For a mere twelve dollars and change, leisure-seekers and adrenaline junkies alike can experience one of Colorado’s lesser-known thrills – tubing its flowing rivers and creeks.
Unlike the ever-popular whitewater rafting and kayaking, there’s not a whole lot to learn and no expensive equipment required to hit the tubing scene. An inflatable tube and a decent pair of sandals are all that’s needed for a good day on the river.
Colorado’s Northern Front Range has two rivers and a creek where tube-toting locals gather to ride, drink beer and splash.
“I like the Poudre because it offers rough water up river, out-of-town, and calmer, more relaxing waters through the city. Boulder Creek is a fun one, too,” said Ryan Ludwig, a senior at CSU.
Some popular Northern Colorado destinations include Fort Collins’ Cache la Poudre River, the St. Vrain in Lyons and Boulder Creek in Boulder. All three offer the tubing enthusiast multiple sets of rapids, drops and flumes along with calm periods of relaxing float.
Don’t expect a calm, smooth ride down these rivers and creeks, though, as this is whitewater country, and the journey can be a bit tumultuous at times.
The Poudre is a popular tubing spot that offers sections of rapids up river for the “extreme” tuber, as well as a relaxing run through the city for the tame at heart. Local tubers say the early season in late May through June is best for the run through Fort Collins as the water is high and dangerous up river.
But later in the summer, when the runoff has hit its peak, many Fort Collins residents head farther up river.
Tim Highfield, of Fort Collins, went tubing a couple of years ago on the upper-Poudre during the runoff season, the month-long period of snowmelt when the river is at its highest levels, and had quite the hair-raising experience.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Highfield said. “My friend took me up in early June and the water was fast, high and really cold. A cop drove by asked us why we weren’t wearing lifejackets. That’s when I became concerned.”
“Tubing will always be dangerous, but if you take the necessary precautions, you’ll be all right,” he added.
When asked if he took those precautions he replied, “Absolutely not.”
Tubers floating the river in-town can board in at the bridge on North Shields, a half-mile past West Vine, for a nice mile-and-a-half drift to North College. The novice tuber will have to board-out while going underneath the railroad tracks right before College, as there is a dam.
Some say it’s worth boarding back in after the dam, going past College, to hit a flume behind the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab that runs especially swift.
In July, the upper-Poudre – outside of town on Highway 14 – is the proverbial holy land for tubing enthusiasts. Leave a car at Picnic Rock and board-in anywhere that seems fit all the way up to Mishawaka.
Tubing above the Mish is not recommended due to the rough nature of the rapids. The rapids directly below the Mish are called “Doc’s Drop” and down river a ways is “Pine Vu,” where rafters and kayakers are out in full-force. This is a rough section all the way to “Killer Bridge.”
Down farther, the river features two sets of dangerous dams, which prompt most to board out. Some fearless tubers, however, choose to go over these, leaving their fate to the current.
Where the beer flows like wine
While some tubers head up river for spills, turns and head rushes, some more mellow floaters stay down river – where lying back with a cold beer is often encouraged.
But some beer-drinking floaters inevitably become the thorn in the backside of some of the more avid outdoor thrill-seekers that hit the water.
A long-standing feud between tubers and kayakers persists on the whitewater that often gives way to heated words. Tubers can sometimes be heard calling kayakers “elitists” or “snobs,” and some Kayakers say tubers are no more than crazy, reckless drunks who just get in the way and clog up the river.
Larry Barnes of Rocky Mountain Adventures, a rafting and kayaking outfit out of Fort Collins, says tubers, “drink too much and don’t wear enough protection.”
“I think they’re nuts,” he added.
But Jason Mortinson, Barnes’ colleague and kayak instructor with Rocky Mountain Adventures, says his free-floating counterparts aren’t so bad.
“They’re cool because they give us beer from time to time,” he said of tubers.
Ian Groom, a CSU graduate student, says some vocal kayakers can often put a damper on the day.
“I’m out there kickin’ back with a beer, minding my own business, and kayakers are always giving me (flack) about going over rapids I shouldn’t be, because they don’t want to be the ones to save (me) when it comes down to it,” Groom said. “They should mind they’re own business and not worry about us.”
Whether they’re just hanging back with a brew or jumping into more dangerous waters, tubing continues to be a popular summer activity in Fort Collins and beyond, Groom said.
For those looking to join in the fun – and the contention – the first step is finding the hot spots.
St. Vrain River
One of the less-popular hidden gems of Northern Colorado tubing is the St. Vrain in Lyons.
Located just west of Longmont on Highway 66, the best tubing on the St. Vrain can be accessed at Meadow or Bohn Park. Tubing is possible along the Greenway, which runs beside the river. A great three-mile run can be made from the Apple Valley Road Bridge just outside of town on Highway 36 to the Black Bear Inn, which features multiple sets of decent rapids followed by periods of calm water.
Erik Dunning, a CSU alum and tubing aficionado had high praise for the St. Vrain.
“The St. Vrain is a cool float, and there’s usually not a lot of people tubing it,” Dunning said. It can get pretty shallow in certain spots though, but it’s a great river to drink and tube, because it’s not all that rough.”
While the St. Vrain is a bit tamer than the Poudre, it still offers the novice tuber a great ride.
Call the Lyon’s Parks and Recreation department at (303) 823-8250 for more information.
The Boulder Creek is more of a thrill ride than a relaxing float. During the high-water season it can be dangerous, but it is also the most exciting.
Quite possibly the best three miles of tubing in Northern Colorado, the stretch from Eben G. Fine Park located at the west end of Arapahoe Avenue to Scott Carpenter Park at 30th and Arapahoe is a wild, intimate run consisting of multiple drops, rapids and chutes.
Choose to go on a hot day as sunlight is sparse and the creek is narrow with the trees canopying over most of the river. Be warned: The water can be as cold as 53 degrees in the late spring and early summer.
Some ambitious – or reckless – tubers board in above the park at the kayak course for even rougher rapids. Be sure to keep right going underneath the Broadway Bridge, as there is a dam to the left. A high-speed flume hangs in the shadows followed by an intimidating drop on the other side of the bridge.
Ryan Ludwig has been tubing the Boulder Creek for eight years now and doesn’t recommend drinking before or during tubing the Creek.
“I almost died one day right below the kayak course after I had been drinking 40s,” Ludwig said.
He hit his head on a boulder in the river and blacked out momentarily.
“Some rivers are mellow tubing experiences, but not the Boulder Creek,” Ludwig said.
A mile down river is the last two sets of big rapids running through the Millennium Hotel grounds and right before the 28th Street Bridge. The entire run is not for the faint at heart, especially in late May and June due to the excess water spill from mountain snowmelt, which poses a real hazard for injury or drowning. This danger is the same for any Colorado river or creek.
Staff writer Aaron Rognstad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.