Saint Vrain Creek, North - 01. Peak to Peak Hwy to Buttonrock Preserve

Saint Vrain Creek, North, Colorado, US


01. Peak to Peak Hwy to Buttonrock Preserve (Upper NSV)

Usual Difficulty V+ (for normal flows)
Length 13 Miles
Avg. Gradient 196 fpm
Max Gradient 375 fpm

California Section

California Section
Photo of Beautiful Canyon by Brian Adkins taken 06/03 @ 250cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
codwr-NSVABRCO0 150 - 800 cfs V+ 3y316d16h25m 531 cfs (running)

River Description

ATTENTION!!! Thanks to the hard work of some local boaters there is a two year test of allowing whitewater paddlers across the reservoir! So be on your best behavior! Do not linger on the reservoir, paddle directly across, portage the dam and put in below as quickly as possible. Make your presence as minimal as possible!

Upper North Saint Vrain Creek is the the only major canyon in the Front Range that hasn’t had a highway or railroad blasted up it. It’s a long day with 10+ log portages and numerous Class V and V+ rapids. Not for the meek, it has been said that UNSV is a place to take your enemies, not your friends!

There are 3 distinct sections with markedly different personalities above Buttonrock Preserve.

The first section is the Murkwood Zone, manky Class V mixed with lots of wood. Although the rocks are nice and round, the pinball nature of the rapids combined with the wood make this upper section a difficult place for some to enjoy. In fact there is a high rate of paddlers walking out as the car is still very close. Cascade #1(VI-) starts off about 50 yards below the put-in. It's not so much unrunnable as it is ugly, manky, and un-fun-able. I usually portage (river left past the no tresspassing signs) straight from my car to just below the last ugly drop. The run-out of Cascade #1 is actually a lot of fun. About ½ mile downstream is Cascade #2, which is a pretty sweet boulder choked rapid. Below this the Murkwood Zone continues for about 3 more miles, the gradient gradually petering out. There is a lot of wood in here, and it moves around a lot at high water. Runs before and after the peak will have wood portages in different rapids.

The second section is endless (4 or 5 miles) Class III in dramatic terrain, you will see huge ridges of rock coming down from the top of the canyon to river level. Your instincts tell you that there is going to be a huge rapid where the river and the ridge meet, but there isn’t.

Finally, the third part is the California Section. The rapids transition from manky broken rock to smooth granite bedrock. You'll know when to get out and scout as the gradient will pick up dramatically. The California Section is characterized by bedrock pool-drop rapids, one Class V right after another, all in a spectacular smooth granite canyon so unlike much of Colorado. There is a jeep trail in this section, greatly helping scouting and portaging. There are two bridges over the creek in this section, just below both of them are big drops that require scouting. The rapid after the first bridge (V+) splits around a giant boulder and into undercuts on both sides, most choose to portage. The jeep trail leaves the river after the second bridge, and the rapid just below (V)is tricky to portage(run the entrance and portage the main drop river left). There is a sieve at the bottom of this steep rapid, dangerous at low water.

After this the California Section proper is done, the difficulty mellows out to Class III/IV, but the beautiful bedrock rapids remain. There are a few more log portages in this section, and one or two Class V- drops mixed in, before you get to The Slot. This is pretty much the last drop of the run, there is a left and right slot, and you really want to get to the left slot. Soon after The Slot you will come to a small lowhead dam, easily runnable. Formerly the paddle across Buttonrock Preserve was illegal, but thanks to the hard work of some local boaters there is a two year test of allowing whitewater paddlers across the reservoir! So be on your best behavior! Do not linger on the reservoir, paddle directly across, portage the dam and put in below as quickly as possible. Make your presence as minimal as possible!

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

To get there: From Lyons head up Hwy 36 towards Estes Park. Look for small County Road 80 on the left and head up that until you get to the gate for the Buttonrock Preserve. Park at the far end of the lot away from the gate and leave a car that doesn't scream "paddler", this will help keep the rangers from looking for you. Head back down to Lyons and up Hwy 7 past the junction with Hwy 72. A few miles past Allenspark you will dip into the North Saint Vrain Valley, put-in at the bridge where Hwy 7 crosses the creek. Actually you should start your run by discretly portaging past the no-tresspassing signs on river left until you are below Cascade #1.

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.

The various reaches of of Saint Vrain Creek,
Upper NSV (Class V+/VI-),
Middle NSV (Class IV/V),
Lower NSV (Class II/III),
Upper SSV (Class V+/VI-),
SSV (Class V/V+), and
Left Hand Creek (Class IV).

