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Book your next surf trip – to Colorado?

Surfing in the mountains gets a boost from man-made waves

SUP riders have toured down rivers and in some cases even charged through rapids for a while now, but until recently river surfing was reserved for brave locals or professionals visiting for contests like the Mountain Games. Moreover, most people who found interest in stand up paddling through rivers were converted kayakers, and the sport had a small following. Lately though, the explosion of the SUP market has brought in a totally new demographic of riders. SUP attracts a different audience than kayaking, drawing in visitors who would normally not consider a trip to the mountains. Traditional surfers bored with flat summer swell, skiers and snowboarders looking for a board sport to occupy their snowless months, and general thrill seekers searching for another outlet all find refuge in mountainous rivers.

Events like the Mountain Games SUP cross helped bring more attention to paddle boarding Colorado’s rivers.

Recent increases in ‘outdoor’ or ‘adventure’ tourism during summer months has mountain towns looking for new ways to attract visitors and cater to their resident’s desires. Bike parks make good use of empty chair lifts during the summer, but they appeal to a relatively small audience. This is where the genius of community whitewater parks truly shines. Recreational Engineering and Planning (REP) is responsible for the construction of everything from paddle trails in Oregon, to improving dams in Michigan, but their whitewater parks in Colorado are the pinnacle of the company’s creativity. The “parks” are anything but a traditional grass field with a sandbox and swing set. Instead, they offer man-made rapids and waves for surfers, SUPers, kayakers, rafters, and even casual tubers to navigate.


Rafters and a kayaker making the most of their multi-use space in Glenwood Springs.

In the same way that oceanic waves differ from one beach to another, no two river waves are the same. However, man has no control over the sea floor’s shape, and differences from one peak to another are at the discretion of mother nature. When waves are created by man, each detail falls under careful inspection to ensure the wave is optimized for its desired usage. Mike Harvey of REP perfectly illustrates the flexibility of a man-made wave in his interview for a Denver Post article:

We had one spot that we built over in Buena Vista that was working for surfing, but in Salida, we had two great kayaking holes. We didn’t need another kayak- specific hole, and from an engineering standpoint we didn’t have a whole lot of gradient left anyway. So we were able to get that little bit flatter slope on the wave that works well with a stand-up board.

The video above from 2011 shows the power of these river waves during a period of unusually high water. While there may not be any stand-up barrels or huge open faces to hack up, these are pretty serious waves for being in a landlocked state. Fins-out slides down the face, big cutbacks, and even some 360’s show a variety of styles. Some riders take a traditional approach with a longer board, while others use the standing wave like a wake off a boat and take a style similar to wake surfing.

We know this isn’t the first rive wave surfed, or the biggest-its been going on in a few European rivers for a while, and The Bono in Sumatra found fame when Tom Curren and the Rip Curl team surfed it in Seven Ghosts. However, Colorado’s river waves have a point of difference that no other freshwater peak will ever have, a community. The majority of Colorado’s whitewater parks are funded municipally, and are built with the entire community in mind, not just core surfers. Most parks feature areas designed for leisure in addition to their rapids. Fishing and swimming areas along with sandy beaches mean that mom and dad can surf and kayak while grandpa fishes and the kids splash in the shallows. Kayak shops now carry surf accessories, and local companies offer boards designed specifically for river riding.

Colorado might not have the nation’s best surf, but it does have one of the most inclusive surf cultures and some of the most unique waves in the world.

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