Take a raft through Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah borderlands.
The prospect of adventure has always excited my heart, and unfortunately, the butterflies in my stomach. I boldly sign up for, say, rock-climbing or surf kayaking lessons—and then come the nagging worries: Will I fall? Will I drown? Hallelujah, along comes soft adventure, just meant for folks with my heart/stomach condition.
For my first river rafting trip, I chose one that would thrill the heart but go easy on the butterflies: five days and 72 miles on the Yampa, which cuts a deep swath through layers of high desert cliffs in Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah. This Class III (moderately difficult) river, with one wild Class IV rapid, seemed a perfect introductory adventure.
Both the Yampa and the Green rivers cut through the Monument in search of the Colorado River. The Yampa begins in the east, in the high peaks of the Colorado Rockies, and flows into the Green in Dinosaur. Our outfitters, Adrift Adventures, based in nearby Jensen, Utah, run both. I chose the Yampa, because I wanted to see what nature intended the Colorado Basin to look like—the Yampa is the only river in the entire system that flows without a dam.
I also chose the Yampa because, according to several of the park rangers I queried, traveling by water is the best way to see the rugged monument. Running the river in an area scouted by John Wesley Powell more than a hundred years ago offers up canyons and gorges so awash in brilliant reds and oranges that it leaves you gasping. Walls striped in desert varnish rise almost 2,500 vertical feet from river’s edge. In cliff-bottom pastures, deer stand in knee-high grasses, drinking from the river. Butterflies flutter just above the water, and bighorn sheep cling to the canyon walls. As they cut their paths southwest through the high desert, the Green and the Yampa rivers tell the story of nearly a quarter of the earth’s history through geological layers that date back a billion years. It is one of the most extensive geologic stories seen anywhere in our national parks and monuments.
On my trip, two groups had signed up to run the Yampa. Diane, a midwife from Colorado, had gathered twenty of her friends to run the river with Adrift for the second time. On the first morning, her friends Marilyn and Ed, retirees and first-time river runners, pulled on their wetsuits, ready to run the Yampa in a double-occupancy inflatable kayak. Another group of four men had known each other since grade school; each year they gather somewhere in the country to run a different river. Two of them were braving the river in hard-shell kayaks.
Six guides were in charge of the twenty-five of us, our four oar boats, a paddle boat, five inflatable kayaks, and three hard-shell river kayaks. Each morning everyone would find a spot on one of the boats, and settle in to watch many miles of the riverbank and high canyon walls go by.
We put our rafts into the river at Deerlodge Park in the east end of Dinosaur National Monument. As the Yampa enters Dinosaur it flows into an open valley eroded in soft rock, then plunges into canyons by cutting across older, harder rocks that are tilted downward. Throughout the trip, we crossed several places where we could see fault lines in the rock layers. One, at a place called Mitten Park, is evident because the high rock layers on one side of the river appear as if they were thrust straight up into the air.
At lunch guides would often lead hikes into the side canyons. One walk followed along a clear water stream to a Fremont Indian petroglyph site, and we made our way up a side stream to a place where our entire group— twenty-year-olds and seventy-year-olds alike —played like children in a waterfall.
One lazy afternoon we floated near wide grassy fields, and Joe, our trip leader, quizzed us on geology. "What are the five geologic layers we’ve passed through?" We had learned our lessons, and chimed in "Weber, Morgan, Madison Limestone, Lodore, and Uinta!" Another time Joe called for a silent float, and we drifted along with only the calls of birds overhead, and the sound of the water flowing south, and the scolding of one angry goose inadvertently flushed from her nest along the bank by one of our kayakers.
One morning Wendy, the only female guide on this trip, shouted "Lets have an estrogen raft!" and most of us women tumbled into her oar boat. Two others grabbed inflatable kayaks, and paddled along with us through quiet waters and a bumpy Class III rapid.
In 1965, a flood through a wash called Warm Springs brought massive boulders crashing into the steep canyon wall on the opposite side of the Yampa, creating an angry Class IV rapid. I had been worried about running Warm Springs Rapid since the beginning of the trip.
One guide had brought along a book which listed "big drops of the West;" it made Warm Springs sound terrifying. When we reached it, we eddied to shore above the rapids, and scouted the routes we would take through the rushing water. We packed up the inflatable kayaks—only hard-shell kayaks could maneuver these rapids. Three of us chose to ride the rapids in Wendy’s oar boat. As we started down, a wave hit us hard on the side, and we took on half a boat full of water. Wendy pulled hard as the added weight brought us close to the biggest hole in the rapid. With one massive pull on the oars, she managed to take us what felt like right over the top of the hole. We cheered as we shot through the bottom of the rapids.
On the fourth day the Yampa met the Green River, sweeping into a huge curve around a formation called Steamboat Rock. This area is called Echo Park; we yelled out to the rock and it yelled back. The water of the free-flowing Yampa is thick with a brownish silt that helps keep the river’s edges clean and healthy. At Echo Park the brown water flows into the clear, cool water of the Green. Upstream, The Flaming Gorge Dam catches and holds the silt of the Green River.
One day on the Green we stopped at the dramatic entrance to Whirlpool Canyon to look at a site where a dam was to have been built before it was stymied by conservationists. Our guides told us the tradeoff was Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell.
Our nights in campsites along the river were spent happily eating glorious food—pasta, jumbalaya, lasagna—prepared by the gastronomically gifted guides, and taking turns getting massages from Jessamy, a masseuse who had brought along her massage chair. On the last night, we all emerged from our tents dressed in full regalia—including a river-running Elvis, and a pink prom dress—for costume night. I donned a gypsy outfit—borrowed from a better prepared river-runner.