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2009-02-16 19:59:19


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
0.0Peak To Peak HwyIVPutin
0.1Cascade #15.3Portage Hazard Waterfall
0.4Cascade #25.2Waterfall
2.2Rock CreekIV
3.8Cow CreekIII
6.0California Section5.0
6.6Steep Section5.2Waterfall
6.8Clam Shack5.3Portage Hazard Waterfall
7.0Significant Rapid5.1Waterfall
7.2Eye of the Needle5.0Hazard Waterfall
9.0The Slot5.1Hazard Waterfall
9.2Low Head DamIII+Waterfall
9.5Ralph Price ReservoirI
11.2Button Rock DamIPortage
12.8Longmont Reservoir/DamIVPortage
13.3The TakeoutIIITakeout

Rapid Descriptions

Peak To Peak Hwy (Class IV)
Put-in and run some bony Class IV with the intention of getting out real soon, or just start a stealthy portage down river left...

Cascade #1 (Class 5.3, Mile 0.1)
Huge and ugly.

Cascade #2 (Class 5.2, Mile 0.4)
Long and technical, about half as steep as the first cascade. Still not to be taken lightly.

Rock Creek (Class IV, Mile 2.2)
Rock Creek comes in on river right, this is about the end of the Murkwood Zone. Expect less wood and mellow Class III for several miles.

Cow Creek (Class III, Mile 3.8)
Cow Creek comes in on river left.

California Section (Class 5.0, Mile 6.0)
The river character transitions to smooth bedrock and the gradient starts to pick up progressively.

Steep Section (Class 5.2, Mile 6.6)
The most steep and burly part of the California section, big rocks and big holes with clean lines. This is the signature drop of the California Section.

Clam Shack (Class 5.3, Mile 6.8)
At the bottom of the "steep and burly" bit you need to eddy out upstream of the bridge. Just below is Clam Shack, a short but big V+ with undercuts.

Significant Rapid (Class 5.1, Mile 7.0)
Worthy of a scout. Below Clam Shack are some great rapids and stout holes. When you come to a big horizon line scout on the right. The rest is read and run until the next bridge.

Eye of the Needle (Class 5.0, Mile 7.2)
Fairly easy line, but very nasty consequences. Scout from the right.

The Slot (Class 5.1, Mile 9.0)
There is a left slot and a right slot, avoid the right slot...

Low Head Dam (Class III+, Mile 9.2)
Run it anywhere, it's good to go. From this point on you are paddling illegally...

Ralph Price Reservoir (Class I, Mile 9.5)
One and 3/4 miles of uphill paddling.

Button Rock Dam (Class I, Mile 11.2)
If you manage to get past the rangers carry down the left side of the dam, not the sluice - which is further to the left. The outlet of the dam shoots water out Gauley style, big 40 foot roostertails where it hits the water.

Longmont Reservoir/Dam (Class IV, Mile 12.8)
After one and 1/2 miles of fun Class III/IV portage the dam on the right.

The Takeout (Class III, Mile 13.3)

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
June 11 2014 (1139 days ago)
Jason StinglDetails
Rolf and I did the hike in/hike out option on upper NSV. The gate to the hike in was closed so it
added about 20 minutes to that hike. The river got hammered in the floods. Completely new and not
for the better. Gravel bars and eroded banks make up the first part of the run. We portaged 2
trees, both fully blocking the river and obvious (snuck past many others). There is a new waterfall
we ran far left. Nothing special. Sharp rock slide. 6' high in total. This drop is no longer on the
river. The entrance to the
Cali section was recognizable due to an increase in gradient and that was about it. Then
surprisingly it was familiar again, though the biggest drop in the section that was run left is now
different and we ran it on the left side of the right channel. The big left eddy is still there at
the base of the drop. The next section that led to the first bridge, your sign to portage the junk
rapid below, is now mostly gone. This section is remarkably clean and similar. The section below
the bridge lost its class. Its still juicy, but not for the better. I looked at the picture of it
on AW and it doesn't look like this at all. Much dirtier. The final rapid after the
second bridge (also gone) is mostly the same and runnable via the far right line due to wood in the
main channel which would otherwise go. You have about 100 yards until you find trees blocking the
river. Starts out mellow and gets worse. The third log clump is about where the hike out trail is
and the hike out spot looks the same if the trees magically disappeared and you happened to float
by. I would say paddling out would be a tough option. I would expect many more trees to block your
path. We spoke to some neighbors who live near the reservoir and they told us the ranger lives on
the reservoir and can see it from his window so a paddle out would be tough until the Button Rock
reservoir/preserve re-opens in 2015. I'd love to know what happened to the slot drop and the ledge
hole below. I probably won't be back this year to find out. Level wise we had preceding days of low
70s then 60's and it was 53 degrees and overcast/sprinkling when we put in. Clear creek at Golden
was at 1500 ish cfs. This gave us about 300 cfs in the river which was perfect. They key to the
good flow was really a giant snow pack with preceding hot days, then cooling, then cold. Also
considering this run typically reaches 250cfs 1 day in a sub 100% snow pack year it seemed to
reasonable to this if everything is running high and it gets cold, it would be in. Hope someone
finds this helpful. I wouldn't say tear this run out of the guide book, but this used to be my
favorite front range run due to its remoteness, beauty, no blast rock, no road and it was kind of a
mission. It lost a lot of its beauty. I hope nature finds a way to bring it back to what it was,
even if it is for the next generation of kayakers. Jason

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