorado Rivers, Timberline Tours also attracts adventurous guests who want to experience the beauty of Colorado’s rivers and the thrill of Vail whitewater 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