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Tubing the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs
Photo: Michael Mundt.

Aquatic Adventures in Landlocked Colorado

Days filled with sun and spray are not that far from home.

It’s no revelation that Colorado is a landlocked state. But just because we don’t have oceans at our disposal doesn’t mean we are short on opportunities for summertime water adventures. In fact, according to the Colorado Tourism Office, Colorado is home to the headwaters of seven major rivers—including the Colorado, Arkansas, and Cache la Poudre—comprising thousands of miles of recreation, as well as 2,000 lakes. Try adding some of these aquatic activities to your family’s summer agenda.

Amphibious car
Photo: Michael Mundt.

Three Unique Water Adventures

Try whitewater paddleboarding in Golden.

The Clear Creek Whitewater Park in Golden is an 800-foot course created for recreational canoeing and kayaking. For those brave enough to learn whitewater paddleboarding techniques, Rocky Mountain Paddleboard offers a two-and-a-half-hour introduction clinic, which includes rental boards, paddles, helmets, leashes, and personal-flotation devices.

Open: June 2 to August 4 for river clinics
Cost: Clear Creek drop-in use is free to the public. $125 per person paddleboard clinic
Tips: Closed-toe shoes are required. Minimum rider age is 12 years old for river clinics. The easiest parking is located across the street at the Golden Community Center.

Ride in an amphibious car in Grand Lake.

Grand Lake is one of only three locations worldwide in which you can ride in the Amphicar Model 770, aka “the sports car that swims.” The Rocky Mountain Amphicar Adventures’ four vehicles shuttle up to four passengers on 30-minute rides.

Open: Memorial Day through Labor Day
Cost: $150 per carload
Tips: Kids and dogs are welcome.

Go jet boating on the Colorado River.

Set on the banks of the Colorado River about 33 miles northeast of Grand Junction in De Beque, Jet Boat Colorado is the only spot in the state where you can experience the thrill of New Zealand-style jet boating. Fishtail, cowboy spin, and power slide in the company’s Wild Mustang, getting drenched along the way. A scenic river tour is available for guests who prefer to stay dry.

Open: Mid-May through mid-September
Cost: Reserve early; tours book up fast. $350-$575 per hour, one to nine passengers
Tips: Children should be at least 40 inches tall and 50 pounds to ride.

Where’s a good place to…

…learn to wakeboard?

Within view of the Colorado National Monument, Imondi Wake Zone uses a cable system instead of a boat for tow sports. Kids age six and up can learn about wakeboarding and kneeboarding. There are also SUP rentals and an Aqua Park: a series of inflatable runways, slides, trampolines, ladders, and more.

Open: May 21 to Sept. 6 (extended if weather allows); Monday through Thursday, noon to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $79 one-hour beginner group lesson, rentals included; $35 two-hour cable tow sport pass; $20 one-hour Aqua Park pass (with life vest rental); group pricing available

…tube a river?

Steamboat Springs

This town’s Yampa River is the only free-flowing one in the state, meaning its more than 250 miles are unobstructed by dams or diversions. For an easy two-mile ride that lasts roughly 90 minutes, rent tubes, life jackets, and river shoes from Backdoor Sports. Enjoy a shuttle ride back to the shop where you can retrieve your belongings.

Open: Year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mother’s Day; daily, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $20 per person

…rent a party boat?

Fort Collins

The Inlet Bay Marina on Horsetooth Reservoir rents party pontoon boats. The Big Cat, with a half upper deck, or the Super Cat, with a full upper deck, each feature water slides. For a two-hour minimum, enjoy the water with up to 20 guests. Rental includes captain, fuel, and personal flotation devices for infants up to XXXL adult. Restrooms and speakers are on-board.

Open: May 1 through Oct. 1; daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost: $300 (Big Cat) or $350 (Super Cat) per hour

Photo: Echo Canyon River Expeditions

Family-Friendly Rafting Tours in Colorado

For visitors to Telluride, the half-day Lower San Miguel trip is a good fit for families, says Troy Youngfleish, an owner at Telluride Outside. The tour features Class II-III rapids, but if you fall out of the raft, “it’s Class V swimming,” he says. “[Kids’] ability to swim and comfort with water are all fairly important.” The minimum rider age is six years; minimum weight is 50 pounds. $100 per person.

A trip to the Royal Gorge Region often includes rafting the Arkansas River. Echo Canyon River ExpeditionsBighorn Sheep Canyon itinerary is a mix of Class II-IV rapids and tons of fun. “The Bighorn Sheep Canyon trip is definitely our most popular family section of whitewater,” says General Manager Ben Sack. Guests should have the ability to swim for any raft trip, but especially for Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Families with younger children might consider the Family Float trip (age four and up). “It’s a leisurely float and quite popular with multi-generational families who are visiting.” Bighorn Sheep Canyon trips are either half-day, $79 per person, or full-day, $139 per person. The half-day Family Float is $79 per person.

