About Browns Canyon

Arkansas River - Photo by Jeffry Mitton

Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River is the central feature in a unique ecosystem that provides outstanding fish and wildlife habitat, sweeping views of the Arkansas Valley and Continental Divide and four-season recreation opportunities. On Feb.19, 2015, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate 21,586 acres as Browns Canyon National Monument – 11,836 acres of the San Isabel National Forest and 9,750 acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

Stretched between the communities of Buena Vista and Salida, Browns Canyon ranges in elevation from 7,300 feet to 10,000 feet, offering stunning views of the Sawatch Range, which forms 100 miles of the Continental Divide and is home to some of the highest peaks in lower 48 states, towering above 14,000 feet in elevation. Browns Canyon provides clean water, habitat for wildlife, biological diversity, outdoor recreational opportunities, scenic beauty, cattle grazing and other uses.

Well before the national monument designation, Browns Canyon had become the most popular whitewater in the U.S. This section of the Arkansas River is also part of the longest stretch of Gold Medal Waters in Colorado. In addition to whitewater boating and Gold Medal angling opportunities, the monument offers opportunities for biking, horseback riding, hiking, camping, nature watching, photography and stargazing.

The Forest Service land within the monument is remote and primitive with rugged terrain, no developed campsites, few roads and dispersed camping opportunities accessible only by hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The area is also home to some of Colorado’s most emblematic animal species – elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, black bear, bobcat, mountain lion, coyote, red fox, American pine marten and several species of bat.

Surveys date the presence of American Indians at least 13,000 years into the past. Archaeological sites with stone artifacts are attributed to the Paleo-Indian and early Archaic periods. The general area is traditionally significant to the Ute, but Jicarilla Apache also claim traditional cultural ties to area. Explorers and miners left evidence of modern man, but historic cabins and other structures are generally outside of the monument area.


This map displays Browns Canyon National Monument in the beautiful Upper Arkansas Valley of Colorado. Click for larger view.


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Elevations in Browns Canyon National Monument range from 7,300 to 10,000 feet, making this a unique mid-elevation area of public land. As the elevation increases, the pinon juniper trees that dominate the arid lands along the river give way to Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, and large stands of aspen.

Bighorn Sheep - photo by Josh Dupelchain

The sheer ruggedness, proximity to water and lower elevation provides important habitat for wildlife including black bear, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, eagles, falcons, imperiled bats, and many other species of wildlife.

Rafting- Photo By John Fielder

Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River is one of the most popular destinations in the nation for whitewater enthusiasts. Browns Canyon National Monument is important to the economic health of local businesses, river outfitters, and the surrounding communities.

Photo by Mason Cummings

In the 1990s, local citizens in Chaffee County began working in earnest with their Republican and Democratic lawmakers to gain a higher degree of protection for Browns Canyon. A magnificent stretch of public land, Browns Canyon has been long revered for its wildlife, whitewater, hunting, and backcountry solitude. These local activists saw their dream realized on 19 February 2015 when President Obama proclaimed Browns Canyon National Monument.

Recognized as a BLM Wilderness Study Area and National Forest Roadless Area—but not afforded permanent protection by Congress as Wilderness—organizers worked with their members of Congress to write wilderness proposals and introduce legislation for Browns Canyon that would assure that no new road construction would damage the watershed or wildlife habitat. Congressman Joel Hefley (R) introduced Browns Canyon Wilderness legislation, and every single member of the Colorado delegation signed on to co-sponsor. These included Tom Tancredo, Marilyn Musgrave, Wayne Allard, Ken Salazar, Mark Udall, John Salazar, and Bob Beauprez. Then-Congressman Wayne Allard (R) said, “This area includes some of the most picturesque vistas in Colorado, and this bill would preserve its natural beauty. It is a stunning landscape, with granite canyons stretching along the Arkansas River and merging into mixed forests and meadows.” “In addition, the legislation would improve recreational opportunities within the area, which is one of the most popular rafting spots in Colorado.” Browns Canyon legislation enjoyed bi-partisan support for a number of reasons, but among them was the balance struck between areas open to motor vehicles and areas where vehicles would not be allowed—the proposed Wilderness. The Four Mile Travel Management Area, which provides over 180 miles of routes for all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles lies just to the north of the Wilderness proposal, and there are 5,000 miles of legal, open motorized trails within 100 miles of Salida.



