The Crystal River near Marble is known for providing some of the most intense and challenging kayaking in the United States. Not only is the whitewater incredibly interesting and difficult, the scenery above the waves is some of the world’s most spectacular.
In fact, some of the routes near Marble that have gained fame through magazine articles and film productions were first pioneered as late as the 1990’s. The relative difficulty of kayak routes through whitewater is classified on a scale of I to VI, with VI being the most difficult and perhaps unnavigable. On the Crystal River above Marble, all of the whitewater is rated at least Class V, with several sections considered completely unnavigable.
Below Marble, the whitewater sections are classified III and IV, so even the “easy” sections are more difficult than most rivers. Even accessing the upper sections of the river is difficult. Paddlers must drive into the put-in via a rough 4x4 jeep road to Lead King Basin. The descriptions here are from top to bottom, starting at Lead King Basin and ending at Redstone.
For extreme kayakers looking for the ultimate challenge, the North Fork of the Crystal River from Lead King Basin is the place to go. There is a ½-mile section that begins just below Lead King Paul’s cabin (see 4x4 routes for description) that is an amazing run of continuous Class V+ whitewater with a very steep gradient. Pioneered in the early 1990’s by Paul Tefft, Scott Young, Dave Pizzuti, and John Placek, the section features several monster waterfall drops and segments where boaters slide along tilted shale shelves before plunging into pools. The route must be scouted well in advance, because if paddlers go too far, they end up dropping off a 50-foot waterfall that plunges into a pile of rocks. It’s best to paddle this section with someone who has done it before, and with several other boaters.
A mile below the North Fork of the Crystal section is an easier route of Class III-Class IV whitewater, the Crystal Mill Falls to the Crystal Gorge. If boaters want a thrill at the start of the journey, they can drop the Crystal Falls right next to the world-famous Crystal Mill. (Run the center of the tongue and bear right. Left is bad news.) The route goes three miles downstream to the place where the road descends from Lizard Lake to the river. If you miss the take-out, you’ve got a long, very difficult day ahead of you. Otherwise, the run is non-stop action on gorgeous whitewater. Be advised that this section of river passes through several huge avalanche chutes, which can cast up significant debris in the winter. That leftover debris can cause sudden and dangerous impediments in the channel, so scout carefully before you get in your boat.
Right below the take-out for the Crystal Mill run is the famous Crystal Gorge. Boaters who embark upon this section should be very experienced, well prepared, and ready to rock.
The Crystal Gorge has an unbelievable gradient of 400 feet per mile, thanks in part to several monster drops of 40-50 feet, and its Class V+ rating is well deserved. Though the section is only 1.8 miles, plan most of the day to accomplish it. The entire section is navigable except the precipitous Miller Falls at the end, a series of 50-footers that will certainly end in disaster. There is a ½-mile downhill portage around Marble Falls before the take-out at Beaver Lake.
Much of the gradient comes from Zute Chute, a 40-foot drop, and Perfect Piton, another mondo waterfall. The gorge itself is divided into two sections: Upper Gorge and Lower Gorge. The Upper Gorge is fairly open and can be scouted, and boaters can bail out and portage up an old miner’s trail if the Lower Gorge seems too intimidating.
Once in the Lower Gorge, however, boaters have passed the point of no return. The canyon walls are very narrow and vertical, and there’s no chance of bailing out. Zute Chute beckons, and cannot be scouted from above. Take a left route at the top of the falls to land in the middle of the pool below. River right means disaster!
The next big drop is Perfect Piton, where it seems like there’s light at the end of the canyon, but it also seems like there’s something huge ahead, and there is—Marble Falls. Get out here and portage around, then get back in the river and paddle down to Beaver Lake.
(Note: Some of the kayaking guidebooks have misnamed “Marble Falls” as “Miller Falls.” In turn, the ice climbing guidebooks have misnamed “Milton Falls” as “Marble Falls.” Let’s get it straight: “Marble Falls” is located above Beaver Lake in the Crystal Gorge. It is NOT to be called “Miller Falls”. “Milton Falls” is located just south of the west end of the Marble airstrip, near Mile Marker 4 on County Road 3. This is the waterfall formed by Milton Creek cascading off the creek—consequently, “Milton Falls.” It is NOT “Marble Falls.”)
The river doesn’t flow through Beaver Lake, so get out where it looks like you’re even with the lake and carry your boat over the dike. Paddle across the lake and you’ll end up at the Beaver Lake parking lot.
A side trip for thrill-seeking, very capable kayakers is Yule Creek, which pours out of the mountain from above the Yule Marble Quarry. Some kayakers portage their boats upstream to try this death-defying run, while others start right at the quarry. It’s a 4-mile stretch of very difficult Class V+ whitewater that sluices down a narrow canyon with a rapid rate of descent. Information is sketchy on this run, but the word is that it’s one of the most difficult and intense runs in the Marble area, with lots of slides, tricky waves, and plunging whitewater. Kayakers must do their scouting in advance.
