Yampa’s canyons offer stunning escape

The Yampa River meanders through the sandstone canyons of Dinosaur National Monument. It is best floated in late May and June when runoff peaks. The 78-mile float is one of the toughest floats to draw in the United States. Rob Thornberry / rthornberry@postregister.com

MAYBELL, Colo. — The beauty of the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument is in its colors.

It is the muted browns, reds, rusts and yellows of the sandstone canyon walls that rise off the river and reach to the heavens.

It is the sharp contrast of the green trees — junipers, Ponderosas and firs — against the subdued walls, a Christmas color combination that is a gift to all visitors.

It is the sharp yellows and reds of blooming flowers and cactus, a short-term treat that will quickly wither and die as summertime heat overtakes the canyon that snakes through the northwest corner of Colorado.

And it is the brown water of peak runoff from the high country that turns white when the canyon narrows and the rapids erupt.

The canyon walls

The Yampa River in Dinosaur is one of the toughest rivers to draw in the rafting world. Ninety-eight out of 100 applicants receive a rejection letter when applying for the famed river. The rafting season is roughly six weeks as boaters ride the drainage’s copious snowmelt as it courses through the monument in May, June and early July.

The Yampa is the largest undammed tributary in the Colorado River system and the flush of water is spectacular when the high country of western Colorado starts to warm.

The 78-mile float begins west of Craig, Colo., a roughneck town built on coal. It cuts through desert country that was home to outlaws like Butch Cassidy and loners like Tom Horne. It is solitary country where the Fremont Indians once roamed and cattle and sheep ranchers still try to carve out a living.

Today, the Yampa’s draw is its canyon’s sandstone walls. When the river bends on itself, it cuts into the soft rock and creates natural cathedrals where echoes bounce seemingly for minutes.

Some cathedrals start at the water and climb smoothly for hundreds and hundreds of feet. Others are set off the river, hanging high above a belt of junipers and other evergreens.

The most famous vistas are the Grand Overhang, Tiger Wall, Steamboat Rock and Cleopatra’s Couch.

None is more stunning than the Grand Overhang.

The river is steadily chewing at the cliff’s base, allowing boaters to tuck underneath the sheer rock wall as it climbs 1,000 feet above the river.

It is a quiet place with unmatched views.

The history

The Fremont Indians used northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado from around 700 A.D. to 1300 A.D. They hunted and gathered food along the canyon and stored food in places such as Mantle Cave, where modern day visitors can still see their work.

The Indians were followed in northwest Colorado by explorers, trappers, miners, ranchers, outlaws and misfits. Most left little mark on the harsh terrain.

John Wesley Powell started his exploration of the Colorado drainage in 1869 and promptly found trouble on the Green River, which joins the Yampa inside the monument.

Powell wrote of the Yampa: “… very narrow with high vertical walls. Here and there huge rocks jutted into the water from the walls, and the canyon made frequent and sharp curves. The waters of the Green are greatly increased since the Yampa came in, as that has more water than the Green above. All this volume of water, confined as it is in a narrow channel, is set edying and spinning by the projecting rocks and points, and curves into whirlpools, and the waters waltz their way through the canyon, making their own rippling, rushing, roaring music.”

The area around the Yampa and the Green was protected in 1915 after dinosaur bones were discovered in 1909. Over time, the monument grew to more than 200,000 acres, which now protect the stunning canyons.

The Yampa’s sandstone canyons were nearly lost to the dam builders in the 1950s, but hard work by environmentalists saved the day by limiting their protests about Glen Canyon Dam in exchange for protecting the Yampa and Green canyons.

The whitewater

The vast majority of the Yampa is flat water, a strong and even current that delivers rafters from one cathedral to another.

But there are spots where the canyon constricts and water roils into heart-pounding rapids.

There are 10 named rapids on the float but the king of all them all is Warm Springs, a Class IV beast that backs up the river for miles. It can be heard on a quiet day for more than a mile.

The beauty of Warm Springs is its giant holes that funnel to a keep called Maytag.

The sneak is right but it pushes boats through a smaller hole and toward Maytag.

The run, ultimately, is clean. My heartrate returns to normal.

And I look back to the walls and enjoy the present that is the Yampa.