Places to Kayak in Colorado

Colorado’s official nickname may be the “Centennial State”, but I’ve always believed that it’s other nickname—Colorful Colorado—is a far more appropriate one.

Anyone who’s visited Colorado between spring and autumn will be familiar with the glorious riot of colors everywhere, from the fast-flowing rivers to the breathtaking heights of the Rocky Mountains to the rolling plains.

Truly, it’s an amazing state to visit. Doubly so if you love kayaking.

Kayaking in Colorado is plentiful and wonderful, with so many gorgeous places where you can spend an afternoon, a weekend, or an entire week exploring the Colorado waterways.

Get ready for an adventure like nowhere else in the country when you come kayaking in Colorado!

15 Best Places to Go Kayaking in Colorado

1. Arkansas River

Arkansas River
Image: Wikipedia

If you’re a whitewater kayaker, you’ll find few adventures more thrilling and challenging than the Arkansas River. Oh, there are more than a few stretches where the river is calm and relaxing, where you can enjoy a lazy afternoon drifting with the current. But when it’s time to push yourself to the max, you’ll want to spend your hours at the Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area. Here, you’ll find the excitement of tackling Class IV and Class V rapids, testing the limits of your skills, endurance, and reflexes.

Fair warning: the Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area is a popular whitewater kayaking destination, so it can be pretty busy throughout the warmer season. Make sure to register in order to be permitted onto the rapids, and get ready for a next-level challenge!

2. Eleven Mile Reservoir

There’s something truly breathtaking about a lake nestled among high mountains. Between the feeling of isolation and enclosure, it’s just a wonderful way to relax surrounded by some of Colorado’s most breathtaking nature. This alpine-style lake spans a whopping 7,662 acres, offering more than 300 campsites, ample parking space, multiple put-in spots, and all the on-shore comforts you can want. But it’s out on the water that you’ll truly feel the magic. 

The lake is beautifully calm, and the views of the surrounding mountains are only made better during the late afternoon when you can watch the sun set in all its glorious color. Along the shore, you’ll encounter some lovely rock formations and wildlife habitats. Best of all, you won’t have to share the water with motor boats or motorized vessels, so it’s a kayaker and paddleboarder’s paradise.

3. Rifle Gap

Rifle Gap

Rifle Gap is one of the best-known kayaking spots in Colorado, thanks to its turquoise blue waters, forested coastline, and stunning views of the mountains. The lake is calm and narrow enough that you’ll always be near the shore, making it a wonderful place for newbies to dip their paddles for the first time. But you can easily make a full day of it by exploring the entire length of the reservoir and spending a few hours under the bright sun.

Be warned: you’ll likely share the water with other boats and kayakers, so prepare to give way for larger vessels and more experienced paddlers. The reservoir can also get quite busy during peak kayaking season.

4. Colorado River

Colorado River

You can’t come to Colorado and not paddle the Colorado River! Beginning high in the Rocky Mountains, this river stretches a spectacular 1,500 miles, meandering south through Colorado on its way toward the Grand Canyon and beyond to Northwestern Mexico. Whether you’re a newbie just testing out your ‘yak for the first time or an experienced paddler, you’ll find a stretch of the river best-suited for you.

There are plenty of parking spots and boat launches along the river’s length, along with hiking trails, campgrounds, and kid-friendly parks, especially in the Colorado State Park. Make sure to set aside an entire day to enjoy the beauty and majesty of the state’s best-known river.

5. Navajo Reservoir

The Navajo Reservoir, located in Navajo State Park, is located on the southern extreme of Colorado and the northern end of New Mexico. When out on the lake, you can paddle back and forth between the two states in style! 

Navajo Reservoir
Image: Wikipedia

The reservoir is typically calm, with flat water that you’ll have no trouble paddling. It’s a popular destination for recreational kayakers and families who want to enjoy the warm Colorado summers for just a little bit longer. Surrounded by forests and hills, it offers breathtaking views that are best enjoyed from out on the water. Though it’s a bit of a drive from any large, popular city, getting “out in the middle of nowhere” makes for the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of your daily life.