For kayakers seeking a nice ride but nothing death-defying, the run from Beaver Lake to the Prospect Mountain Ranch is a fun one. At about 4 miles in length, it’s a stretch of Class II-Class IV whitewater with a challenging drop across from the Marble cemetery. Look for giant blocks of marble refuse along the Millsite Park in Marble, which can create hazards. The take-out is on the WEST (downstream) side of the bridge below the Ute Meadows Inn, across from the Prospect Mountain Ranch and just below Rapid Creek.
For a short run, try the Bogan Canyon shot from the Prospect Mountain Ranch to Bogan Flats campground along County Road 3. This is Class III-IV whitewater that is fairly bony in spots, challenging for intermediate boaters, and fun. The scenery is good, and the meat of the rapids lies in the stretch between the bridge and the campground. County Road 3 is located well above the river, so it feels more like a wilderness setting. The water below the campground is fairly easy for the next 2-3 miles until you reach the narrows below the Placita Trail along Highway 133.
From Placita to Redstone is some beautiful challenging Class III-IV whitewater, but beware of hazards. In particular, the bridges between Placita and Hays Creek Falls are low and dangerous, and have been the scene of a couple of deaths as kayakers’ boats became pinned sideways against the bridge abutments. If there is debris from spring runoff, these spots can be particularly dangerous, and can be easily avoided by getting out and portaging across the road.
Please note that the last 1 ½ miles above Redstone, the Redstone Preserve, is private fishing access for guests who pay a fairly steep rod fee, and no fishing or trespassing is allowed. If there are anglers on the water, stay out of their way and don’t stop and walk around.
The 1 ½-mile stretch through Redstone is very placid and glass-smooth most of the year, but just below the north entrance to town is one of the most intense whitewater chutes to be found anywhere in America. Meatgrinder is an aptly named Class V monster, from the gigantic red boulders that make up the rapids to the whitewater churning at disparate angles through very rapid falls. Meatgrinder is best run when the water is running between 500 and 1,100 cubic feet per second. Anything over that and it is absolutely unforgiving and perhaps unsurvivable. Only the most experienced and skilled kayakers should attempt Meatgrinder.
Another mile below Meatgrinder, kayakers will find some of the most famous kayaking in Colorado. Penny Hot Springs marks the beginning of The Narrows, where a granite cliff formation known as Hell’s Gate pinches the river in from both sides. This is an intense two-mile stretch of Class IV-Class V whitewater that will challenge any boater. While the whitewater is fairly straightforward, the waves are big and close together. The trick here is to stay right-side-up, because there is a great deal of sharp, rocky rubble in the channel that will make any upside-down boater’s face look like hamburger. The takeout is at Avalanche Creek, which is Mile Marker 57 on Colorado 133.
From Avalanche Creek to the BRB Resort is a 5-mile stretch of Class III whitewater more suited to intermediate paddlers. This run parallels Highway 133 down the Crystal towards Carbondale through red sandstone formations. It can easily be scouted from the road.
Whitewater rafters should note that the first recommended access for rafts begins at Penny Hot Springs through the Narrows, past Avalanche Creek to the BRB Resort, and on down to Carbondale. However, this stretch is only navigable at fairly high water. If it’s a year of skimpy runoff or later in the season, rafts will find the channel too shallow. Halfway between Redstone and Carbondale, boaters will begin to see many irrigation diversion structures that significantly reduce the flow of the stream. Rafts can negotiate the Crystal all the way down from Penny Hot Springs to Carbondale if there’s enough flow. None of the routes near Marble are recommended for rafters.
Inner tubers sometimes have fun floating from Beaver Lake or the Marble Millsite Park down to the Prospect Mountain Ranch. Later in the summer, this is possible. During spring runoff and through late June, it is absolutely not recommended. Even later in the summer, there are many hazards, sharp rocks, logs, and tough going. From the Marble cemetery down to the Ute Meadows Inn is private property.
Fishermen typically move up and down a river much slower than a kayaker. Their general pattern of movement is upstream, where the fish remain undisturbed. It is considered extremely poor form to “eddy out” within 50 or 100 yards of a fisherman. Your kayak may spook fish that he was planning to stalk. Please be considerate, and if you need to eddy out, do it on the opposite side of the river or DOWNSTREAM of a fisherman.
Trespassing: Colorado law is somewhat unclear on the concept of trespassing while floating a river. While it has generally been accepted that navigable rivers can be floated, even over private property, several legal concepts of private property must be made very clear to visitors:
Danger: Kayakers who attempt any of the routes described here should be well aware that most of the routes are extremely dangerous and any descriptions provided here are for informational purposes only and are not intended as a route planner. Anyone who attempts to kayak in the Marble area should scout the route thoroughly before embarking, and there are certain to be hazards that are not described here. On the routes above Marble in particular, kayakers must recognize that only very experienced and capable paddlers should attempt the routes, and that the risk of accident, injury, or death is very real. An excellent guidebook for these routes is “Colorado Rivers and Creeks” by Gordon Banks and Dave Eckardt, ISBN 0-9645399-0-X. The book is very informative and entertaining and contains more detail that you will find here.