The Elk River forms between Columbine and Hahn's Peak in the Rocky Mountains of Routt National Forest in Routt County. It is situated in far northern Colorado, just a few miles south of the Wyoming border. The river begins amid tall mountains and dense forests as an expert whitewater kayak only run of Class V to V+ drops, then gradually "flattens" as it approaches the confluence with the Yampa River just west of Steamboat Springs.
Typical of most Colorado streams, the Elk is a picture postcard setting of majestic mountains, giant spruce and fir trees, box canyons, granite gorges, boulder garden rapids, forested banks (on the lower reaches), gorgeous waterfalls and pretty, blue water that turns very white around hazards. The section most frequently paddled begins at an elevation of about 8,100 feet msl, then drops some 800 feet in less than 10 miles before dissolving into a more placid stream over the final 20+ miles to its confluence with the Yampa River near IH 40. The water temperature is very cold, and so is the air, especially at night.
Above Box Canyon Campground the river should only be attempted by properly prepared and outfitted expert whitewater kayakers. Below Box Canyon Campground the Elk is an exciting run for intermediate or higher level whitewater paddlers in canoes, kayaks and rafts. Open canoes should have flotation bags, and a spray cover would not be a bad thing to include. Paddlers should wear drysuits or wetsuits with a base layer to protect against hypothermia.
Routt County of northcentral Colorado, about 3-4 hours from Denver or Grand Junction, depending upon road conditions. The entire Elk River run is within the Routt National Forest boundries.
Durango 390 miles; Grand Junction 215 miles; Denver 170 miles; Albuquerque 600 miles; Salt Lake City 375 miles; Phoenix 845 miles; Oklahoma City 795 miles; Dallas 955 miles; San Antonio 1,125 miles; Houston 1,200 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The Elk River flows very clean, very clear and very cold. Its water quality is excellent, but not drinkable without purification. Snowmelt and late spring rainfall are the primary sources of water in the river.
The prime season for the Elk River is May through June, and sometimes part of July. Its season may be extended by above normal winter snowpack and/or summer rainfall. It can also be shortened or terminated entirely by drier than normal conditions in its watershed. A great fallback is any of several other classic whitewater streams in the close vicinity.
The Upper Elk River (above Box Canyon Campground) is rated Class V to V+ over a length of about 1.3 miles, though it is sometimes possible to begin trips higher up the river. The customary put-in is on the North Fork just above the confluence with the Middle Fork. This section features a box canyon with two big drops, the first of which is a big water slide that is nearly vertical and closely resembles a waterfall, though it is technically not. Shortly after running the first drop comes the "really big shew" known as Box Canyon Falls, a solid Class V+ drop with a boulder garden on river right and a waterfall on river left. The "good" news is the big hole between the waterfall and the boulder garden. Do you feel lucky today? The gradient is about 200 fpm over about 1.3 miles, then the river flattens to a more gentle 64 fpm and Class III rapids below Box Canyon Campground, and becomes even flatter below Clark.
The first practical put-in for the Upper Elk River is on the North Fork just above the confluence with the Middle Fork off 64 Road (take IH 40 from Steamboat Springs west to 129 Road, turn right, go about 17 miles, then turn onto 64 Road) at 0.0 miles; Box Canyon Campground (on 64 Road) at 1.3 miles; River crossing on 64 Road at about 9.7 miles. Numerous other access points may be available between the river crossing on 64 Road and IH 40 near Milner. Scout on the way to the put-in for the best takeout, depending upon your desired trip length. NOTE: Snowdrifts frequently block access to the put-in, so call the NFS office at Eagle (970-328-6388) to determine the state and condition of the access roads.
Hahn's Peak Lake Campground, on river right, at the top of the Elk River near its headwaters; Pearl Lake State Natural Area on river left just below Hahn's Peak Lake Campground; Steamboat Lake State Park on river right just below Pearl Lake S.R.A. There are no other campgrounds in operation on the Elk River. Box Canyon Campground is closed, according to the last report available. Camping may be possible in Routt National Forest - contact the forest office for information. Camping along the river in not an option unless advance permission is obtained.
There are no known liveries or shuttle services operating on or near the Elk River. Plan on providing your own shuttles.
The Elk River offers an interesting and spectacular paddle trip on a tributary of the Yampa River, and sits in close proximity to other great Colorado river runs. It is a place of immense natural beauty, though it does come with cold water and air temperatures that make warm clothing necessary, even in mid-summer. Leave the Upper Elk to expert kayakers, but anybody with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills can really get a kick out of the river below Box Canyon Campground. Be sure to bring a camera to capture many wonderful vistas. Be prepared for a short season of only about 2-3 months. While most people only paddle about 10 miles of the Elk, others will thrill at the chance to paddle all the way down to the Yampa River confluence. Fast paddlers can do that run in a full day, but know your limits and plan accordingly.