On the Arkansas River

Early evening fun on the Arkansas.

The Arkansas River is a mighty and magnificent watercourse — no question about it. The nation’s sixth-longest river at 1,469 miles, the Arkansas travels from Colorado through Kansas and Oklahoma before ending its journey in Arkansas, where it empties into the Mississippi. But I like it best at its beginning.  

The Arkansas starts as a series of meandering streams in a 12,000-foot-high alpine basin near the Continental Divide above Leadville in Lake County.

Fed by snowmelt from the surrounding Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges, its icy-cold, crystal-clear headwaters splash across tundra-like meadows and flow downward through dense stands of pine, spruce and aspen before emerging 14 miles later in a broad valley just south of 10,152-foot-elevation Leadville.

By the time it reaches this geographical jumping-off point, the Arkansas is already a major water resource: It’s a fishery, a downstream source of drinking and irrigation water, and a wildly popular recreational river for kayaking and whitewater rafting that is the most commercially rafted river in the country.

But its path, both hydrologically and historically speaking, hasn’t always been easy.

Known to early French explorers as the “Riviere des Ark” or “Riviere d’Ozark,” the Arkansas River is a combination of waters from several tributary sources.

The primary source is the East Fork of the Arkansas, a creek draining the Fremont Pass area of the Climax Molybdenum Mine and Colo. 91 from the northeast. 

Other important sources are Tennessee Creek, which flows into the river from the north at Tennessee Pass.

From the west, two upstream reservoirs — Lake Fork, a stream that was dammed to create Turquoise Lake, and Lake Creek, dammed to greatly enlarge Twin Lakes — also empty into the river.

East of present-day Leadville, Evans Gulch, Iowa Gulch and California Gulch drain into the Upper Arkansas.

And this is where the river’s troubles began.

In 1859, placer gold was discovered in California Gulch by prospectors working its tributaries.

This proved to be just the first in a series of discoveries that put Leadville on the map as one of the frontier West’s wildest, roughest, richest mining camps and turned it into a treasure trove that yielded some $200 million in gold, silver, lead and zinc by 1900.

But to continue mining these valuable ores, a method had to be developed to eliminate flooding in hundreds of miles of abandoned and active underground workings below the natural water-table level. So drainage tunnels were built to de-water the district’s mines.

The Yak Tunnel was constructed in 1906, and work began on the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel in 1943.

Disposing of the acidic, heavy-metal-laden water from these tunnels was a simple matter:

The water drained by gravity through the already ravaged confines of California Gulch, then emptied directly into the Arkansas — where the consequences were devastating.

While the river’s headwaters remained pristine, the water below Leadville began turning a rusty orange, especially during spring runoff, discoloring the river as far as 60 miles downstream to just north of Salida.   

Eventually, the ongoing buildup of dissolved metals converted this stretch of the Arkansas into a biological dead zone that could no longer sustain trout populations and other aquatic and riparian resources.

After studies determined that almost all the effluent adversely impacting the river was coming from the two old drainage tunnels, a decades-long period of extensive state and federal remediation began.

A major component of this effort was the 1983 inclusion of California Gulch as one of the first metal-mine-drainage sites on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund priority cleanup list.

And the results were nothing short of spectacular.  

Habitat restoration, improved water quality and effective fishery-management practices transformed 100-plus miles of the river into an angler’s paradise.

In 2014, Colorado Parks & Wildlife designated 102 miles of the Arkansas as Gold Medal trout waters, the highest-quality cold-water habitats accessible by the public for fishing.

The river’s Gold Medal waters extend from the confluence with Lake Fork near Leadville downstream to the U.S. 50 bridge that crosses the Arkansas above the Royal Gorge at Parkdale in Fremont County.

To achieve Gold Medal status, a waterway must support standing stock of at least 60 pounds of trout per acre and have a per-acre minimum of 12 “quality trout” measuring 14 inches or longer. 

Coursing through the 152-mile-long Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, the Gold Medal portion of the Arkansas is known primarily for brown trout, although rainbow trout have made a comeback due to a stocking program that began in 2009.

Populations of brown, rainbow, cutthroat and lake trout or mackinaw also thrive in Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake.

These lakes boast a combined surface area of just over seven square miles, all filled with water originating from the tributaries of the Arkansas.

From the days of the French explorers and the precious-metal miners of the 19th and early 20th centuries to subsequent decades of environmental degradation followed by extensive cleanup and restoration, the Arkansas River has served as a significant geographical and historical landmark.

Now that it has also emerged as one of the nation’s major recreational resources, it’s more important than ever.

But it is here in the high country where the Arkansas River begins its long and scenic run to the distant Mississippi.

And nothing downstream can compare to the spectacular mountain beauty of its headwaters.