The slap of a beaver’s tail. A cacophony of birdsong. A moose crashing through the brush. These are the sounds you’re likely to hear on a paddleboard float through the approximately three-mile Stillwater section of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen. Meandering through wildlife-welcoming wetlands and the North Star Nature Preserve, the river here, as the name suggests, is mostly flat, peaceful, and amazingly clear—inviting your gaze to wander from skyscraping mountain peaks in the distance to down under the water’s surface, where trout dart in all directions and hover in deep, tea-colored pools.
“The gift of that place is the solitude,” says Jim Kravitz, naturalist programs director for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. “And the real treat is being able to go right down the middle of all these creatures doing their thing. But you’ll only see these things if you act in a sensitive way.”
Which means that timing and a respectful attitude are key to this unique river experience. Kravitz advises visiting in small groups, staying quiet, and “having your observation senses tuned in.” Go early or late in the day, when wildlife activity increases and human use decreases—but note that the preserve is closed from dusk to dawn. And stay on your board, as the land on either bank is either privately owned or reserved for wildlife.
Stillwater is easily accessed from Highway 82, though parking is limited at the popular Wildwood put-in and nonexistent at the North Star bridge takeout. Ask a friend or hire a shuttle company to drop you off and pick you up, or use South Gate (about two-thirds of the way downriver from Wildwood, where parking is plentiful) as your put-in or takeout—or both, by paddling upstream first.
Other Must-Paddle Destinations
• The Roaring Fork River downstream of Carbondale (putting in by Highway 133 and taking out at Ironbridge) is a good introduction to whitewater on a sun-soaked seven-mile stretch of moving but relatively mellow water with small waves and one Class II rapid—perfect for getting your river feet wet. Go with a guide the first time; Shaboomee does tours and instruction, starting at $450 per person.
• Ready for real whitewater? The Grizzly section of the wider, more voluminous Colorado River offers six miles of fast-flowing Class II and III rapids for experienced paddlers. The put-in is at the Grizzly Creek exit off of I-70, and takeout is at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs.
• Rent a couple of paddleboards (or Shaboomee’s 22-foot, six-person Dragon Slayer SUP) and head way up the Fryingpan Valley to Chapman Lake with the whole family. The day-use area offers convenient parking, picnic tables, and a well-shaded shoreline for lounging in camp chairs and keeping an eye on things. Bonus: a lakeside campground with 84 must-reserve sites.
• Long, mountain-hemmed Ruedi Reservoir, about 15 miles up the Fryingpan River from Basalt, features 12 miles of shoreline and several bays to explore. You can get a good workout here, although be aware of strong afternoon winds. Park and launch from the boat ramp near the dam, from Freeman Mesa about halfway up the lake, or from the Dearhamer Campground day-use area at its mouth (all $8/day).
• In search of a more solitary SUP experience? Take a hike. Hundreds of lakes can be found along trails in higher, more remote reaches of the Roaring Fork Valley, including many up the Fryingpan and up Lincoln Creek Road near Independence Pass. Many paddleboards roll up nicely into backpack-style carrying bags; for longer hikes in, rent Shaboomee’s lightweight split-SUP—designed specifically for the task.
Chapman Lake and Dearhamer for camping (recreation.gov); Aspen Kayak & SUP (970-618-2295, aspenkayakacademy.com) for lessons; Aspen Whitewater Rafting (970-920-3511, aspenwhitewater.com) and Blazing Adventures (970-923-4544, blazingadventures.com) for trips, rentals, and Stillwater shuttles; Elk Mountain
Expeditions (970-456-6287, elkmtnaspen.com) for rentals including Stillwater shuttle; Shaboomee (970-315-2224, shaboomee.com) for rentals, trips, instruction, sales, repairs, and special events. Besides Shaboomee, local ski and snowboard manufacturer High Society Freeride Company (970-232-2953, highsocietyfreeride.com) also makes and sells a full line of stand-up paddleboards—both are the brands of choice for locals.