the upper animas

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Simply put, the Upper Animas River is the best whitewater river in the United States. A bold claim I know. I rate it so highly because the outstanding whitewater, remoteness, length, and scenery all combine to make it a very special place. Don't take my word for it, see for yourself with a private or guided trip.

picture of Upper Animas
Jeff makes the move in Broken Bridge rapid.

The Upper isn't for the occasional class IV pool drop boater. You must be able to read and run class IV water for miles. You must be prepared for self rescue and cold water and weather. If you think your farmer john wetsuit is gonna keep you warm, think again and throw down for a drysuit. Swims can be long and deadly. Last but not least, don't miss the takeout or you will die in the mother of all sieves.

vital statistics

detailed description

when to go

This is a good question. I use a combination of the Silverton guage and the Durango guage to form a picture of whats going on on the run. If you see a daily peak of 1000 cfs at the put-in (the daily peak at put-in is around midnight) and the Durango guage is reading above 1500 cfs, this is probably a lowish flow. Lowish flow means bony but not as pushy. When the daily peak at the put-in is around 1500 cfs and the Durango guage reads above 2000 cfs then you are probably looking at a mediumish flow. Medium is probably the easiest flow for first timers. When daily peak is around 2000 cfs at the put-in and 3 to 4000 cfs in Durango, things are starting to get big. If you like giant holes and fast, pushy water then this would be the time for you to go. You might consider staying out of the Rockwood box at these bigger flows. Anything above the flows I describe here and you are on your own partner.

camping

There aren't many eddies and there aren't many camps. I will describe a few in the description of the run. Pack light, this ain't no float-n-bloat.

put-in

The usual put-in nowadays is a short distance down FS31 which is just South of where Mineral Creek crosses Highway 550 in Silverton. Go South until you see a small sign in post and a staging area across the tracks. Don't leave your gear within 8 feet of the tracks or it will get destroyed by the train and you might cause a derailment, sending innocent tourists to their watery grave.

picture of Upper Animas
Crazy Trazy at the put-in.

takeout

There are two possible takeouts. If you feel like a vertical box canyon with class V rapids and a deadly rapid below the takeout, plus a 1.5 mile carry out of the canyon might be more than you want to end your day with, then plan to take out at Tacoma rail station and ship yourself and your gear back to Durango. You will need to contact the Durango Train ahead of time with the weight of your freight in pounds and the number of passengers. Rafters almost always opt for this option. Life will be much easier if you pack all your stuff into a few small bundles and clearly label them with your name and contact info (think airlines + luggage = black hole). Rafters should avoid large non-breakdown frames as there will be nowhere to put them.

The second option is to continue past the Tacoma station into the Rockwood box. About two miles down, just after a class IV+ rapid, the canyon opens up and you can see where the train tracks leave the canyon high above you. Start looking for the takeout on river right (there are warning signs). Find the trail and hike out to Rockwood Station. If you aren't with somebody who has done this section before, I would advise you to hike down to this point from Rockwood so you know exactly where you want to take out. DO NOT proceed past this point.

To get to Rockwood, go approximately 16 miles North on Highway 550 from Durango and turn right into the Rockwood subdivision. Follow this road until you see the Rockwood Station and cross the tracks to park in a large, obvious parking lot.

the run

The run starts out calmly enough... but in about a mile you will have to content with a low bridge for the train. There are three doors on river right, and any of these will get you through, although you might get hung up on an ugly ledge with rail debris and rocks.

After this you leave the security of the Forest Service road and begin your journey into wonderland. In the early season you will see many waterfalls cascading off the side cliffs. The rapids will begin slowly, build to class III and then plunge over a class IV drop with rocks in the center and large holes on either side. This rapid, called snowshed, may be covered by snow early in the season, so be prepared to portage. I know a guide who once took a swim under this snow bridge and is lucky to be around to talk about it.

After 4 miles you will come to Elk Park, where a Colorado Trail footbridge crosses the river. Stop here at one of the few eddies on this river and enjoy good views of Electric Peak. You could camp here if you wanted to make a three day run out of it.

The next few miles are pretty calm by Upper Animas standards. Soon enough, however, you will get to Garfield Slide, a.k.a. Ten Mile rapid. This rapid is long, full of large holes, and should be scouted from the tracks on river right before you float around a corner and find yourself in the meat.

You will wonder when Garfield ends, but it doesn't really end, it just mellows down to continuous class IV. Just keep paddling.

Keep your eyes out for a ridgeline on river right the forms three humps like a snake. This is your clue to watch out for No Name rapid, which is just upstream of the base of this ridge. In between rolls, look for some wood piled up at a small island the middle of the river. This is the scout (on river left). Walk up and over a small hill and feast your eyes on No Name rapid. This rapid is also long and full of holes, but boats easier than it looks... sometimes.

picture of Upper Animas
A piece of No Name rapid.

There is a small private boaters camp on river left about two miles below No Name, in an eddy above a rock choked rapid.

Like Garfield, No Name never really ends, it just eases up to continuous class IV for miles. Eventually you will get to Needleton train stop and another footbridge across the river. Here the whitewater does ease up for a wee bit. There are some cabins and outfitter camps here, and a trail to Chicago Basin, a popular mountain climbers destination. You might be able to camp here if no one is around.

Boating is easier although still heads up from here to Broken Bridge. Broken Bridge rapid is the easiest one to notice because there is a large broken bridge at the start of the rapid. The scout is on river left. Work hard to make a small eddy here AS SOON AS YOU SEE the broken bridge or you might miss it. Hike perpendicular to the river until you reach a trail, follow the trail downstream until you hear the roar of broken bridge. This rapid is long and full of large holes (sound familiar?).

picture of Upper Animas
The team takes a look at Broken Bridge rapid.

After Broken Bridge the river eases up to class III and IV so just read and run. There are many many class IV rapids here and I cannot describe them all. There are some calmer places two, but never any pools.

Finally you will come to the Tacoma Station, which is pretty obvious because there is a caretakers house on river right and a large power station below a bridge (the takeout is on river left). If you are taking out here, make sure you get here with enough time to pack up your stuff before the train arrives and again, don't leave your gear within 8 feet of the tracks. Please be considerate of the caretaker and do not change out of wet clothing in view of his property. Don't litter and don't bother him unless you have an emergency.

There is a visual guage here on river right near the bridge. If it reads between 2.5 and 4.5 feet you are good to go in Rockwood, although these extremes create dramatically different rapids in the box.

The first large rapid in the box is just below where the tracks cross from river left to river right. There is a small eddy in some black rock on river left below the bridge where you can pull over to scout. You should be able to hike midway out on a ledge in the cliff face to just see Mandatory Thrashing. The lower water line is far right up against the wall and the higher water run is right down a small seam in the center of some giant holes. Whatever you do don't go left.

There are some good class IV rapids in the gorge below Thrashing, and a place where the walls narrow to 15 feet in almost flat water. Its a really special place. You will never forget it.

After this, you will have at least two more IV+ rapids before the canyon opens up and you should see the Rockwood cut. Get ready to take out as soon as you see the signs or flagging. If you see what looks like a dirt road at the waters edge on river right, you are really close to getting beyond the point of no return, so get out immediately.

Now shoulder your boat and start hiking. When you get to your car at Rockwood, pat yourself on the back and go grab a cold one.