An easy, free-flowing entry to one of Colorado’s most popular and irregular flows

It’s a dream we have while awake: floating the Dolores River without having to wait for water releases from McPhee Dam. The San Miguel River, free-flowing but for a few diversion dams, is that dream, providing an early opportunity to float the Dolores River that many floaters didn’t even know they had.

The scenic San Miguel is floatable at 250 cubic feet per second (cfs) or above (according to Bureau of Land Management guidelines), which, except for drought years, frequently kicks to that level well before the Upper Dolores receives enough water to float a boat.

Dolores via San Miguel - confluence
The confluence of the San Miguel and the Dolores rivers. The San Miguel flows in from the left and the Dolores enters from the top, mixing colors where they meet before exiting stage right.Jan Nesset

So, keep your eyes wide open! When the San Miguel reaches the Dolores River at Mesa Canyon, the two flows join forces and the Dolores River float is no longer a dream. It’s a go!

For floaters looking for a wilderness experience with challenging rapids, the Upper Dolores is worth the wait. For those seeking a warm-up prior to McPhee Reservoir water releases or to simply forego the mindfulness of challenging rapids — and perhaps a crowd — the San Miguel is a splendid entry to a Dolores River trip.

Dolores via San Miguel - Kayaking under the hanging flume
The hanging flume was built in the late 1800s to deliver water to gold-mining operations downstream. Remnants of the flume hold fast and loose to the sandstone, accompanying floaters and serving as a reminder of a bygone era.Jan Nesset

Simply, for anyone looking for a mild adventure, the 35-mile stretch from Uravan to Gateway is replete with calm stretches and easy rapids, the strongest of which rank somewhere between Class II and Class III, depending on flow.

Our team of two self-support kayaks chose to go early, launching the dream on May 18 at the Uravan Ballpark Campground. The spacious campground and convenient put-in is located on the west side of Colorado State Highway 141 (CO 141) at the southern outskirt of the abandoned mining town of Uravan.

Propelled off the sandy bank with a scootch and a grunt, our heavy kayaks lifted onto the San Miguel and quickly caught the current, setting us off. The river flowed at a brisk 800 cfs under steady sunshine and an iffy weather forecast.

Our goal was to paddle the 35 miles to Gateway, and our intent was to smash enough gear into our hulls for two nights out, paddling and hiking side canyons by day. The plan played out perfectly, other than the lack of libations to celebrate a great trip!

Dolores via San Miguel - Peter in blue kayak
The Dolores River flowing at 800 cfs enabled a speedy float and casual navigation. An easy-going mix of foresight and a few paddle strokes handled any potential hazard confronted during this mild float.Jan Nesset

Colorado State Highway 141 accompanies the entire stretch, providing a surplus of access to the river before the roadway climbs from the San Miguel River corridor to traverse 500 feet above the Dolores River in Mesa Canyon. The highway remains nearby, yet through most of Mesa Canyon you can neither see the roadway from the river nor expect to hear the occasional car. Yet the highway is there, hundreds of feet above and perhaps a minute’s walk from the river if both were at the same level.

But forget about the highway. At the foot of the sandstone walls the sights are spectacular and interesting, providing this section of the float with airs of a wilderness journey. Just a few miles into the trip and not far past the confluence you begin to crane your neck, at first to identify the geology. The many layers of sandstone — Wingate, Kayenta, Navajo, Entrada, Morrison, and others — rise and twist, thin and thicken, like a good book.

Then the plot thickens: enter the hanging flume on river right. From where it is first sighted until it disappears miles later, the hanging flume, or trough, built in the late 1800s, clings above in long and short sections. The intent behind the flume was to channel water to facilitate gold-mining operations far downstream. The evidence of the historic effort is striking. You can’t help but imagine the men who aligned and built the structure while suspended on ropes. Deep-, shallow- or no-water hang-dogging, anyone?

Impressive sections of the hanging flume remain, although much of it in the end stages of deterioration. Hewn lumber that has fallen from the structure can be seen occasionally stuck in river debris, some with metal fasteners still attached.

As we lost intimacy with the sandstone walls in the slowly widening valley, the river found the occasional reason to braid into channels, unleashing our inner explorer. Our explorations swept us into riparian thickets full of songbirds, chirping, trilling, peeping.

My paddling partner was wont to say, “the birds are happy!”

Most were. Startled waterfowl would splash into flight, leading us downstream until we met up with the fliers that led us there, until they fluttered off again, taking us farther downstream. And again. That sort of leadership must be exhausting.

Dolores via San Miguel - Camp with hellgrammite
The first camp had it all: shelter from wind, scenery, a trail to Arched Waterfall and a visitor. A hellgrammite (inset), the immature form of a dobsonfly, is a top predator of aquatic insects and prized by anglers as fish bait (for anyone willing to handle one, anyway).Jan Nesset

For both nights we camped riverside in BLM-designated campsites, identified by wobbly brown markers. Primitive camping is also allowed. Our first campsite was dreamy, mostly open and equipped with enough suitable rocks for sitting and use as cooking surfaces. The camp is also the origination of a trail to Arched Waterfall and its water-sculpted pools. We made the most of the trail, marveling wildflowers in bloom on the out-and-back hike.

Dolores via San Miguel - Peering down Waterfall Arch
The hike to Waterfall Arch provides splendid bottom-to-top views of the natural sculpture, and an impressive vantage point from the upper drop.Pete Foster

Our next camp at the mouth of Maverick Canyon was comfortable although situated in a vast thicket of tall grasses, shrubs, saplings, and one small leafy tree that sheltered my bivvy. But no tamarisk, which has hold along sections of the river but not a grasp on all of it! It took a search to find the start to the 1 ½-mile trail to Juanita Arch, but we found it — time and again! — and were not disappointed. We both remarked that Juanita Arch was a highlight of all the arches we’ve seen, due mostly to the mystery behind its formation and location.  

Dolores via San Miguel - Juanita Arch
Juanita Arch in Maverick Canyon is accessed by scrambling 1 1/2 miles on a variety of user trails. You’re just about there when you begin asking yourself, “where in the heck is it?”Jan Nesset

In the final hours to Gateway, we were surprised at the strength of three rapids. Each represented the upper end of Class II, maybe even easy Class III, and in one I finally got my face wet.

Oh, yes, the birds are happy!

BETA

Put-in The Uravan Ballpark Campground is located at the south end of Uravan just off CO 141. There is no fee for the dispersed first-come, first-served camping for tents and RVs. Vault toilets are available but no water.

Meal and Beer Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa. The high-end resort features a reasonably priced menu and a good variety of brews at the Paradox Grille.

Takeout River-right just upstream of the CO 141 bridge.