It’s sometimes tough to find rafting trips for kids under age five or six because of standard child life vests, which typically support 50 pounds. However, Phoebe and Erik Larsson, parents of twins and co-owners of Whitewater Rafting, LLC in Glenwood Springs, have been rafting with their kids since the toddler years. Their company has life vests for kids age two and up (25 pounds) for the two-hour Short & Mild on the Colorado River (Class II); considered a “primer” rafting experience. “This season is going to be great for families experiencing rafting for the first time,” Phoebe says. With less snowpack this year, the water will be warmer and calmer, she says. Short & Mild trips cost $50 per adult and $45 for kids age 12 and under.

Keep Age in Mind:

Minimum-age requirements are often increased with high water levels, which top out at the beginning of the rafting season in May and early June. They taper off as the season winds down in August/September. When rafting with children, always check with the company you choose before going.

Largest, Deepest, and Tallest Local Getaways

Colorado’s Largest Lake

The Curecanti National Recreation Area between Montrose and Gunnison is a water-lover’s paradise and home to Colorado’s largest body of water (completely in the state), Blue Mesa Reservoir. At 20 miles long with some 96 miles of shoreline, it’s the easternmost of the three reservoirs comprising Curecanti. The Elk Creek complex is the major facility of Blue Mesa and includes a main marina with boat and water sport rentals, Pappy’s Restaurant, a visitors center, and a campground.

Deepest Natural Body of Water

Offering more than 150 miles of shoreline, Colorado’s largest and deepest natural body of water is Grand Lake, located in the town of Grand Lake (on the north shore) along the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake has several marinas: Grand Lake Marina features rentals via Boater’s Choice for pontoon/sport boats, kayaks, canoes and SUPs, plus The Wake Coffee Shop; and Headwaters Marina rents all boat types including fishing, sport, pontoon, and paddle.

Largest Whitewater Park

The Buena Vista whitewater park, set along the Arkansas River just east of the town’s historic district, features human-made water structures like Staircase Wave and Uptown Wave for kayaks, rafts, SUPs, and more. The 0.6-mile Arkansas River Trail, situated along the west bank, is an easy walk with good views of all the river action. For more information on how to get into the water safely, check in with CKS Main St.

Largest Body of Water

Colorado’s largest body of water is actually mostly in New Mexico; one-fifth of the 15,000 surface-acres is in the Centennial state. Located 36 miles southwest of Pagosa Springs, the Navajo Reservoir in Navajo State Park features approximately 150 miles of total shoreline. The full-service Two Rivers Marina (on the Colorado side) offers pontoon-boat and SUP rentals, tackle, food and more. There are also 118 developed campsites (some year-round) and three cabins, as well as a camper services building with toilets and coin-operated showers. For reservations, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website or call 800-244-5613. For a “Lake Powell-style” vacation, head to the New Mexico side’s Navajo Lake Marina and rent a 48-foot houseboat.

North America’s Tallest Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Alamosa is known as the site of North America’s tallest sand dunes. (Star Dune reaches 755 feet.) This vast stretch of sand tucked under the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is also home to popular splash site, Medano Creek, a seasonal stream at the base of the dunes that gets high enough for tubing, depending on the year’s snowpack. Families with younger kids may not get any farther than the creek, but you’ll still get amazing views.

Cherry Creek State Park
Photo: Heather Gott.

Fun Front Range Beaches

Looking to meet with a friend and relax on the sand while the kids play? Check out these places for retreat, all within easy access for front range families.

Loveland’s Boyd Lake State Park features a swimming beach and a pavilion with rinsing showers and restrooms, a playground, picnic tables, and a snack bar. Don’t miss SUP rentals from Mountain Rentals.

The Boulder Reservoir is one of the largest seasonally lifeguard-attended beaches in Colorado. It’s open daily May 28 through September 6 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Kids under 12 must pass a swim test to swim beyond the first rope.

One of the Denver-area’s most popular natural areas, Cherry Creek State Park offers a sandy swimming beach with a roped-off swimming area, plus a bathhouse with restrooms.

Heather Mundt is a Colorado native and freelance writer from Longmont. This article is based on information from her upcoming book, The Colorado Family Outdoor Adventure Guide (University of New Mexico Press, February 2022).

Refresh Your Water Safety

Drowning can occur at any age and swimming level, but there are ways to prevent it. Kathryn Foster, swim school director at Ocean First, says it’s important to promote water safety on your own terms, by going over common pool rules with your swimmers. Here are a few you can use:

Q: “What do you do if you fall in the pool?”
A: “You turn around and grab the wall.”

Q: “What do you do if you fall off a boat?”
A: “You roll over and float.” (Talk about back floating.)

Q: “What do you do if your friend needs help in the water?”
A: “You throw, don’t go.” (This means you can throw them something that will float but never jump in after them. And of course, call for help!)

Q: “How do you identify a lifeguard?”
A: “They are usually wearing red, have a cross on their shirt, and have a red pool tool (flotation device).”

Foster explains that it’s also important to create your own rules based on your swimmer’s ability. Some examples could be:

–Kara Thompson

Family Food

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