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

First post flood decent of the Cali Section

First post flood decent of the Cali Section
Photo of Tom Janney by Jim Janney taken 08/17/17 @ 500 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
codwr-NSVABRCO0 150 - 800 cfs V+ 5y133d19h36m 531 cfs (running)

River Description

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 is quite 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!

Be on a constant look out for wood, running blind corners is not a good idea.  When in doubt, scout.

There are 3 distinct sections with markedly different personalities as you work your way toward Buttonrock Preserve.

The first zone is the Murkwood Section; manky Class V with an abudnace of wood through out. 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.  If this happens to be the case with you, walking back out here, as the car is still very close, can be a good idea..

Cascade #1(V) 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 a ½ mile downstream is Cascade #2, which is a pretty sweet boulder choked rapid.  The Murkwood section continues on 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.

This second section is a 4 or 5 miles Class III strech, through some very 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.

The third and final zone is called 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, on river left, greatly helping scouting and portaging. The first significant drop splits around a giant boulder and into undercuts on both sides, most choose to portage. The rapid just below the steapest section 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.

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!

After you have put in below the very clear outflow jet, paddle several more miles to your car. Be heads up for a 15 ft dam about 2/3 of the way down.  It has been run, but is easy to portage. 

As of 2017 there have been only two complete decents, and wood was very prominent. This section comes highly reccomended, especially for someone looking for a bit of adventure style boating.  


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.

There is an alternate put-in option, that requires hiking down Bright Trail: 1700 ft dropped in 1.5 miles.  So be prepared for steep terrain, a map with details regarding the trail can be found under the photos tab. 

Trail meets the river about two miles above the Cali Section


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: 2018-12-10 18:59:13


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 Section5.0Photo
6.6Steep Section5.2Waterfall
6.8Clam Shack5.3Portage Hazard Waterfall
7.0Significant Rapid5.1Waterfall Photo
7.2Eye of the Needle5.0Hazard Waterfall
9.0The Slot5.1Hazard Waterfall Photo
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)

First post flood decent of the Cali Section

First post flood decent of the Cali Section
Photo of Tom Janney by Jim Janney taken 08/17/17 @ 500 cfs

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)

One of many boofs below the Cali Section

One of many boofs below the Cali Section
Photo of Spencer Huff by Evan Stafford taken 08/17/17 @ 400 cfs

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,portage on the left.  The rapid is marked by a very sharp right hand bend in the river. 

The Slot (Class 5.1, Mile 9.0)

Stafford running through the slot to freedom

Stafford running through the slot to freedom
Photo of Evan Stafford by Nathan Werner taken 08/17/17 @ 400 cfs

There is a left slot and a right slot, avoid the right slot...

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)

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