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Hanging Flume Canyon: San Miguel & Dolores Rivers

Rivers of the West End | Uravan Ballpark to the Rimrocker Trail
Saturday, May 30, 2020 | Average CFS: 485

I had high hopes of floating more ephemeral desert rivers this spring like I did last year, but unfortunately this year hasn’t quite panned out as well as I had hoped it would. Many of the rivers that I wanted to float this year just haven’t had enough water in them and the snowpack is almost gone in most places, so it’s not looking very good. However, while keeping an eye on the local rivers of western Colorado earlier this month, it was looking like the San Miguel River might be our best chance for a float, so I tentatively planned a trip with Jackson for the last weekend in May through Hanging Flume Canyon and hoped for the best. During the week leading up to this weekend I kept a close eye on the water levels and forecast for the San Miguel and things were looking pretty good, especially with the little heat wave that we experienced towards the end of the week, so on Friday our tentative plans turned into a definitive plan for Saturday and I was really looking forward to getting on the lower San Miguel and Dolores Rivers this year!

The chart below shows the water levels of the San Miguel River leading up to our trip on Saturday and the spike at the end was exactly what I was hoping for with the warmer temperatures. We wanted there to be at least 400cfs for our float through the canyon and the river would peak at just under 500cfs while we were on the water Saturday, which turned out to be a pretty good level. I probably would not want to do this section with much less water than that, though a couple hundred more CFS would probably be good.

On Saturday morning I met up with Chris, Jackson and Amy at the Whitewater Boat Ramp and transferred Chris’ gear into my Jeep so we could ride together, and then we all headed up Unaweep Canyon to Gateway and followed the Dolores River to the bridge that the Rimrocker Trail crosses. This would be our take-out later today, so we left Jackson’s car there and finished the drive to the Ballpark in Uravan where we planned to launch from. There were a bunch of people camped along the river here, so we found a grassy spot on the bank that was unoccupied and started rigging up or boats. It was already very warm out this morning and the water level of the San Miguel was looking good, so I couldn’t wait to get on the river!

The San Miguel River viewed from our launch site at the Uravan Ballpark.

San Miguel Morning

Jackson & Amy

Jackson & Amy

It was a great morning for a float down the San Miguel River.

Morning Float

The San Miguel was moving pretty quick and there were a couple fun drops and rocky rapids in the first few miles of the float.

San Miguel River

Soon the canyon walls started to grow taller and we got our first views of the Hanging Flume clinging to the sandstone walls above us.

Approaching The Hanging Flume

 

The Hanging Flume was an open water chute (known as a flume) built over the Dolores River Canyon in Colorado. The Montrose Placer Mining Company built the flume in the 1880s to facilitate gold mining. Some sections of the flume remain attached to the canyon wall, although much of the wood has vanished.

Construction of the Hanging Flume took three years, beginning in 1887. Approximately 24 workers participated in the build, suspended from ropes onto the cliff face. A derrick may also have been used. The construction used 1.8 million board feet of lumber and ended up with a total cost over $100,000. The timber used was mostly Ponderosa pine, a local tree, and it was supported using iron rods. The completed flume was approximately 12 miles long and up to 75 feet above the river. It began on a dam on the San Miguel River above Uravan, Colorado. The flume’s opening (the headgate) no longer exists, and the connecting ditch has been filled.

The actual wooden flume was 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep. When in use, it conveyed 80,000,000 gallons of water each day.

The flume was only used for three years before being abandoned. The reason was that the mine itself was closed after the discovery that most of the gold was unrecoverable, and the investors in the project only made $80,000 after investing over $1,000,000 into the mine and associated engineering works. After the closure of the mine, local residents reused the timber.

 

The Hanging Flume

Floating through the lower canyon of the San Miguel River.

Canyon Floating

Shortly before reaching the confluence with the Dolores River we floated through a large alcove.

Under the Big Alcove

Hanging Out

Nearing The Confluence

Nearing The Confluence

Chris floating past a pretty large boulder.

