Difficulty V+
Length 12 Miles
Flow Range 350 - 950 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 1 hour ago 0.03 [CFS]
Reach Info Last Updated 07/05/2020 11:45 pm

River Description

Big South is the finest expert run in Colorado. For the first few miles the river marks the western boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park, the rest of the river all the way to the takeout is in the Cache La Poudre Wilderness Area. The Big South runs through 12 miles of pristine wilderness with more than a dozen classic Class V, V+, and VI- rapids. The beauty of it is you can have any kind of day you want there. If you are there for the scenery and the experience you can easily portage the hardest rapids and have a relatively relaxing Class IV+/V- day. If you are there to test yourself and run some big stuff you will have a couple of big technical hair-raising drops to run.

Pinball Wizard, Rock Lobster, Starter Fluid, Bar Room Brawl, Bonk, Nitrogen Narcosis, Prime Time Gorge, Pincushion, The Rush, and Tubular Balls are all Class V to V- at reasonable water levels, and can be run without scouting if you have a good guide to lead you down.

Taco Bobs, and Fantasy Flight are in the Class V territory, but they have some really ugly lines you want to check out before jumping in. Slideways is another good scout, it's a classic long and steep Class V studded with big holes.

The truly big Class V+/VI- rapids of the Big South are Cool World, Meltdown, and Double Trouble. Cool World is especially dangerous because it looks like it's just another Class IV rapid from the top. Be very cautious until you are past it! The final drop of Cool World slams directly into an undercut cliff on river right. Meltdown is a two-step cascade with a sieve at the bottom. It's the hardest rapid to portage, so sometimes it seems like it's "almost" easier to just run the rapid!
Double Trouble is a big double waterfall. The hole at the bottom is considered by many to be in the top five scariest hydraulics in Colorado, which is saying a lot!

The only real negative to Big South is the short season. The Forest Service keeps the road to the Long Draw Reservoir (the put-in) gated until all snow has melted from it, even in a big year there is sometimes only a week or two of water left after the gate finally opens. This leaves you with two unpleasant alternative to bag the big water of early summer. One, you simply hike upriver from the takeout as far as your lungs and legs can carry you. Two, hike down from the source of the Poudre near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. This alternative is far easier than hiking up from the bottom, and Trail Ridge Road is guaranteed to be open for the tourists by Memorial Day at the latest, but requires a 4+ hours of shuttle driving.

For a great article about running Big South from RMNP check out coloradokayaking.com.

For pics of Big South and many other Colorado classics check out my Webshots photo album.

To get there: The takeout is at the Big South Campground on Co Hwy 14. To drive to the put-in head towards Cameron Pass about a mile until you see a well marked Forest Service sign to Long Draw Reservoir. Head up this dirt road and put-in at the outlet of the reservoir.

See Colorado Rivers and Creeks II, by Banks and Eckardt (The Bible), for info on this and most of the other kewl runs of Colorado.

Lat/longitude coords are approximate, from TopoZone.

See also,

Big South (Class V/VI),
Joe Wright Creek (Class V),
Spencer Heights (Class V/VI),
South Fork (Class IV/V),
White Mile Run/Upper Rustic (Class III),
Grandpa's Gorge/Lower Rustic (Class III/IV),
The Narrows (Class IV/V/V+),
Upper Mishawaka (Class III/IV),
Lower Mishiwaka (Class III),
Poudre Park (Class IV),
Bridges (Class III/IV),
Upper North Fork (Class IV/V),
Lower North Fork (Class II/III), and
Filter Plant (Class III).

Rapid Descriptions

Long Draw Reservoir

Class - II Mile - 0
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
Put in at the outlet of the reservoir.
Few individuals go this route. Its easier to hit the creek in the willows below the res.

Pinball Wizard

Class - IV Mile - 1
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
The gradient will tilt steep all of a sudden, not much of a line, just bounce of the round rocks.

Rock Lobster

Class - 5.0 Mile - 1.7
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
We didn't scout this one so I don't remember it too well, nothing went wrong at least!

Starter Fluid

Class - IV+ Mile - 2.6

Sweet little waterfall that starts of the goods!

Taco Bobs

Class - 5.0 Mile - 2.9
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
Very different at different water levels. I do know of severe vertical pins at low water. Higher water improves your route options.

Bar Room Brawl

Class - 5.0 Mile - 3.2
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
The river splits around a large rock island. The left channel doesn't go, the right side slams into a wall.

Fantasy Flight

Class - 5.0 Mile - 3.3

The entrance to this waterfall has a right and a left line, I refer to them as ugly and uglier.

