By Brian Cooke

What “Wild and Scenic” Actually Means

For some people, the ultimate summer experience in Northern Colorado’s Front Range might be hiking to the top of a fourteener, ziplining across a gorge or spotting bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park. For me, it's whitewater rafting.

Bobby Bloxom, a whitewater rafting guide for Fort Collins-based Mountain Whitewater, has a similar attitude. On a full-day rafting trip last year, Bobby said, “Here in Northern Colorado, we ski or snowboard on the snow in the winter, raft on it when it melts and then we make beer out of it in Fort Collins.”

I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but there’s something about the excitement, the scenery and the rugged wildness of the Cache la Poudre River Canyon that reminds me why I moved to Fort Collins nearly 10 years ago.

As you may have heard, the Cache la Poudre River (also known as the Poudre River) is Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress 50 years ago to preserve certain river sections that have outstanding natural, cultural or recreational values. For the Poudre River, the federal designation means that 30 miles of the river have been recognized for being “wild” (undeveloped), while 46 miles have been recognized for their recreational uses, which include fishing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, riverside camping and hiking. Both of the Poudre’s designated river sections are in Roosevelt National Forest, which covers more than 800,000 acres west of Fort Collins.

The Poudre River’s federal designations also mean that these river sections are managed in a particular way by the U.S. Forest Service.

Specifically, they’re protected from alterations or uses that could harm their wild and scenic nature. One example of this is that a limited number of outfitter-led rafts and rafters are allowed on the designated areas of the river every day. This makes it easier for people on the river to enjoy the scenery, as opposed to dealing with great crowds of visitors. Nearly all of the commercial whitewater rafting trips occur in the lower part of the canyon, downstream from a particularly turbulent section called The Narrows.

I try to go whitewater rafting on the Poudre at least once a year — preferably once as a white-knuckle, shoot-the-rapids full-day trip in June, followed by a half-day, lower-water, fun-in-the-sun trip in late July, when the flow is lower. Last year, I took my second trip in mid-July and found out that this middle-season can be the mellowest time of year to go. Earlier in the season, you get more speed and fewer obstacles. Later in the season, when the water is lower and more rocks are exposed, the river can become something like a pinball machine, with the raft being the pinball. It’s what the outfitters call a more “technical” experience. The middle season provides relatively few bursts of excitement but it allows for more leisurely appreciation of the local scenery.

If you keep your eyes open and listen to your guide, you may see bighorn sheep, a pair of bear sculptures made of barbed wire (they’re nicknamed Rusty and Tetanus), and rock outcrops such as the Kissing Gorillas. And most whitewater guides will keep you posted on the river section nicknames, such as “The Quarter Mile of Chaos.”

While the Wild and Scenic River status is something for locals to boast about, one can also describe the Poudre River area simply as a local treasure. Whether your adrenaline tolerance extends to a whitewater adventure or simply watching the rafts float by from the comfort of the Mishawaka restaurant, a Poudre Canyon visit is a marvelous way to spend a day in the Fort Collins area.

Additional information on whitewater rafting can be found by contacting one of Fort Collins’ several river outfitters. Additional information on the federally designated sections of the Poudre River can be found by visiting or contacting the Canyon Lakes Ranger District Visitor Center on 2150 Centre Avenue in Fort Collins.

A volunteer blogger for Visit Fort Collins, Brian Cooke has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years. His past volunteer work has included leading night tours on Alcatraz, where he learned to embrace his inner tourist. Brian currently writes for a market research firm and for the U.S. Forest Service. He also writes blogs for History Colorado. Brian’s LinkedIn page is