Big Boulder

We stopped for lunch on a large island at the confluence. This photo is taken from the point of the island looking down the Dolores River. The character of the river drastically changed when we joined the Dolores River as it was slower with fewer rapids from this point on.

Welcome to the Dolores

Jackson waded out into the middle of the confluence. The Dolores River’s flow was pretty low and stagnant, but the San Miguel was moving pretty quickly through here.

Standing in the Confluence

Lunch time on the island at the confluence.

Lunch Time

Soon we were back on the water and floating down the much slower Dolores River. It was a good time to take a nap.

The Calm Dolores

The views along this section of the river were very nice and reminded me of Slick Rock Canyon further upstream.

On The Dolores

Floating the Dolores River

Below The Flume

Dark clouds started moving into the sky above and it seemed like it could start storming at any moment.

Dolores River Dark Clouds

Here’s a closer look at a section of the historic Hanging Flume that was above us.

Historic Hanging Flume

After floating around a bend in the Dolores River that I’ve photographed from the Hanging Flume Overlook a number of times and then maneuvering our boats through a very boney rapid, we stopped at Flume Camp so we could hike to an arch.

Jackson over The Dolores

We climbed up the trail through the cliff bands to our first view of Flash Flood Pourover Arch.

Flash Flood Pourover Arch

Of course, I climbed above it for a closer look down through the natural bridge.

Flash Flood Pourover

Here’s Chris looking over the edge to give the arch a little scale.

Looking Through the Arch

Looking back to the Dolores River and Hanging Flume from the top of the arch before we started heading back down to the river.

Above the Arch

There was also a large pool located right below the arch, which was pretty cool. One day in the distant future that could become a second arch below.

Arch & Pool

Here’s a cactus wildflower I passed on my way back down the trail.

Cactus Flower

There was a nice view over this part of the Hanging Flume Canyon from along the trail, too.

Hanging Flume Canyon

Back to the boats and ready to get back on the river again. The sun had come out while we were on the hike and made it pretty hot out, so getting back on the water felt pretty nice.

Back to the River

Chris floating under an overhang along the edge of the river.

Under the Overhang

Canyon View

The light on the canyon wall behind Chris was looking nice when I turned around and took this shot.

Chris on The Dolores

Just before reaching the Rimrocker Trail Bridge, we floated through Red Canyon Rapid which was a fun one. We stopped at the ledges along the shore just past the bridge and pulled our boats off the water just before we saw some lightning, heard some thunder and the wind started to pick up. I guess we got off the river at just the right time!

After picking my Jeep up from Uravan, I made a quick stop at the Hanging Flume Overlook on my way back for an overview of the canyon we had just floated through earlier.

Hanging Flume Overlook

I must say, I really enjoyed floating this short section of two different rivers. The scenery was great, plus it’s was pretty easy paddling with enough fun sections so that it wasn’t too boring either. Although some people might consider it an eyesore, I didn’t mind seeing other sections of the historic Hanging Flume along the way, either. I would definitely float both of these rivers again!

>> Hanging Flume Canyon Photo Gallery

3 Comments

  1. Joyce Sanders.
    Joyce Sanders. June 4, 2020

    Thank you for this story and photos. I almost feel that I was there with you.

  2. birder2020
    birder2020 June 5, 2020

    Hi Randy…enjoyed this post, thanks for taking the time to put it up. May I ask what inflatable kayak you use/recommend? I had a 14′ hard shell that I used here on the lake where I live, but they cut the chain and stole it. So I am thinking about going with an inflatable this time. I would very much appreciate your thoughts and advice in this regard. Thank you! Tom McCoppin (sunsetpar@gmail.com; http://www.mccuration.com)

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat June 5, 2020

      Hey Tom, I’ve been using a Tributary Tomcat Tandem for almost 10 years now and I really like it for the rivers around here. Actually, everyone in this trip report is using the same boat. It’s not the most maneuverable kayak around and probably would not be great on a lake, but it’s pretty tough and handles the western rivers well and can easily carry all my gear for a multi-night trip while still having plenty of room for me.

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