The Cache la Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, is a mainstay for whitewater paddlers in Northern Colorado—at least in the early weeks of summer before the water drops out. The upper Poudre was designated as Wild and Scenic in 1986—ironic as Highway 14 runs alongside, and its flow is broken in the lower stretches by a series of diversion dams, some of which debuted in the 1880s and 1890s. But the whitewater on the Poudre is some of the finest in Colorado—with everything from Class II to Class V (and Class VI that you can observe from the road) in a relatively short span from the top of Cameron Pass to the city of Fort Collins in the foothills below.
The Poudre is a hard-working river used by farmers, recreators (paddlers, fly-fishers, tubers), manufacturers, and municipalities. In addition to the Wild and Scenic designation of the upper reaches in the Cache la Poudre Canyon, the lower section is a designated National Heritage Area (described by the U.S. National Park Service as an area where “natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to create a cohesive, nationally important landscape”).
As a paddling run, the Poudre serves up whitewater for everyone, from beginners to Class V boaters—but in short amounts. Most sections of the Poudre can be run in little more than an hour. For residents of Fort Collins and the surrounding areas, the Poudre is the go-to destination for weekday after-work sorties. On the weekends, the river draws boaters from all over the Front Range.
The Poudre tumbles down the Eastern slope of the mountains sharply, dropping about 2,000 feet from the town of Rustic to Fort Collins, where it eases out to the plains. In general, the hardest reaches are up top (Big South is a legendary expert run, the Narrows are stone Class V), but intermediate runs are sandwiched between harder stuff throughout: A couple of sections above the Narrows—Upper Rustic and Grandpa’s Gorge—are Class III-IV. In the lower section, the Filter Plant run is the perfect stretch for beginning paddlers to hone their abilities: It’s mostly Class II, with Mad Dog—rated Class II+ in higher water—thrown in toward the end as a final skills test.
The general nature of the Poudre is tight, cold, and fast—at every level and in every section. In high water, debris can cause hazards, particularly in the aftermath of various forest fires in the Poudre Canyon—the 2020 Cameron Peak fire being just the latest and largest on record. Helmets, neoprene (or even a dry suit), and good footgear are wise—never mind that you’ll see droves of tubers on the Filter Plant section in flip-flops, shorts, and no PDFs.
Rundown of popular sections of the Poudre River
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Leaving aside the experts-only runs up top (you can drive up there and watch those zanies run the Narrows nearly any weekend in early June), these sections see the most action from mortal paddlers and the five commercial rafting companies that have permits to run the Poudre:
Grandpa’s Gorge: Indian Meadows Bridge to Century Park or Lower Narrows Campgrounds (Grandpa’s Gorge)
Grandpa’s Gorge (from the Indian Meadows Bridge to either the Century Park campground or Lower Narrows campgrouns) is a great intermediate run that gets somewhat pushy at high water. Just after you pass under the Indian Meadows Bridge, you’ll enter Grandpa’s Gorge, a tight canyon with big waves at high water, most of which can be avoided. Watch the S turns that can send you into the canyon walls. After the Gorge, there is a nasty drop under the bridge at the Mountain Park campground. (Consider taking a look at this from the road on your way up to the put-in. If you’re an intermediate boater, you might want to skip it, and it’s easily portaged.) Beyond that is a hole at about a mile above Century Park that is a stopper at higher water levels.
In general, this section is a rollicking series of nice waves and beautiful scenery. And because this run starts high up the canyon, it’s typically not crowded even on high-traffic weekends.
Here’s a short video of Grandpa’s Gorge in an inflatable kayak at about 4.7 feet on the Pineview rock:
The Narrows consists of three separate sections, the easiest being the Middle Narrows. But this entire stretch is for experts only. Even scouting it can be some somewhat dangerous as you need to tuck into small parking pull-outs and watch for cars whizzing around blind corners. American Whitewater has excellent descriptions of the three sections of the Narrows: Read carefully and heed the warnings.
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To give a taste of the action, here’s a video of Fort Collins paddlers Lily Durkee, Jake Jarnik, and Schyler King paddling the Middle and Lower sections of the Narrows at about 1.6 on the Poudre Rock.