6.  Animas River

Animas River
Image: Wikipedia

Animas River is one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, and a kayaking destination that will change throughout the year. During early summer, the water level rises and turns stretches of the river into Class IV and Class V rapids tough enough to challenge even experienced kayakers. But as the summer progresses, the water level drops significantly and the river calms down, becoming more beginner-friendly and relaxing.

You’ll often find boaters zipping up and down the river, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of spots where kayakers will have the waterway all to themselves. Get ready for a truly spectacular paddle downstream along one of the state’s most beautiful rivers.

7. Lake Pueblo

Lake Pueblo may not offer the best views in the state, but it’s an amazing place to visit if you want to be drenched in history, sunshine, and warm water. Centuries ago, Native Americans made their home along the lake’s shores, and the Spanish who explored much of the southwestern United States settled around the area. Now, there are roughly 130 prehistoric archaeological sites still existing within the Lake Pueblo State Park. 

Even if you’re not a history buff, though, you can still enjoy a day out on the warm water, along with all the sailing boats, tubers, water skiers, paddleboarders, and fellow kayakers. With 60 miles of shoreline to explore and plenty of parks, campgrounds, marinas, and hiking trails, it’s a family-friendly adventure both on and off the water.  

8. Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

What makes Sylvan Lake so special is the fact that it feels isolated and nestled among nature, but it’s located just half an hour from the city of Eagle, fully accessible via Highway I-70. Spanning 42 acres, it’s a popular destination for anglers who want to fish from either the shore or the water. Bring your rod and a tacklebox, because there’s plenty of fish in the waters!

But don’t worry: the lake only permits trolling motors, no motorized boats. You’ll have plenty of space to yourself whether you’re fishing or just enjoying a relaxing paddle. It’s quiet, secluded, and offers some truly gorgeous views of Colorado’s most beautiful scenery. And if you feel like staying the night, there are plenty of camping spots where you can park your RV or pitch your tent.  

9. Pearl Lake

While in Colorado, you have to make a trip out to Pearl Lake, even if only for a few hours of kayaking. This mountain reservoir is nestled right next to Hahn’s Peak, and the peak looms large over the lake, giving it a truly wild feel that you can’t help but love. The lake will be well worth the short drive!

Pearl Lake

Thanks to its spectacular views, the lake is a popular destination for kayakers and boaters alike, but it’s a big enough body of water that you’ll have plenty of space to yourself. Whether you’re paddling for speed or just kicking back and enjoying a relaxing day out on the water, this is a lake you won’t want to miss. 

10. Clear Creek

Clear Creek River is located near the Colorado city of Golden, and though it’s only 1.5 miles long, it’s home to one of the state’s best whitewater experiences. The Clear Creek Whitewater Park spans 800 feet of tough rapids, divided into multiple sections:

  • A beginning section with sharp drops and fast eddies
  • A middle section with large boulders and shallow surf waves
  • An end (lower) section with rougher surf and serious wave drops

It’s not a course for the faint of heart, but experienced whitewater kayakers will love pushing themselves to their limits on this fairly short course. Best of all, you can repeat it multiple times throughout the day, as there’s plenty of access to parking that makes it easy to transport your kayak back upstream to tackle the rapids again and again. 

11. Elkhead Reservoir

Elkhead Reservoir is one of Colorado’s smaller kayaking lakes, but arguably one of the best. Located in Yampa River State Park, it spans 900 gorgeous acres in the middle of some of the state’s most beautiful terrains. The water is calm, the surrounding landscape offers stunning views, and you’re far enough from the city that you’ll feel truly disconnected. 

Elkhead Reservoir
Image: Wikipedia

For a really enjoyable trip, plan to camp for a night or two in the state park. Sunsets over the Elkhead Reservoir are gorgeous, but it’s the sunrises that will take your breath away. It’s a great weekend destination to enjoy a day or two of leisurely paddling on a calm lake. 

