A Float Trip down Colorado’s Yampa River Canyon
Proves Nearly as Grand as the Grand
The first publicized float trip down the Yampa River Canyon in 1928 didn’t go exactly as planned.
The expedition’s four battered boatmen repeatedly suffered concussions and near drownings. One of their two wooden boats was bashed to bits in a rapid, and midway down, they found their food supply reduced to two tins of beans and a can of soup. Leader A.G. Birch hiked four starving days to a ranch on the rim from where the group could be resupplied. Our 21st century journey should fare far better.
Born in the Rockies near Steamboat Springs, the Yampa remains the last major undammed stream in the Colorado River watershed. Its final 46 miles snake through the sandstone labyrinth of Dinosaur National Monument in far northwestern Colorado. A five-day, four-night float trip here offers Grand Canyon-worthy grandeur on a smaller, more manageable scale.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the Yampa gorge is really half a dozen Zion Canyons strung end to end with Yosemite Valley dropped down in the middle,” Birch raved.
Unlike that 1928 trip done at low water in wooden boats, our O.A.R.S. trip departs at the height of spring runoff with three rubber rafts and a hard-sided dory. We also carry three inflatable kayaks known as “duckies” allowing participants the option to paddle on their own. All craft are muscle powered. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the Park Service allows no droning motors here.
Dinosaur National Monument is somewhat misnamed. It began in 1915 as an 80-acre reserve around a dinosaur quarry. With men like Birch attesting to the beauty of the Yampa and neighboring Green River Canyons, the monument was expanded in 1938 to its present size, 14 times larger than Manhattan Island. Rather than change the name to something more descriptive, the reptilian moniker was applied to the entire monument. This rock we float through solidified long before the time of Barney’s brethren.
The walls rise, the canyon narrows and the whitewater begins. Rapids come in six classifications of difficulty. The Yampa features countless Class II splashers and a handful of more serious Class III cataracts where the guides have us don helmets. The sole Class IV boat-flipper lies days downstream.
Evening camps come on grassy benches shaded beneath cottonwood and box elder trees. After erecting tents, we pop open cold beverages and grab appetizers from a communal table. Guide-prepared dinners follow, featuring entrees of salmon, chicken, steak and Dutch-oven baked lasagna.
Ensconced deep in this stonewalled enclave, I sit back and gaze at thousand-foot-tall cliffs blushing in the afternoon sunlight. Song birds sing, ravens squawk and the river rumbles by, its musty aroma blending with the scent of sage. Campfire flames flicker as the last rays of day linger on distant cliff tops. Stars soon fill the sky like diamond dust sprinkled across black velvet.
Because no upstream dam controls the flow, the season for running the Yampa is short – generally May through July when the melting snowpack floods the river.
“At low water, the river’s actually much more technical because there are so many more rocks exposed,” explains dory guide Lars Haarr. “The one exception is Warm Springs Rapid, which actually turns worse in high water.”
The Class IV brute comes late on our third day. That morning, we float through the twisting canyon, catching glimpses of grebes, herons and turkey vultures. Deer and bighorn wander stream banks. We pass beneath the Grand Overhang where a towering cliff arcs above the river. For good luck, everyone kisses Tiger Wall, a rust-colored cliff striped black with desert varnish. Warm Springs Rapid lies a few bends beyond.
The rapid, formed by a 1964 flash flood, consists of two roiling holes where submerged boulders make the current churn backward. Hit either and bad things can happen. Between them stretches a rollercoaster of turbulent waves. One by one, the boats hurtle through with passengers whooping and hollering in nervous relief.
In Echo Park, not far below Warm Springs Rapid, the Yampa meets the Green River, which flows in from the north. It’s the first place along the way where the general public can drive to the canyon bottom. The Birch party exited here, but we continue downstream through Whirlpool Canyon.
The final night’s camp comes beside Jones Hole Creek. Two miles up the tumbling side stream, we admire panels of Indian pictographs and play in Ely Creek Falls, whose flow can be plugged by folks sitting in the stream above. When they stand, the water flushes down with enough force to make volunteers showering below glad they clutched their bikini bottoms.
Our final day takes us through Split Mountain Canyon where the river severs a precipitous uplift. Rapids in the agitated current provide nearly continuous excitement. Then, rounding a final turn, the flow slows and the land opens toward farm country. It’s our takeout point.
We’ve completed our journey, suffering no concussions, no lost boats and no shortages of food. Our 1928 predecessors only wish they had it so good.
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Water levels permitting, O.A.R.S. Yampa River raft trips run from early-May through mid-July. Trips are either four or five days in length. Tents are included, with sleep kits available for an additional fee. All trips depart from Vernal, Utah.
O.A.R.S. also offers Gates of Lodore raft trips down the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument. Because its flow is controlled by Flaming Gorge Dam upstream, Green River trips are available all summer long.
Contact O.A.R.S. (800-346-6277, www.oars.com/utah) for information and reservations.