It takes a long time to move bills through Congress, and the Hefley legislation did not come to vote. Organizers continued the work of keeping Browns Canyon in the public eye and garnering new support, especially from members of the business community. Numerous business owners, then and now, support the wilderness proposals because they recognize that the goals of preserving the region’s wild character, outstanding scenery and unparalleled rafting recreational opportunities align with their business goals. As Congressman Allard said, “Not only will this bill protect one of Colorado’s great natural treasures, it will bring more tourists to the surrounding area and help the economies of Chaffee and Fremont counties.” Since then, more than 200 businesses have publicly stated their support for protecting Browns Canyon. Friends of Browns Canyon continued public outreach, education efforts and demonstrated a willingness to compromise in order to protect this beautiful area for everyone. Browns Canyon Wilderness was originally proposed as 35,000 acres, but Senator Udall’s National Monument and Wilderness Bill was scaled back to just over 20,000 acres. President Obama’s proclamation closely reflected Senator Udall’s proposal. The smaller area will be easier to manage and define, with boundaries that generally run alongside existing roads and trails, the Arkansas River, railroad tracks and other readily recognized features.


Photo By Josh Dupelchain

Browns Canyon National Monument, including the Wilderness Study Area (WSA), helps produce clean water by protecting watersheds; provides critical habitat for threatened or endangered species; maintains biological diversity; offers outdoor recreation opportunities; provides scenic beauty; and serves as a spiritual or psychological haven from modern day pressures.

Fishing - Photo by Josh Dupelchain

Browns Canyon National Monument “boasts some of Colorado’s most pristine forests, great hunting and fishing habitat, and draws outdoor enthusiasts from across Colorado and the country during nearly every season,” said then-Senator Ken Salazar.

Browns Canyon in Autumn

Wilderness areas are protected from development such as logging roads, dams, or other permanent structures; from timber cutting and the operation of motorized/mechanized vehicles and equipment; and, since 1984, from new mining claims and mineral leasing. Browns Canyon National Monument’s proclamation memorializes valid exiting uses while protecting the area from new exploitation and resource damage.

Photo by Mason Cummings

Mining operations and livestock grazing are permitted to continue in National Monuments and Wilderness Areas if these practices existed prior to designation. The Browns Canyon National Monument designation memorializes and protects all valid pre-existing uses.

Why a National Monument?

Permanently protecting Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River accomplished the following:

  • Preserves opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, including rafting, kayaking, hunting, horseback riding, fishing, climbing, and hiking.
  • Allows existing access roads and trails on all sides of the proposal to continue to provide recreational access while preserving the core of Browns Canyon area in its current state.
  • Assures no new road construction damages the area’s watershed or wildlife.
  • Makes Browns Canyon National Monument a part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands – the nation’s newest, permanently protected collection of public lands. These are nationally significant landscapes throughout the West set aside for current and future generations because of their outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific importance.


The road to protect Browns Canyon as Wilderness or as a National Monument was very long, with many discouraging turns yet some very joyful and rewarding ones as well.

The work was rewarded on 19 February 2015 when President Obama signed the proclamation designating Browns Canyon National Monument.

Friends of Browns Canyon, local elected officials, land management agencies, and our conservation partners are embarking on the next stage of the journey: crafting the Resource Management Plan (RMP) that will guide management of Browns Canyon National Monument for years to come.

Friends of Browns Canyon invite you to join our efforts by visiting this great place, learning more about its irreplaceable natural values, and helping to protect it.

Please make a financial contribution or volunteer for one of our trail crews. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates on this important work.