This area of Utah and Colorado was once a hunting ground for ancient Indians, a hideout area for Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, and a crossing for pioneers. Thousands of years of earthquakes and erosion have exposed the land, creating a geologist’s heaven.
Near the center of Dinosaurland is the city of Vernal, Utah. Vernal offers travelers many motels, restaurants, shops, and a worthy natural history museum (with a park full of life-size dinosaur replicas).
In Vernal, pick up one of nine self-guided driving tours that cover Dinosaurland. Choices range from driving into Uinta Wilderness, to exploring Ashley National Forest, visiting Indian petroglyphs, and taking a 4WD drive tour.
Driving tour number 2 is "Flaming Gorge and Drive Thru the Ages." If you read all 20 of the interpretive signs along the "Drive Thru the Ages" road, you’ll come away with a good overview of local geology.
When John Wesley Powell reached the Utah-Wyoming border in 1869 during his explorations of the Green River, he wrote: "The river enters the range by a flaring, brilliant red gorge that may be seen from the north a score of miles away. We name it Flaming Gorge."
In 1962 a dam created a 91-mile lake at Flaming Gorge, drowning some of the gorges Powell described, and creating a major lake for recreation, power, and water. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the 490-foot Flaming Gorge Dam. The Flaming Gorge Recreation Area offers boating, camping, fishing, and horseback riding. Commercial outfits offer fishing trips below the Dam on the Green River. For a sensational view of Flaming Gorge, drive to Antelope Flat, and take a short hike to an overlook of the valley and gorge below.
For information on all of the above areas, contact the Dinosaurland Travel Board at (800) 477-5558.
Always we were surrounded by great natural beauty. One evening we camped under a wall of Weber Sandstone, carved by the river millions of years ago into a wide sweeping curve with a high overhang. We gathered whatever we could find for instruments —pots and pans and plates and spoons —and made crazy music for hours, the sound echoing off the curve of the wall. In my sleeping bag at the base of the sandstone wall, I searched the sky for constellations, the curve of the wall above framing the sky into a perfect semi-circle.
At lunch on the last day, we all gathered around to recite our best and worst experience of the trip. Mosquitoes were the worst, we all agreed, but the "best" list varied. "The canyon walls" someone yelled; then "the waterfall!" "Running Whirlpool Canyon" chimed Cindy and Ray who had managed to flip one of the inflatable kayaks in the rapids and then tumble back into the craft to finish the ride.
On the last afternoon, as we headed out of Split Mountain where the river slices a dramatic path right through the center of a dome-shaped fold of earth, I was on the paddle raft, carefully following instructions through the rapids. "Two forward on the left! Back paddle on the right!" We bounced through waves, and around holes, cool water splashing our faces, and all six of us laughing hysterically. Then, a mellow flat-water float, and the end. As we approached the take-out, one of the kayakers yelled out my thoughts: "Not yet! I’m not ready to go home!"
Dinosaur National Monument
In 1909, scientist Earl Douglass came to northeastern Utah hoping to find some sign of dinosaur bone fossils in the Morrison Formation layer exposed here. What he found would be one of the world’s greatest sources of information about ancient life—the next 15 years would yield nearly 350 tons of discoveries to be shipped to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie officials then pressed for national protection of the area, and, in 1915, 80 acres around Douglass’ quarry site were declared a national monument. In 1938, after both the scenic and recreational values of the surrounding area were recognized, President Roosevelt enlarged Dinosaur National Monument to 325 square miles.
At the eastern end of the Uinta Mountain Range straddling Colorado and Utah, Dinosaur National Monument today preserves some of the most extensive geologic history seen in our national parks and monuments. Cutting wondrous 3,000-foot-deep gorges through the park, the Green and Yampa rivers pass through some 15 visible layers of earth.
The challenge to visiting Dinosaur National Monument is its size and scale. The country here is so rugged that there are only a few developed camping and picnicking spots, and short day-hiking trails. The park has only a handful of driving entrances far apart. One major entrance on the Utah side of the park leads visitors to the Dinosaur Fossil Bone Quarry and some other park attractions including pioneer homes, and boulders full of exquisite Indian petroglyphs.
In 1958, a protective modern building was put up around the Dinosaur Quarry—one wall of the building being the actual mountain. Visitors today may be surprised at the array of over 2,000 fossilized dinosaur bones that are still in the mountain wall. The rest of the building houses the Dinosaur Quarry museum and visitors center.
Another driving entrance to the park in Colorado takes visitors to a nature trail that overlooks the Canyon of Lodore—one of the best examples of the park’s extensive geological wonder. The red walls of the canyon are made of sand and pebbles eroded from an ancient mountain range, and tower some 2,500 feet above the Green River.
About 30 miles past the Utah border, drivers can also enter the park in Dinosaur, Colorado, where the Monument Headquarters and visitor center is located. From this entrance, visitors can set off on the Harpers Corner Scenic Drive. Pick up a detailed guide to the driving tour, and the Harpers Corner Nature Trail Guide, at either visitor center.
The dramatic 34-mile Harpers Corner Drive crosses high, open fields and forests. It passes faults, and millions of years of rock layers, and offers views of valleys and sites below. Drivers with four-wheel drive can take the Echo Park road down to river’s edge. At the end of the Harpers Corner Road a two-mile round-trip nature trail will offer more than one wide view of the canyon country cut by the Yampa and Green Rivers, and of Steamboat Rock and Echo Park where the Yampa flows into the Green straight below.
For more information on hiking, driving, camping, fishing, and rafting in Dinosaur National Monument, contact the Monument Headquarters at 4545 Highway 40, Dinosaur, Colorado, 81610, (970) 374-3000, or the Dinosaur Quarry visitor center in Utah at (801) 789-2115.
This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.