12. Dillon Reservoir

Dillon Reservoir

Also known as “Dillon Lake”, Dillon Reservoir serves as a reservoir for the state’s capital city. If you’re in Denver on business or holiday, it’s worth taking the hour-long drive west to spend some time among the forests and campgrounds surrounding Dillon Reservoir. Or just head out on the water for a memorable afternoon or weekend.

The water is calm and easy for newbies to paddle, but the reservoir offers multiple islands you can explore. Here, you’ll be in the home of black bears, bald eagles, ospreys, and deer, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife. With 27 miles of shoreline to paddle along, you’ll enjoy every minute you spend out on the water. 

13. Shadow Mountain Lake

If you’re looking for a lake that will prove a bit more challenging, come to Shadow Mountain Lake. There will be plenty of days when the water is calm and flat, but more often than not, you’ll have to deal with some chop and current. Located in the Arapaho National Recreation Area, the lake spans a stunning 1400 acres and connects to Grand Lake via canal. You’ll find motorized boats, sail boats, and plenty of anglers with trolling motors zipping around the lake, so be prepared to share the waters.

Paddling on Shadow Mountain Lake gives you a chance to test your skills against choppier waters, preparing for your next sea or ocean voyage. You’ll find it’s an ideal place to break in new equipment or practice paddling in more difficult conditions.

14. Lake Estes

Lake Estes

Lake Estes, located in Park Estes, is just a short drive from the Rocky Mountain National Park, and it’s one of the best stops to make while touring the area. There are only four miles of shoreline to explore, and the lake is small enough that you can paddle around it in a few hours, but it’s quiet, calm, and a wonderful place to spend an afternoon.

The water is crystal clear, making it easy to spot the many fish species that make their home in the lake. Lake Estes Marina offers boats, canoes, and kayaks for rent, so you’ve got easy access to equipment even if you couldn’t bring your own. Best of all, the conditions on the reservoir are ideal for kayaking throughout the year (pretty much anytime that’s not the dead of winter). Whether you’re visiting in spring, summer, or fall, you’ll have a chance to get out on the water. 

15. Browns Canyon

Browns Canyon
Image: OutThere Colorado

Come to Browns Canyon for an experience you’ll get in few other places in the world! Here, you’ll get a taste of what is known as “duckying”, racing down whitewater rapids in an inflatable vessel that is essentially a cross between a canoe, kayak, and whitewater raft. The duckies on Browns Canyon run throughout the year, and you can tackle the rapids in these unique vessels in a group or joining up with a local crew.

Here, you can learn the fundamentals of whitewater rafting (skills that will translate into whitewater kayaking) and take your first trip downriver along with trainers and expert guides. Whether you want to paddle yourself or just sit back and enjoy the ride, you’ll find there’s a river adventure here for you. Plus, the Browns Canyon National Monument park spans 22,000 acres and offers plenty of hiking, camping, biking, and recreational areas. Plus, you’ve got access to world-class fishing on the Arkansas River that runs through the park. 

Kayaking Tours in Colorado

If you’re coming to Colorado for the purpose of kayaking, you’ll want to make the most of your time. That means doing plenty of research beforehand so you can find all the best spots (including the ones we listed above) to spend your day out on the water. Whether you’re brand new to kayaking or looking for a next-level whitewater challenge, Colorado has something to offer you.

Welcome sign in Colorado

For your first visit to the state and/or your first time kayaking, it’s a good idea to consider signing up with a local kayaking tour company. Kayaking tours in Colorado are a great way to see the most beautiful locations in the state, as well as get access to quality equipment (if you couldn’t bring your own).

Plus, you can hear all the hidden secrets and little-known spots straight from the mouths of locals who have dedicated their lives to making kayaking experiences in Colorado something truly memorable. You’d be amazed by the lakes, creeks, and rivers that only Colorado residents know about, and which you’d never hear about otherwise. 

Also, if you’re whitewater kayaking—either for the first time or at an expert level—it’s always best to tackle a new course in the company of someone familiar with the waterway. That could be a group of local whitewater kayakers or a whitewater kayaking tour company. 

