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Colorado is gearing up for its “biggest river surfing season ever”

New river parks, paired with big runoff flows, are setting the stage for an endless summer of surfing in Colorado.

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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

Surf’s up Colorado.

With new river parks, big flows and a swelling roster of whitewater surfers itching to carve after last summer’s meager trickles, the river surfing wave is about to flood Colorado.

“The biggest river surfing season ever is on tap,” says Mike Harvey, the river park engineer and co-founder of Salida’s Badfish SUP. His son, Miles, is one of Colorado’s top-ranked river surfers. “Interest in river surfing right now is ridiculous. Last year people struggled to find a place to surf and this year the state is going to go Richter. There are going to be people all over the place trying to surf.”

And they will have plenty of choices. There are at least 10 whitewater parks and roadside river  waves in Colorado with features that accommodate stand-up paddling and surfing. The rare Big Sur — a river-wide wave atop an old dam in DeBeque Canyon that emerges when Colorado River flows edge past 20,000 cubic-feet-per-second — is likely to break for the second or third time in the last decade, drawing hordes of wave riders from across the West. There’s even a Colorado River Surfing Association, fostering a community of wave riders across the state.

“It kind of feels like this is all happening overnight,” says Brittany Parker, one of the country’s top SUP paddlers who lives in her van and, yes, it’s often parked down by the river.

Spencer Lacy and Brittany Park surf on the Arkansas River in Salida’s river park last year. (Heather Jackson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Why this summer? “It’s just accessible now”

Parker typically spends her year traveling the country, chasing river waves in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, West Virginia and Colorado. This summer, she’s renting a driveway in Glenwood Springs and plans to contain her roaming to Colorado’s rivers and parks.

“With all the parks around the state, it’s just accessible now and there’s this whole community based around surfing rivers,” says Parker, who serves as the Western Slope director for the Colorado River Surfing Association, which formed last year.

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The river-surfing tsunami in Colorado was triggered in large part by the surfing features at the $15 million River Run Park, which opened on the South Platte River in 2016. The urban park regularly hosts dozens of surfers, most riding without paddles and carving short boards built for ocean waves. River Run Park, south of Denver, in Sheridan, exposed river surfing to a huge population and its patented adjustability system — developed by Denver’s McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group — can conjure surfable waves at any flow.

“Those adjustable features being put into more urban areas, that is attracting people that aren’t necessarily from the river or whitewater paddling background,” Parker says. “All these new parks, it’s drawing in more people and creating more awareness that we don’t have to travel to the ocean now to scratch that itch.”

Brittany Parker surfs the Pocket Wave on the Animas River in Durango’s Whitewater Park earlier this year. (Heather Jackson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado anchors the river SUP movement

Stand-up paddling on rivers has been growing in Colorado for the past decade, with the state pretty much anchoring the river SUP movement. Three SUP board makers in Colorado — Badfish, Hala and Sol, all of which now design a flotilla of surfboards built for river waves — have driven the scene, offering a wide array of river boards built specifically for whitewater, racing, long trips and surfing. Surfing has grown from the progression of downriver stand-up paddling in the last couple years, with more and more people ditching the paddle and riding waves that were initially built to host surfing, spinning kayakers.

“That’s the number one question we are asking people these days: ‘You want to do this with or without a paddle?’” says Sean Glackin, the owner of the Alpine Quest Sports shop in Edwards.

And more people are telling the staff at the kayaking-turned-surf shop they don’t want a paddle.

More river surfers mean outfitters stocking up

“We are definitely seeing an uptick in the last couple months. We have had to tweak our offerings to have more surf-specific board designs and more surf wetsuits, more leashes, more fins,” says Glackin, who first offered inflatable stand-up paddle boards more than a decade ago and now caters to surfers playing in Eagle’s new riverpark. “I think people are seeing how they can do a lunchtime or after-work surf session and they don’t have to worry about lining up a bunch of people or setting up a shuttle. They know there will always people down at the waves.”

Peter Hall, the Steamboat Springs boss behind Hala Gear, has designed 18 different inflatable stand-up boards since he founded the company in 2011. This season, his short, inflatable river surf boards are hotter than ever.

“Our river board demand is up heavily,” says Hall, who earlier this year bought Colorado Kayak Supply Online, one of the nation’s largest online river equipment dealers. “I think people know this will be a great year to explore. We are back ordered on almost everything. We are also seeing more people on all sorts of crafts — catarafts and whitewater kayaks are moving.  People are stoked on the fact that there is still snow at even lower elevations.”

Johnny Lombino, the owner of Telluride’s Sol Boards, is seeing a spike in demand for his inflatable surf designs as well.

“We are seeing the overall vibe us up, just much more positive this year, especially after a year like the last one, where the water was just so low,” Lombino says. “We are seeing people really ready to get back out and make up for the year they lost. And it’s not just river surfing. Our downriver boards, our overnight boards, we are seeing an overall increase in interest.”

Whitewater parks reanimate recreation economy

Across Colorado, whitewater parks have become community centerpieces, drawing not just visitors but animating recreational offerings that draw new residents and businesses. The Town of Eagle next week will unveil its sales-tax funded $12 million park on the Eagle River, with two of the four adjustable whitewater features designed to host surfboards. Pueblo is working on a new surfing feature at its river park on the Arkansas River. Salida plans rework a feature at its park for surfing this fall. Plans are underway to install adjustable, surf-friendly features in Confluence Park on the South Platte River in central Denver.

“I think that municipalities are just becoming aware of river surfing and now and it’s considered from the start of a project, with surfers a user group they want to accommodate,” says Harvey, who has helped design dozens of river parks for Boulder’s pioneering Recreational Engineering and Planning, which is retweaking some of its older parks, as well as designing newer parks with glassy waves for surfing.

Jed Selby, a former pro kayaker, sees more surfers than kayakers in the Buena Vista river park he built more than a decade ago for boaters. He had one wave redesigned to be more friendly for surfing and one of the waves, initially built for kayaking, ended up being one of the most popular surf waves in the state without any tweaking.  

“Oh for sure we see more surfers than kayakers. It’s just a more approachable sport,” says Selby, whose South Main community project is built around the park on the Arkansas River. “I mean, I go river surfing with my 2-year-old and she stands up on the board and is stoked. It’s a sport for everyone.”

Brittany Parker and friends surf the Colorado River’s rare Big Sur wave in DeBeque Canyon in 2015. (Heather Jackson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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