Piedra River (First Gorge)
|Stretch:||USFS 622 to Piedra|
|Difficulty:||Class III to IV|
|Flows:||500 to ~3,500 cfs. USGS Piedra River in Arboles gauge|
|Gradient:||98 fpm average in the Canyon, 56 fpm average overall|
|Put-in:||USFS 622 bridge|
|Take-out:||Disperse camping on USFS 622 across from the USFS Lower Piedra Campground|
|Shuttle:||10.7 miles, (30 minutes one-way, all good dirt)|
|Season:||Spring off snowmelt|
|Featured in Video A Wet State #159|
Colorado Road Trip 2021: Day 4
The original plan was to head into Durango and do the town section of the Animas. Backing up further, we had planned to camp in Durango, but due to a bike race happening the next morning and the associated road closure, we had to camp on the Silverton side of the pass so that we could get to the Upper Animas put-in.
But, upon waking up, I had just enough service to see that the Piedra was in and had some whitewater on it. I sent a few notes to friends to find out if it was worthwhile and got the thumbs up. So, rather than the town run on the Animas, a new location was planned.
First however, we met up with my second cousin who lives in Pagosa Springs who I haven't seen for some 15 years. To boot, his mom, who lives in Alaska, who I hadn't seen since my wedding was in town visiting him so we also got to see her too! Nice family visit to start the day!
This was the first time that the guidebook led us a bit astray. It indicated to be on the Durango side of the river at the campground for the takeout. However this cannot be right. Instead, be on the Pagosa Springs side and there is dispersed camping along the river just before the road pulls away. This is for sure the correct take out as if the official campground is full then you would have no options on the other side. Plus, this side is is the same side as the road to put-in so that is just convenient.
This run starts off immediately entering a beautiful canyon that surpassed my expectations. You will figure out on the drive in that escape would not be easy, so plan to boat out. While most descriptions only describe two main rapids, we actually thought some of the others were more difficult than the first. This was a nice surprise as there was more entertainment than we had expected. Not too far downstream of the second one however, the river mellows out. You will see a hot springs on the left if the water is low, and then the long splashy paddle out begins. It moves the hole way, but despite the hot day, the endless splashing caused both of us to get cold. It was a good eye opener on the continuous splashing nature of Colorado whitewater prior to getting on the Upper Animas the following day. Needless to say, we put more layers on and wore our drysuits that day!
For the record, we had 780 cfs which is low, but certainly no where near too low. Honestly, it felt like a South East medium. But when snowmelt sends things to 3,000 cfs in a regular year and it gets run at those flows, yea 780 is going to be on the low end of the spectrum. But I guess for the paddle out, 780 did require active paddling to avoid rocks where I am sure at 1,500 cfs that is not a problem at all. But still, it was a find flow and very worthwhile day. And, if you have more time to spend, you could do the Second Gorge (for some reason these gorges are counted upriver from take-out, so the second gorge is upstream) which requires a longer shuttle around the first gorge and included with the first gorge results in a 19 mile day.
- Canyon Entrance (II+ to III-). The canyon walls pinch in front of you and you have a mellow rapid that commits you downstream progress into the canyon.
- Welcome to Piedra (III to IV). This two step rapid really gets the action going. The first step we ran right moving center. Downstream was a fluffy hole that we ran left of center.
- First Falls (III+ to IV). This was a fluffy drop and I don't see mention of it anywhere but it was bigger than the first mudslide, so that is weird. Anyways, we ran the main left channel, but drove hard right to avoid the hole at the top on the left. We then straightened up for the big hole at the bottom and punched that.
- Wall Shot (III). A nice section of rapids culminates in a run down the left wall that looks bad from above but ends up being total find. Just make sure to move right at the end as there is a pocket on the left wall at the end.
- First Mudslide (III to IV). A nice mellow line was down the far left. Or a nice boof was right of center. The boof is backed up by a rock so just make sure you clear out of the hole. I bet at high flows this one gets worse, but at low flows it was really straight forward.
- Second Mudslide (IV to IV+). What a fun rapid. Scout right. There is a trail just off the river to aid in this. The entrance was narrow and boiley but was easy enough to line up the main drop. The main drop you want to run center moving right to boof the large hole below. Diane scouted and neglected to tell me about the hole to the hole typewritered me left and towards the pin rocks, thankfully I straightened out and went right between them. The river then quickly moves into the exit. The exit splits around an island and apparently collects wood. The left channel especially. So we went down the right channel and ran the stair step drop center and then moving back left to rejoin the flow.
- Hot Springs (I to II). On the left there is a hot springs at low flow. Below here, the river mellows out even more and the paddle out is splashy but uneventful. A few bridges are passed under, but those are private. There is nice scenery to keep you entertained though so that is nice.
Take-out: Between the towns of Durango and Pagosa Springs, on US-160 is a small town of Piedra. On river left (the Pagosa Springs side) of the river is a dirt road, FS622. Take this. Follow it for less than a mile, just before it pulls up and away from the river, park.
Put-in: Continue on FS-622 for 10.7 miles, climbing steeply on the dirt road, precariously along the cliffs, until you descend down to the bridge over the river. Park here. Google calls this Piedra Hunter Campground but it didn't seem official or anything, I am not sure.
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