One of the most beautiful, remote parts in southwest Colorado is suddenly drawing big crowds.
At a canyon campground about half an hour from the town of Cortez, about a dozen rafts and boats stand ready to trek the Dolores River.
Devon Wilson and her dad Mike and a group of family and friends are about to set out on one of the rarest whitewater-rafting trips anywhere.
“It was kind of hard to say no to something most people never get to do,” Wilson says.
This trip is so special because most years, the Dolores River isn’t much more than a trickle. Commercial rafting outfits haven’t been able to run the Dolores in several years.
“It is a once-every-few-years thing,” says Echo Canyon River Expeditions lead guide Craig Parsons. “Last time I was down here we talked to some guys who were like, ‘We haven’t been down here since the 80’s!'”
As Wilson and her group pack their gear into five rafts, Parsons gives a safety briefing and a preview of the three-day trip.
“You guys are some of the lucky people,” Parsons tells them. “In the past 20 years, only about 2,500 people have rafted this.”
The Dolores river starts high in the mountains of southwest Colorado and runs about 230 miles before meeting the Colorado River in Utah.
For a time in May and June, the Dolores River was running at about twice its normal level. In the midst of a Western water crisis, winter snowpack in Colorado spiked — in some places more than 600% above normal. Rivers statewide are running much higher, which has made whitewater rafting trips very popular.
The higher-than-normal water levels are also focusing new attention on a river that hasn’t been allowed to run naturally for decades.
A dam built in the 1980s created the massive McPhee Reservoir, diverting water from the Dolores to nearby towns, Native American land, and farms that turn the naturally red landscape into verdant green fields. Most years, there’s more water allocated than is available, and the Dolores often runs nearly dry.
“It’s really turning a river into a stream,” says Rica Fulton with the Dolores River Boating Advocates conservation group.
Spanish explorers once called the Dolores the “River of Sorrows”. Fulton says it’s a name that fits.
“The downstream environment is completely different. You see the vegetation change, the channel shape is more narrow,” Fulton says. “The native fish populations really aren’t doing as well because it altered their habitat.”
With this season’s snowmelt and a full reservoir, more water is released, and the Dolores becomes its old self.
For Devon Wilson and her group, it means getting a chance to ride the biggest rapids, called Snaggletooth.
For one of the boats, the ride gets a little rough, and two rafters are plunged into the cold water.
It takes a few harrowing moments, but both are rescued.
“We lost a couple guys in the water for a bit,” says Mike Wilson. “But the guides did a great job pulling them back in. Nobody hurt, everybody’s happy.”
Conservation groups know the high water that makes the Dolores special won’t last.
Legislation working through Congress would set up a Dolores River National Conservation Area.
“The river is really the lifeblood of this community,” says Fulton. “It’s just why I love living here. And I think if we squander and waste this resource, you know, we’d be foolish that future generations couldn’t experience it.”
After three days floating down the river, Mike Wilson says he couldn’t imagine a more spectacular trip.
“I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot of places in the world and this might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” Wilson says. “Awesome natural beauty the whole time.”