The History Of Rafting In Colorado

You probably already know that rafting is one of Colorado’s most popular pastimes. Thousands of people hit the rivers each year in search of fun and thrills.

You might be surprised to learn that these weekend adventurers are only the latest to take part in this time-honored Colorado tradition. The history of rafting in Colorado stretches back through the centuries.

Keep reading to discover the storied history of Colorado rafting and learn how it became the outdoor pastime you know and love today.

Rafting Before the 1800s

The story of rafting in Colorado begins before the written histories do. The indigenous people of the land that is now Colorado navigated these rivers on rafts long before Western explorers charted the land.

Rafting was a great way to both fish and travel. The rivers that flow across Western North America toward the Pacific Ocean are almost like a highway system, for people and fish.

Some of the nations that lived near here and navigated these rivers long ago are the Ute, Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone, and Arapaho.

Early US Exploration

US settlers began rafting in Colorado as soon as they began exploring the Western frontier.

In the early 1840s, Lieutenant John C. Fremont was sent to explore the area west from the Mississippi River to what was then the Wyoming territory. Included in this area were Colorado and its many rivers. Inventor Horace Day helped him fashion a raft out of four separate rubber tubes held together by a cloth wraparound floor.

In 1842, Fremont used this early version of a raft to survey the Platte River. According to his journal, it held up alright in whitewater conditions, though it can’t have been pleasant.

Shortly after Fremont’s expedition, Major John Wesley Powell embarked on a more ambitious rafting journey. He led a team of 10 men on four separate rafts to explore both the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869.

The Beginnings of Rafting for Fun

Rafting remained primarily in the territory of explorers, scientists, and probably some local fishers for several decades. In the 1940s, military surplus rafts became available, and the first commercial rafting trips in the western United States began.

The first documented commercial whitewater rafting trip took place on the Salmon River in Idaho. Colorado quickly followed suit.

The construction of the Grand Tetons National Park in the 1950s increased the popularity of rafting. Float trips down the Snake River were offered at the park, making rafting more mainstream.

Commercial Rafting Takes Off

In the 1960s, commercial rafting truly began to take off in Colorado. This was getting closer to the rafting trips you know and love today, where a guide leads a group through the best parts of the river. In the 1960s, military surplus rafts were still the vehicles most commonly used.

One surprising factor that brought more public interest to rafting, and whitewater sports in general, was the Olympics. This happened first in Munich in 1970 with the inclusion of kayaking, and again in Atlanta in 1996.

Both these surges in popularity led to improvements in rafts and related safety equipment. The earliest commercial rafting trips didn’t even include life jackets.

The earlier commercial rafts weren’t particularly safe either.

Early rafts didn’t have a lot of flotation technology. As they hit rapids, they would fill with water. Today’s rafters call them bucket boats, referring to the buckets that had to be kept on board to bail water off.

Almost immediately after the 1996 Olympics, the International Rafting Federation was founded in 1997. This allowed for standardized and official training, and a set of guidelines for river guides.

The foundation of the International Rafting Federation also made it easier to organize international rafting competitions. These helped legitimize rafting as a sport.

Colorado has made its mark in competitive rafting. The USA frequently sends teams from Colorado as its international representatives.

FIBArk and Celebrating Rafting

One unique piece of Colorado’s rafting history is that this state hosts the FIBArk (First In Boating the Arkansas), America’s oldest whitewater festival.

The first FIBArk took place on June 19, 1949. 23 boaters decided to brave a treacherous 57-mile run of the Arkansas River from Salida to Canon City. The Arkansas River is even more dangerous to navigate this time of year because of the recently melted snow.

During the early years, any type of craft was allowed, but as time went on, the FIBArk became a kayak race. In the 1970s, rafting was added back to the FIBArk. The 26-mile rafting race is now a popular event at this yearly festival, which draws large crowds of whitewater enthusiasts from Colorado and around the world.

Colorado Rafting Today

These many years of gradual improvement in technology and the increasing popularity of rafting led Colorado rafting to its current status. Nowadays, everyone can enjoy a safe and exhilarating rafting experience without being a professional explorer or pursuing rafting as a competitive sport.

At Lawson Adventure Park & Resort, you can learn how to raft from experienced guides. You can go for a scenic float down the river, wondering at Colorado’s beautiful scenery with fresh eyes as Lieutenant John C. Fremont might have done.

You can also try your hand at whitewater rafting and maybe start preparing to enter the FIBArk yourself one day. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced whitewater rafter, expert river guides will be able to share rafting tips and lead you on an adventure that’s perfect for you.

You can even spend two whole days rafting down the Colorado River, stopping to set up camp for the night. This option will truly connect you with the earliest travelers of Colorado’s waterways.

If you’d prefer to stay comfortably indoors in between rafting excursions, you can spend the night in a cabin or yurt instead. No matter how you choose to raft, you’ll be continuing a proud Colorado tradition.

Time to Try Rafting

Now you’ve learned all about Colorado’s long history of rafters. Consider joining that proud lineage yourself if you haven’t already.

Before you go searching for “rafting near me,” remember Lawson Adventure Park & Resort has plenty of options for rafting trips. One of them is sure to be just right for you!