(Editor’s note: This story was last updated on July 26, 2019)
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, there are Colorado summer tubing floats for you.
Remember, though, it’s your responsibility to be safe by knowing your skill level and being prepared.
This summer, after the snow runoff subsides (this year, think last July through September) check out some of our favorite floats and tips for safely enjoying them.
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. This year, the snow continued to fall in the mountains until early July. Combined with cooler temperatures, the mountain snow pack was slow to come off the mountains and in many places, runoff had just started to calm down by late July.
The amount of upriver snowpack, how fast it melts and geographic characteristics of the terrain all play a factor in a river’s behavior. Upstream rainfall, tributaries, dams and vegetation also affect how and when a river becomes “floatable.” River flows and levels can change within hours.
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.
You can 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, and either cold or sunburned.
- Check the weather forecast before you head out. You never want to be on the river during lightning.
- 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. (And a new study even shows alcohol may actually decrease your skins ability to protect itself from harmful UV). Floating sober is always safest.
- Never take glass on the river. It’s easy to break and dangerous for everyone trying to enjoy the waterways. And for everything else, if you pack it in, pack it out.
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.
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.
- 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. Float time: one to three hours.
- In Fort Collins, a shorter float is from Shield Street Bridge to Legacy 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: one hour.
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.
However, the City of Fort Collins has slated the completion of its whitewater park in late summer 2019, which will be on the river at College Avenue (Highway 287), just north of Old Town.
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.
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.
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. If you time it right — summer Saturdays and late Wednesdays — you can stop in at the farmer’s market and grab some fresh fruit.
Boulder even has a Tube to Work Day using this route. There is no fee, but you must sign a waiver. A helmet and closed-toed shoes are required for the event. This year’s event had to be postponed one week because of high water levels, but it did end up taking place on July 19.
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.