There’s nothing better on a hot summer day than plopping yourself in a tube and floating down one of Colorado’s many waterways. Whether you’re looking to relax in a lazy river or adventure through a few rapids, Colorado has summer tubing floats for you.
Remember, though, it’s your responsibility to be safe by knowing your skill level and being prepared. And during the coronavirus pandemic, there are additional precautions you’ll need to take. Continue to practice social distancing; wash your hands frequently and wear a mask to protect yourself at congested put-in or take-out spots.
New to the mountains?
First things first. Mountain rivers and creeks look majestic, but they can also be deadly, especially as the winter snow melts and heads down through the waterways — called runoff.
Runoff usually begins in May or early June but can vary dramatically by region and river. The amount of upriver snowpack, how fast it melts and geographic characteristics of the terrain all play a factor in a river’s behavior.
Remember that if the water is high and the river is moving quickly, getting out of the river will be much more difficult and banks may be unstable. It is also more difficult to avoid river hazards such as tree branches or rocks because the water is moving swiftly. In addition, the water is much colder during runoff.
Tubing should be avoided in the runoff season.
Upstream rainfall, tributaries, dams and vegetation also affect how and when a river becomes “floatable.” River flows and levels can change within hours.
The peak 2020 runoff in Colorado has passed, but lower flows also may be dangerous and can make for a rocky trip resulting in popped tubes and twisted ankles if you’re not prepared.
Check with local park rangers, local fire districts or visit the U.S. Geological Survey station report for current water levels and flows. Sometimes local outdoor shops that sell tubes also provide local river floating advice.
A few other tips when planning:
- Tubers move much slower than other watercraft, such as rafts or kayaks. Consider picking a shorter section of the river rather than going for a long, epic journey. Hours on a tube can leave you tired, cold or sunburned.
- Check the weather forecast before you head out. You never want to be on the river during lightning.
- A dry bag can be purchased cheaply, usually the same place you get a tube, and is helpful in carrying keys, your mask, sunscreen and hand sanitizer.
- Apply sunscreen SPF 30 or higher at least 30 minutes before you head out into the sun. And don’t forget to reapply at least every two hours.
- Alcohol and drugs impair your judgment and slow your reflexes, which you’ll need on the river. (A new study shows alcohol may lessen your ability to protect yourself from harmful UV). Floating sober is always safest.
- Never take glass on the river. It breaks easily and makes it dangerous for those who are trying to enjoy the waterways. And for everything else, if you pack it in, pack it out.
- Remember to practice physical distancing, wear a mask when your near others and wash your hands regularly when you’re in public places.
Let’s get ready
The weather is great, so what do you need before you head out the door? Don’t forget:
- A life jacket— no matter your swimming ability or river flow, your tube is not a lifesaving device. And often it can deflate or get lost downstream.
- Water shoes— something with straps, not flip-flops — also are essential. Although a person should never stand up in a river for risk of falling and injury, water shoes that stay on your feet allow you to get to shore safely. Your feet can also get caught in the river bottom if you stand up, and the river’s current can trap your head underwater.
- Drinking water— don’t forget to stay hydrated.
- Your mask — though it’s easy to keep the 6-foot-distance while floating, put-in and take-out locations can be very congested during the hot summer months. Put your mask in a water-proof bag (or dry bag) so you can protect yourself and others when getting on and off the river.
If you ever find yourself off your flotation device, float feet first in a half-sit position. Your jacket will help keep you afloat, and your feet will protect your body and head from river hazards downstream. Use your arms to steer and paddle, working your way diagonally to the shore.
It’s float time: Colorado summer tubing floats
The Cache la Poudre (Poudre River) has many dams and spillways from the Rocky Mountains to the eastern Plains, but there are a few sections safe for tubing. (view map of access points)
Safety Alert: There are many dams and spillways on the Poudre River from Picnic Rock to Prospect Bridge and then below Legacy Park. These sections are not recommended for tubers.
- Filter Plant Run, about four miles from Ted’s Place on Highway 14, offers several access areas, with the furthest about halfway between mile marker 118 and 117, to the takeout at Picnic Rock Natural Area. There are bathroom facilities at Picnic Rock but due to COVID-19, they are closed. Float time: one to three hours.
- In Fort Collins, a shorter float is from Shield Street Bridge to Legacy Park/Lee Martinez Park. There is a parking lot north of the bridge on Shields Street with facilities and a path to (and the entire stretch along) the river. You can get out of the river on the left at Legacy Park. It is marked by a walking bridge over the river that connects Legacy with Lee Martinez Park. Float time: less than one hour.
- Poudre River Whitewater Park in Fort Collins, at College Ave./Hwy 287, opened in October 2019 and has two drops and pathways on both sides for easy access.
LaVern M. Johnson Park in Lyons is a great place to get a few tubing laps in without the hassle of trekking long distances or shuttling. This park has a dozen drop features that start at one end of the park and wrap around to the other end. Just make sure there’s not a festival taking place because this may limit access. Float time: less than one hour.
Safety Alert: There are river hazards between this park and the downstream Lyons Whitewater Park that make tubing dangerous in that section.
UPDATE: Lyons Parks are Closed Until Further Notice – In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of its residents, visitors, employees, and volunteers, Lyons parks facilities will be closed, beginning Saturday, July 18, 2020. Patrons will still be allowed to use the trail system and access the river, but group gatherings, picnicking, pop-ups, and congregating along river will not be permitted. Camping and shelter reservations will be honored.
Steamboat Springs doesn’t just boast ski resorts. The Yampa River runs through town and you can float from Fetcher Pond or Dr. Rich Weiss Park to the Stockbridge Transit Center, but you can make it shorter, too. Float time: one to three hours.
Safety Alert: Check the river flow. Anything greater than 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) on this stretch is not safe for tubers. Below 700 cfs also may be challenging for those who are not strong swimmers or experienced river-goers.
Shuttle tip: You can shuttle in Steamboat using the free city transit, but bus drivers will not let people who are soaking wet or inflated tubes on the bus. You also need your mask to ride on the public transit and because of capacity restrictions, you may not be able to ride the first bus when you get off the river.
The South Platte River runs right through Denver, and depending on flow, can be a great tubing river.
The river runs north from Littleton to Denver’s downtown Confluence Park, a whitewater park that will test your tubing skills.
If you’re looking for more of a float, you can start in at Blackrock Lake Park in Littleton and float about a four-hour stretch to Brent Mayne Baseball Field. For a shorter route, you can get out at Reynolds Landing, right near the Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton.
Clear Creek Water Park in Golden is a dedicated park for tubers that makes it easy to float down to Coors Brewery and then walk back up on the bike path to do it again. For a longer float, take out at Vanover Park.
In Boulder, get on Boulder Creek at Eben G. Fine Park and float to Boulder High School, or for a longer ride, Scott Carpenter Park.
Boulder’s annual Tube to Work Day using this route has been canceled this year because of the pandemic, but they are inviting people to tube to work on their own during the week of July 27-31, and if you work from home, spend an hour working from your tube.
Other Colorado favorites
You can’t beat the San Juan River through Pagosa Springs. It’s easily accessible and right next to the hot springs. The best time to go is late summer, when river levels are usually below 400 cfs.
Montrose has one of the longest water sports parks in the state. Its park, on the Uncompahgre River, is easily accessible from Riverbottom Park. Ride it to the Main Street takeout and walk back along the park’s paths to do it again.