Cool World

Class - 5.2 Mile - 3.8

Tricky entrance that gains momentum before launching into and undercut cliff.


Class - 5.0 Mile - 4.2
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
Steep drop that pushes into a cliff on river left.

Melt Down

Class - 5.1 Mile - 4.8
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

Two stage drop. The first drop has a hole at higher water that looks like a jet engine. The second drop sieves. Often has wood problem, particularily in the entrance.

Nitrogen Narcosis

Class - IV+ Mile - 7
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

This isn't one of the more distinctive rapids, it kinda blends in with the continuous IV above and below, but is a shade harder.

Prime Time Gorge

Class - IV+ Mile - 8
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

Very fun rapids in a small gorge. Frequently has wood problems.

Double Trouble

Class - 5.1 Mile - 8.8

This is the big daddy of the Big South. Epic hole rides are too be expected.

Pin Cushion

Class - 5.0 Mile - 9.6
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
Pin spot, hard left boof required.


Class - 5.1 Mile - 10
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

It's big but straight forward. After 10 miles your definately starting to feel it. The hardest rapid at high water.

Tubular Balls

Class - 5.0 Mile - 10.7
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
The pace seems to quicken after Slideways, not sure exactly which rapid is Tubular balls but do keep an eye out for wood.

The Rush

Class - 5.0 Mile - 11.1
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
Keep and eye out for increasing amounts of wood, you may want to just bag it at some point and start hiking downstream.

Curtain Call

Class - 5.3 Mile - 11.7
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
This has been run at high water, not advisable at any water level. Only for sickos with a lack of good judgement. Waterfalls pouring into sieves. Be sure to start the portage well upstream.

Highway 14

Class - IV Mile - 12
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
Take out


Gage Descriptions

The gauge is visual, there is a painted board located at the Big South Campground (the takeout). It was washed away in 2003 and replaced and needs to be recalibrated. Until then a good guess is that below 2' is low, 2' to 3' is medium, and above 3' is high.

Directions Description

We have no additional detail on this route. Use the map below to calculate how to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2009-07-18 Low Fatality Other Read More
1999-09-16 Medium Fatality Cold Water Read More



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Colorado Parks & Wildlife to Require Hunting or Fishing License at River Access

Kestrel Kunz

In an unexpected and strategic move by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), a Colorado hunting or fishing license will now be required to access State Wildlife Areas and CPW-leased State Trust Lands (effective July 1, 2020). Many of these affected areas have historically been used for paddling, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, camping, and other non-consumptive recreation uses. CPW's press release stated that "This rule is aimed at curtailing non-wildlife-related use of these properties", and while we understand the need to increase revenue to support management of these areas, we have a few concerns with this strategy. On July 1, American Whitewater, Colorado Mountain Club, and multiple other organizations submitted a joint letter to CPW Commissioners requesting that they reconsider the new Rule and find a more practicable and sustainable method for collecting fees for these areas.

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Opportunity to Participate in Upper Gunnison Watershed Management Plan (CO)

Kestrel Kunz

The Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District in Gunnison, Colorado is coordinating a Watershed Management Planning effort "to help protect existing water uses and watershed health in the Upper Gunnison Basin in the face of pressure from increased water demands and permanent reductions in water supply." The current phase is focusing on Tomichi, Cochetopa, Cebolla, Taylor, and the Gunnison River above Blue Mesa. With local stewardship staff in Crested Butte, American Whitewater has joined the Watershed Management Planning Team to help represent recreational river users and quantify flow preferences and recreational opportunities on the Taylor and Gunnison Rivers. American Whitewater is very excited to be involved in this stakeholder driven process and we are asking paddlers to share their input on management priorities for the Upper Gunnison Basin. If you have experience paddling Cebolla, Taylor, or the Upper Gunnison Rivers, please fill out this quick survey! 

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AW releases Saint Vrain and Lefthand Creek Recreational Flow Study - CO

Nathan Fey

Longmont, Colorado - As part of a comprehensive Stream Management Plan for the St Vrain Creek Watershed, American Whitewater is collecting and compiling data on recreational uses, and identifying projects and strategies to improve stream health, recreation, and environmental conditions in the region. You can help with this extensive effort. Please participate in the Recreational Flow survey.


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Support Colorado River Access on Colorado Gives Day!