Upper Mish (Steven’s Gulch to Mishawaka)
Rated Class III-IV, the “Upper Mish” run is continuous action, with rocks, turns, holes, and occasionally debris. Two rapids to watch for that come in quick succession are Triple Rock and Tunnel Rapid, the latter of which can dash you against the undercut wall on the left. This run changes character from good fun at levels of about 2.5 feet to 4.0 feet (on the Pineview rock) to menacing at higher water levels. And—as with nearly every section of the Poudre—swims can last some time and cause some pain. You can see why when the water is really low: Underneath, it’s a nasty rock garden.
Lower Mish (Mishawaka Inn to Poudre Park)
The lower Mish run is a nice Class III stretch that isn’t as much of a rock-dodging exercise at lower water levels as the Bridges section, so it’s a nice transition for paddlers who want to level up from the Filter Plant run.
Pineview (Poudre Park to below Pineview)
To run Pineview or not to run Pineview? That’s always the question if you just want to string together some lively Class III runs. Pineview Rapid (Class IV) is a long rapid with two or three good drops that tends to push into large boulders rather than to the clean water. When it goes well, Pineview is exhilarating and challenging. When it goes sideways, it’s another rock-ridden swim. To avoid it, you can simply take out at Poudre Park and drop back in below Pineview.
The aptly named Bridges section is a fun Class II/III run that requires some rock-dodging at lower levels. The main hazard is Mean Bridge (or Killer Bridge) a drop that requires you to dodge bridge pilings at the bottom of a rapid. Next is the Middle Bridge, or the Smith Road bridge. If you take out at the official Bridges takeout between mile markers 114 and 115, you’ll miss the last bridge. There is a second Bridges take-out below mile 115, but you’d best nail that one or you’ll be headed to one of the Poudre’s many celebrated diversion dams, the North Poudre dam.
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Here’s a video with highlights of the Bridges run from the perspective of a small (9.5-foot) paddle raft:
Filter Plant (Gateway Natural Area or the below-Gateway put-in to Picnic Rock)
After you get around the North Poudre diversion dam by means other than boating, you can enjoy the Filter Plant run, which is a joyful beginner stretch that offers a few waves, opportunities to practice catching eddies and rolling, and Mad Dog, a Class II+ rapid. Take-out is at Picnic Rock, a huge day use area with plenty of picnic tables, toilets, and parking.
Downsides of the Poudre
Every river stretch has much to love and some things to wish for. Here’s the list of factors to consider when planning a Poudre River run:
- Because the river changes character frequently, it’s hard to string together a long run that is of similar difficulty.
- It’s scenic, but not exactly wild. Highway 14 runs alongside it, and the entire canyon is well-loved by boaters, climbers, truckers passing through to North Park, motorcyclists, music lovers headed to the Mish for a show, residents, hikers, etc. All fine—it’s just not a remote wilderness experience, if that’s what you’re after.
- Lots of traffic mixed with pedestrians accessing the river calls for extra caution, especially because the canyon road has many twists and turns that create blind corners.
- No opportunities for overnight camping on the river except at designated campsites with car campers (but that can be a fun and low-hassle way to combine camping and boating).
- Diversion dams lurk below the take-outs for both the popular Bridges and Filter Plant sections, so boaters need to take care not to miss the exit points.
- Water flow is brief most seasons: You can typically depend on boatable flows from mid-May through June. By July, much of the river becomes a rock garden.
- Increased fires in the last decade (particularly the High Park fire in 2012 and Cameron Peak in 2020) have scorched the vegetation and soil that typically hold debris in place: Much of that dead wood and other detritus ends up in the river, creating strainer hazards, particularly when the water flow is high enough to be interesting to paddlers.
Upsides of the Poudre
- The Cache la Poudre is stunningly beautiful and has superb whitewater for all levels of boaters.
- Access points are plentiful because Highway 14 runs alongside it, making the put-in and take-out possibilities numerous. Also, many of the access points have wonderful boat ramps, particularly the ones at the Filter Plant put-in below Gateway and the Bridges put-in.