Here is a list of some of the most popular, best-rated kayaking tours in Colorado to consider:

Other resources that can help you find kayaking tours in Colorado include:

  • Trip AdvisorTripAdvisor can offer recommendations on some of the more popular kayaking destinations and tours offered by local companies. You’ll find pictures, resources, links, and feedback from real-life users. 
  • Yelp With Yelp, you can narrow down your search to kayaking tours in specific parts of Colorado, depending on what city or county you’re visiting. There will also be plenty of reviews so you can know what to expect from each tour company.
  • Google MapsUsing Google Maps, you can search “Kayak tours in Colorado” and get a list of all the top-rated, most popular companies, businesses, and websites in the state. From there, it’s easy to narrow down your options based on where you intend to paddle.  

Also, while planning your kayaking trip, take a look at the Interactive map of places to go paddling nearby.

Colorado Kayaking Laws

Kayaks are non-motor powered vessels

In Colorado, kayaks fall into the category of “vessels without a motor or sail”. Thus, there is no need to register a kayak or obtain a license to paddle on Colorado waterways.

There is no minimum age for operating a kayak

Motorboats can only be operated by those over the age of 14, and the same goes for kayaks with trolling motors. To operate a trolling motor-powered kayak, you either need to be older than 16, or (for 14 and 15 year-olds) completed a state-approved boating safety course and have a boating safety card (license) on their person.

Kayakers must have one lifejacket on board per person

Children under the age of 13 must wear the lifejacket at all times. Adults, however, just need to have one Coast Guard-approved PFD on board and within easy reach

Kayakers must carry lights at “low visibility times”

Between sunset and sunrise (as well as in foggy conditions or any period of “restricted visibility”), you have to display at least a white light on board your kayak

Kayakers must carry a sound-producing device

Any vessel under 39.4 feet (including kayaks) are required to carry at least one whistle, horn, or other sound-producing device in order to signal for help in case of emergency.

Kayaks don’t need to carry visual distress signals (VDS)

In Colorado, there is no law stating that VDS must be carried on board your kayak. However, it’s a good practice anyway.

Kayakers absolutely can get a BUI 

BUIs, or “Boating Under the Influence”, are the boating equivalent to a DUI

You are considered under the influence is:

  • Your blood alcohol level (BAL) is above 0.08%
  • You are visibly impaired

Typically, BUI is treated as a misdemeanour, as laid out in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Boating Statutes and Regulations.

On your first offense, you may be fined up to $1,000, spend a minimum of 5 days and maximum of 1 year in jail, up to 96 hours of community service, and probation of up to 2 years. You will also lose your operating privileges for 3 months, for both boats and vehicles. 

With repeated offenses, especially if those offenses occur within five years of the current violation, the consequences can be harsher: 60 days to 5 years in jail, $500 to $5,000 in fines, 60 to 120 hours of community service, and up to two years of probation. You will also lose your operating privileges for both boats and vehicles for one year.

Kayaking in Colorado FAQs

Long Lake in Colorado
Do I need a permit to kayak in Colorado?

Yes, you do, at least in areas protected by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. You’ll need to obtain a license whether hunting, fishing, hiking, or kayaking in these protected areas.

Can you drink on a kayak in Colorado?

No. Colorado is one of the states where drinking on board a kayak is illegal. Any watercraft—whether operated by wind, paddle, or motor—is considered a boat for the purposes of BUIs.

Are you allowed to kayak anywhere in Colorado?

As long as you have the correct license to access any CWP-protected areas or you don’t cross through private property to reach the river, lake, or reservoir, you are allowed to kayak anywhere in the state.

Do you have to register a kayak with a trolling motor in Colorado?

Yes. A kayak with a mounted trolling motor is considered a “motor-powered vessel” in Colorado, and thus requires registration and a license in order to operate.

Andrew Peloquin

Andrew Peloquin

Andrew is a sports enthusiast, fitness nut, and avid kayaker and paddleboarder who loves nothing more than spending his free time out on the water. He spends his winters snowshoeing, snowboarding, and dreaming of summer days when he can take his beloved 14-footer fishing kayak out to explore the 1,000+ lakes and rivers within driving distance of his home in central British Columbia, Canada.

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