Kestrel Kunz

Colorado Gives Day is on December 4 this year and is fast approaching! Go here to schedule your online donation to support American Whitewater's Colorado River Access Program. All donations made to American Whitewater on Colorado Gives Day (December 4) will be put towards our River Access Program in Colorado. American Whitewater works to improve river access and public safety throughout the state by working with landowners and managers, paddlers, law enforcement, and lawmakers to understand Colorado's river access laws and the ongoing threats to public safety. Thank you for your support!

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Voluntary River Closure Proposed On the Slate River (CO)

Kestrel Kunz

Crested Butte CO - Alleged disruption to a Heron Rookery and concerned private landowners have led to a "Voluntary Closure" of the Slate River from the Gunsight Bridge to the Town of Crested Butte between March 15 and June 21 for the 2019 season. The Slate River between Oh Be Joyful Campground and Skyland Bridge, a 10.5 mile stretch, provides an incredibly scenic and unique flatwater paddling experience in the Gunnison Valley. The Voluntary clsoure is a product of the Slate River Floating Management Plan, created by a Working Group convened by the Town of Crested Butte and the Crested Butte Land Trust. The Working Group was created in direct response to pressure from the local community including conservationists and private landowners adjacent to the river, who are concerned that a recent increase in boating activity is disturbing a Heron Rookery that straddles the Slate River. 

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AW Comments on Colorado Nat'l Forest Wilderness Process

Kestrel Kunz

Today, September 5, marked the close of the public review process for the DRAFT Wilderness Evaluation Report. The Evaluation Phase is the second step of 4 different steps required in the assessment of lands that may be suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). American Whitewater thoroughly reviewed the DRAFT Wilderness Evaluation Report and submitted our comments to the Forest Service on September 4, 2018. Overall, we found that key paddling reaches throughout the GMUG area were greatly under-represented in the Polygon narratives and thus weren't acknowledged as contributing factors to the Polygon's respective Wilderness Ratings. We let the Forest Service know this, highlighting specific paddling reaches that should be added to each Polygon and which Polygons we believe should have a higher Wilderness Rating based on the high-quality recreation opportunities that each area has to offer. 

Please stay tuned as we continue to report on the GMUG Land Management Revision Process and in the meantime you can learn more about the GMUG here. (Photo of Josh King by Nick Spitzer)

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TAKE ACTION: Comment on the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area Management Plan

Kestrel Kunz

ARKANSAS RIVER, Colo. - The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) is revising their Management Plan for the first time since 2001. The new Draft Plan was made publicly available in October and the AHRA is accepting public comments through November 10, 2017 (next week!). In order to design effective and productive comments, American Whitewater has thoroughly reviewed the Draft Plan, discussed the Plan with our local Affiliate Clubs, attended AHRA Public Open Houses, and reached out to key members of the local paddling community. To make it easy for you to SUBMIT YOUR COMMENTS, American Whitewater staff have compiled our key concerns and comments for your review. 

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Colorado Honors the legacy of Matt Brown

Nathan Fey

Gunnison, Colorado - Last Wednesday, Matt Brown - longtime river guide, adventurer, and pillar of the Gunnison Valley community- passed away tragically after an accident in Moab. Matt was so much to so many.  At the request of his family and friends, contributions in Matt's memory can be made to American Whitewater’s River Access work in Colorado.  Matt was a strong ally and advisor in our work to protect the public’s rights to float and fish in the State.  We miss him immensely.

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Comments needed on Upper Colorado River Recreation Area Management Plan

Nathan Fey

Kremmling, Colorado - The Bureau of Land Management has released for public review and comment a set of preliminary alternatives for managing about 40 miles of the Upper Colorado River between Parshall and State Bridge - including Gore Canyon and Pumphouse. This is your chance to weigh in on whether there should be a day-use permit;  a camping permit with designated campsites in the popular stretch between Pumphouse and State Bridge; and expanding the developed Pumphouse Campground.

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Gore Fest 2017 is a few weeks away!

Nathan Fey

Bond, Colorado - American Whitewater is presenting Gore Canyon Festival - August 25-27th 2017Online registration is open and there are events for everyone, so sign up today! 

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A Successful River Cleanup on the St. Vrain (Lyons, CO)

Kestrel Kunz

On Sunday, nearly 50 people gathered on the banks of the St. Vrain River to pick up trash from the water and the shoreline. We started the day off with Hotbox Roasters coffee and donuts, and a few words about River Stewardship – the common cause that brought us all together. We found bedframes, rusty nails, lawn chairs, car doors, plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, fast food containers, and it doesn’t stop there. Our findings are likely a combination of leftover debris from the floods, illegal waste dumping along the river, and built up trash from years of careless passers-by. Thank you to all those that came out for the river cleanup! American Whitewater depends on our affiliate clubs, members, and dedicated volunteers in order to tackle our many River Stewardship projects.  