- Varying difficulties of whitewater, from the Class II Filter Plant run to nearly unrunnable stretches (like Big South).
- Nearly the whole whitewater section, from Rustic through Filter Plant, is scoutable from the road.
- Those car campsites are handy if you want an easy camping mixed with whitewater.
- Many of the overnight and day use camps have outdoor toilets, and some have picnic tables.
- Once you’re done paddling, you can avail yourself of one of the gorgeous hikes in the Poudre Canyon: At Hewlett’s Gulch and above, you can hike with your dog off-leash.
Planning a Poudre River paddling trip
- Check the water flows. The most common parlance for relaying water flow is “the Rock,” which is a huge boulder at the top of Pineview with painted marks. The online Poudre Rock Report translates the level on the rock to CFS. In general, four feet and above “on the rock” denotes a shift to a more serious run in nearly every section. Below four feet down to two feet is generally good, clean fun. Below two feet, the Poudre starts to get unpleasantly low. Below one foot is a boat hike.
- Study the access points. The put-ins and take-outs aren’t easy to spot the first time you drive up the canyon. (American Whitewater has mile markers denoted in some of the Poudre section descriptions.) Don’t be afraid to take it slow, even if the trucks and motorcycles pile up behind you. Keep your eye out for rafting company trailers: They use many of the same put-ins and take-outs as private boaters.
- If you want to launch at Gateway Natural Area for a Filter Plant run, be prepared to pay $7 per vehicle (or $40 for an annual pass). Gateway is only open for day use, so you’ll need to leave before dark or your vehicle will be locked in.
- Plan your gas stops. The iconic place to gas up is Ted’s Place, the gas station at the corner of Highway 287 and Highway 14. Know that there are no gas stations in the Poudre Canyon until you get to Rustic.
- Plan your food. Hands down the best breakfast in the area is at Me Oh My Pie in Laporte, Colorado, which you can pass through on your way to the canyon (unless you’re on the fast track on the Highway 287 bypass). Me Oh My is worth a detour: They have breakfast burritos and the most delectable herb and goat cheese scones imaginable. For lunch, you might as well make a stop at the Mishawaka Inn, which is a legendary music venue on the river. (Side note: Both of these businesses supported Diversify Whitewater in the 2021 Northern Colorado Community Float, which RiverBent co-chaired.)
- Study the resources. Two classic guides: Whitewater of the Southern Rockies and Colorado Rivers and Creeks. It’s hard to find a map with all the access points marked, but the Poudre Paddlers group has some map close-ups with descriptions of various Poudre River whitewater sections. Also, here’s a snap of the river map at the Bridges take-out, which is one of the most informative I’ve seen:
7. Find friends to paddle with: The Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club of Northern Colorado is a terrific way to meet new paddling friends. When the Poudre is running, you’ll easily find other folks of all skill levels to paddle with in this Facebook group.
Those of us who live in Fort Collins are fortunate to have the Poudre in our back yard: The Poudre River is a gold mine of paddling opportunities for every level of boater, and nearly every run can be accomplished as an after-work jaunt. Or take a weekend: Start at the top and work your way down. With nearly limitless put-in and take-out spots, you can choose your own adventure on the Poudre.
Read more about other rivers to paddle
- Paddling Clear Creek in Colorado
- Planning a Lower Salmon River Trip
- Planning a San Juan River Trip
- Grand Canyon Takeout: Diamond Creek or Pearce Ferry?
- Paddling the Poudre: Whitewater Gold Mine
- Paddling an Inflatable Kayak on the Grand Canyon
- Paddling Gunnison Gorge in Colorado
- Paddling Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River
- Paddling Ruby-Horsethief Canyon in Colorado and Utah
- Paddling Deckers Chutes on the South Platte River
- Paddling Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River in Colorado
- Floating the Gunnison River Through Escalante-Dominguez in Colorado
- Running the Green River Through Labyrinth Canyon in Utah
- Running the Middle Fork of the Salmon River
- Running the Green River Through Desolation and Gray Canyons in Utah