Cache La Poudre River - Big South



Ask a seasoned Colorado kayaker what their favorite run in the state is, and more times than not you’ll hear the words “Big South” in their response.  High up the Cache La Poudre river drainage, melting off the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain National Park, this gem funnels its way through relatively unspoiled high altitude forests and meadows.  In California, this run might blend in with the crowd, but in Colorado, this stands out as a long stretch of quality whitewater in a wilderness setting.  It’s not uncommon to find East coast boaters staked out at this run on a summer road trip and Fort Collins locals always abound.  


Despite this run having a relatively long season, access is a constant battle.  The typical put-in involves driving up Long Draw Road and putting in on Weird Creek at the base of Long Draw Reservoir.  Unfortunately, the Forest Service rarely opens the road before July 4th, when most of the runoff has already occurred.  In some years, the road is closed for the entire boating season.  The reasons given  for the closure are inconsistent.  Generally the Forest Service sites concerns over the campgrounds being used before they are dry, even though there has been a successful precedent for day use access only.  This is one of the most disappointing access issues in all of Colorado.


If the road isn’t open, there are two subpar options for getting on the run.  The first option allows access to the bottom portion of the run.  A casual two hours of hiking and lake paddling will gain access to the top of Prime Time Gorge (see the “Access” tab).  The only reasonable way to access the full run when the gate is closed is to drive into Rocky Mountain National Park and put-in for a “source” run (i.e. putting in near the source of Big South proper). This is usually done as an overnight trip and requires a long shuttle.  The source put-in to the run proper adds an extra 4-6 hours on the water and can involve a lot of boat dragging and hiking if the water level and/or snow situation is less than ideal.


So what’s all the fuss about?  The Big South has it all.  Serious class V boaters can test their skills on a few larger solid class V rapids, but competent IV-V boaters can enjoy numerous fun class IV and several V- drops with some portages around the big ones.  The run has a section of steep unnatural mank, a nice stretch of pool drop creek boating, a double drop into a massive hole, a long complex rapid, clean 8 foot boofs, and countless technical boulder gardens all through a beautiful high forest wilderness area.


When Long Draw Road opens in early July and there is water in the creek, Big-South-apalooza usually ensues.  Boaters from across the state tend to show up on the weekend about the same time and parties criss-cross as they make their way down the river.  The day either starts at the top of Weird Creek or a few hundred yards above the Weird Creek and Big South confluence, depending on the amount of water being released from Long Draw and the party’s tolerance for gear abuse weighed against hiking.  


Weird Creek is an unnatural riverbed that offers some entertainment at the price of significant boat abuse.  Rock Lobster is the signature drop, that although slightly steeper than the rest of the creek, it isn’t that much different.  It comes near the end of the creek and involves a manky entrance followed by a sharp turn to avoid wood, and a manky runout.


Shortly after Rock Lobster, the Big South proper enters from the right.  Enjoy the added flow and meander a ways further until the action starts.  The upper portion of this run looks very unlike most of Colorado.  Slow meandering pools are punctuated by several larger drops.  For the most part, horizon lines are obvious and ought to be scouted.  Cool World, the largest drop in the upper section, has a deceptively mellow lead in and can sneak up on the inattentive boater.


The upper and lower stretches are divided by a 2 mile section of class II.  I suggest thinking of it as a break before the fun kicks into gear on the lower stretch.  The lower stretch has a more continuous nature and becomes increasingly so the further downstream you travel.  At normal flow, eddies abound and even large groups are manageable.  Enjoy several fun mini gorges, two larger rapids, and more fun class IV than you’ll likely be able to keep track of on your first run down.  If you want to look like a veteran, pack bug spray.



Check out the Poudre Rock Report (external link) for the latest gauge info.  There is a marked rock (6 marks) under the bridge at the takeout that is commonly used to measure the flow on the Big South (don't confuse this with the Pineview Falls rock gauge).  The gauge listed for this run is only for the outflow from Long Draw reservoir and does not include the natural flow draining out of RMNP on the main stem of the Big South.  Below is a rough translation of the rock gauge (measured by the mark the water line is touching):

1.5 = very low (consider running only the lower half)

1.5 - 3 = low 

3 - 6 = medium

All marks buried = high


Class V to V+
Current Flow 110.0 CFS
06-26-2019 08:45
Recommended Flow Minimum: 150.0
Average: 350.0
Maximum: 800.0
Typical Season Begins: May
Ends: September
Recommended Use Kayaking: Yes
Rafting: No
Canoeing: No
Packrafting: No
Fishing: No
Length 12.0 Mile(s)
Gradient FPM

Big South Put-in

07-12-2010 - Weird Creek put-in

Photo By: Kevin Cripps

Subject: Jake Vos, Texas Ken