High country rafting outfitters look forward to great season thanks to strong snowpack

Deepan Dutta
Summit Daily
A raft led by veteran guide Stu Schaefer of Leadville plows through one of seven named rapids in Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River during a whitewater trip, July 2017. Strong snowpack is expected to lead to a great rafting season in 2019.
Hugh Carey /

Even as snow keeps blowing in, Summit County can taste spring. A glorious winter will soon melt down the mountains and gush into the rivers, and rafting outfitters are eagerly looking forward to what they expect to be an exciting high-water season.

This year’s statewide average snowpack is dramatically higher than any time in the past three years, and currently stands at 113 percent of normal. The pack is also a whopping 58 percent higher than last year’s miserably dry winter, which peaked and melted early, resulting in a shortened season that disappointed many whitewater enthusiasts.

Brandon Gonski, general manager of Breckenridge outdoor adventure company AVA Rafting & Zipline, said that he and others in the rafting industry have been getting steadily more excited about this upcoming season.

“For the snow we’ve seen so far, this should be a really fun season,” Gonski said. “We will be able to keep it entertaining but safe for families, as well as exciting as you want it in more challenging sections.”

Gonski pays close attention to snowpack over the winter, with his business’ success contingent on how much snow falls and when it melts off.

“The snowpack in the Upper Colorado is at 113 percent, South Platte is at 110, Arkansas at 124,” Gonski said. “That all stacks up to be great news for us overall. There should be plenty of water, especially compared to last year.”

Despite the healthy snow, there is still the chance that it is largely for naught if spring arrives strong and hot in March and April, with no water running down by the time summer really heats up. However, there are no signs that winter is slowing down and Gonski is not too concerned even if there is an early runoff.

“An early flow is certainly something we try to pay attention to, but it won’t be the end of the world by any means,” Gonski said. “With a deep snowpack like this, even with an early melt we’ll still have a great season.”

As far as when the best time to get out on the water is, it all comes down to preference for the experience. According to AVA, mud season in May will see the start of great flows and smaller crowds, but it might still be a bit chilly. June sees peak runoff and the highest waters of the season, making it the best time for thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies while minimum ages may be raised for safety reasons.

July sees the peak summer crowds, and reservations are highly recommended. August means warmer weather and warmer water, making it perfect for relaxing trips down the river. The season usually ends around September, with less crowds to deal with and beautiful fall foliage to admire.

Gonski said that rafting is for all ages and experience levels, but it is important to ensure that visitors take on the services of an experienced, well-established outfitter to ensure the most fun and safe experience.

Members of the Colorado River Outfitters Association,, and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association,, adhere by a strict code of ethics and business practices and should be the first reference for folks looking to plan their Summit County rafting trip.

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