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Releases to Lower Dolores River certain in 2017.

Nathan Fey

Cortez, Colorado - Last week, American Whitewater met with local water managers, fisheries biologists, an other interests in Dolores River water, to start negotiating releases from McPhee Dam - like we do every spring.  This year, things are looking very good for the Dolores...

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Upper Colorado River Access funded by Land & Water Conservation Fund - CO

Nathan Fey

Dotsero, Colorado - A key river access point on the Upper Colorado river, once threatened with closure, has now been permanently protected through a partnership between BLM and Eagle County. 

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One more day to submit input on Colorado's Brown Canyon National Monument!

Kestrel Kunz

There is only one more day left to share what you value most in the Browns Canyon National Monument planning area! The Bureau of Land Management, U.S Forest Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are working together to develop a Coordinated Management Plan for Browns Canyon National Monument. In order to design a plan that most benefits citizens and visitors of Colorado, the agencies designed an Online Survey and Mapping Tool to understand how the public interacts with the Browns Canyon planning area and what aspects of the area are most important to the public.


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New Report on Impact to San Miguel River From Proposed Reservoirs

Evan Stafford

Colorado - American Whitewater has released a new study on whitewater recreation in the San Miguel River Basin. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) requested that Montrose County consult with American Whitewater on recreational needs and future impacts for the San Miguel River. Montrose County acquired conditional water rights to the San Miguel River in hopes of building multiple new reservoirs on BLM land. American Whitewater worked with Montrose County’s agents to assess the impact its conditional storage proposals would have on existing recreational opportunities. 

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Proposed Asphalt and Gravel Mine threatens the Upper Colorado River

Evan Stafford

A new proposal to allow the development of a 90- acre open pit mine in Eagle County at the gateway to the Colorado River has local river users asking questions. We encourage everyone to attend an Open House December 6 at 6 PM at the Gypsum Recreation Center, and to make your voices heard at the Town Council meeting where they will discuss the application on December 13 at 7 PM.


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Lyons Outdoor Games and Burning Can to Support AW

Nathan Fey

Lyons, Colorado - For the second year in a row, Oskar Blues Brewery is hosting the Burning Can Festival at this year Lyons Outdoor Games.  Burning Can, which takes place under the backdrop of Rocky Mountain National Park and the St. Vrain River, is a celebration of good beer, served in a can.  This year, All money raised from Lyons Outdoor Games recycled cans will be donated to American Whitewater. See you there!

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Action Alert: Comment on Colorado Roadless Rule

Thomas O'Keefe

Colorado's backcountry is a human-powered recreation paradise. For paddlers we enjoy great rivers like the Animas or dropping Adrenaline Falls on Lime Creek. Right now the Colorado Roadless Rule that will guide management of these backcountry areas is open for public comment. We encourage all paddlers to weigh in.

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AW launches Flow Study for Yampa River

Nathan Fey

Colorado - American Whitewater is conducting a study of flow-recreation relationships for the Yampa Basin, and identifying specific metrics for use in the Watershed Flow Evaluation Tool. This study is intended to inform local, state, and federal planning efforts as to the full range and quality of recreational boating opportunities for the Wild and Scenic suitable Yampa River, as well as the Elk and White Rivers, and their tributaries. Your participation in the flow survey is requested.

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River Access Task Force Submits Recommendations to Colorado Governor

Nathan Fey

Colorado - On December 23, Governor Bill Ritter issued a report outlining a series of proposals for resolving disputes between landowners and rafters in Colorado. He also signed an executive order creating the River Access Mediation Commission to provide a way for some of the most contentious conflicts between boaters and property owners to be addressed. The Governor’s River Access Dispute Resolution Task Force was a 17-member group created in July of 2010 to help craft ways to sort out conflicts on Colorado rivers on a stretch-by-stretch basis as those disputes arise.

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Help Protect the Yampa River - Colorado

Nathan Fey

Colorado - Last month, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released their proposed management plan for the Little Snake Resource Area, encompassing over a million acres of soaring plateaus, wild and scenic rivers, and sweeping sagebrush basins.  Special interests are trying to overturn the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to protect portions of the Yampa River – one of the nation's last free flowing rivers.    Let BLM know that protections for these rivers are important to you!


Craig Irwin


Nathan Fey

Colorado Stewardship Director


Matt Muir


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1215409 07/05/20 Craig Irwin updated description
1210915 01/25/19 Nathan Fey updated image position
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