Dinosaurs and Colorado Whitewater

  |  Gorp.com

While rafters may rant and rave about the Grand Canyon down south in Arizona and the Salmon up north in Idaho, two rivers in Northwest Colorado are quite content with their role as unsung heroes in the world of multi-day river trips.
Both the Green and Yampa rivers, each of which can be run in a hurried four or leisurely six days, take you deep into the heart of canyon country, past towering sandstone walls, twisty side canyons and white sand beaches. And they offer something else the others don't: both take you through the heart of Dinosaur National Monument, where you can fantasize about stadium-sized dinosaurs roaming through your riverside camp.

The two rivers join forces at Echo Park, site of a major environmental victory in the 1950s when a fledgling conservation movement stopped Echo Park Dam from flooding portions of a National Park. The Park was Dinosaur, created in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson after paleontologist Earl Douglas discovered the tailbones of a Brontosaurus exposed in a bed of Morrison Sandstone in 1909. Further excavations over the next 14 years unveiled more than 350 tons of fossils, with scientists concluding that 140 million years ago the site had been a river sandbar where dead dinosaurs drifted and were later buried by sediments.
A hundred and forty million years later, it is river runners who drift along with the canyon's currents. Forming a giant, geological "Y," each river can be paddled independently above the confluence, with 25 miles of canyon rafting still waiting in the stem after the rivers join. And although the rivers share common waters for the last portion of the trip, above the confluence each one stands out on its own.
For a true big-water, Western river experience, head to the Yampa in late spring, when snowmelt from the Rockies brings its level to a rip-roaring high. As the last remaining free-flowing major tributary to the Colorado, the Yampa dishes up high-volume rapids for two months a year before flows subside. Combined with serpentine sandstone canyons and sand-laden beaches, this puts private river runners in a frenzy every permit season; as with the Grand Canyon, the Yampa is one of the hardest rivers to secure a permit for in the nation.
The Green River's Gates of Lodore used to share its neighbor's free-flowing attitude before the Flaming Gorge Dam was built earlier this century. When John Wesley Powell paddled it in the pre-dam spring of 1869, in fact, he adorned its rapids with such names as Hell's Half Mile and Disaster Falls. With flows controlled upstream, today's paddlers face less-tumultuous waters, but there is still plenty of action and the scenery is just as it was in Powell's day. Where the Yampa offers more of a desert canyon environment, the Gates of Lodore starts out strictly alpine, with tall stands of pine contrasting sharply with red, sandstone walls. Although this portion of the canyon is only 19 miles, it makes a great multi-day excursion when combined with the rest of the trip after the Green's confluence with the Yampa.
The last 25 miles of both trips take you through the next chasm, Whirlpool Canyon (also named in Powell's day), before a float through Island and Rainbow Park leads you to the trip's final canyon, Split Mountain, with such Powell-named rapids as Greasy Pliers and Schoolboy. Just as the area's dinosaur lineage gets closet-paleontologists drooling, Split Mountain does the same for geologists. Here the Green, with backing from the Yampa, follows a fault and slices straight through a 7,600-foot mountain rather than swerve around it. And no matter what river you started on, no trip to the area is complete without a visit to the nearby Dinosaur Quarry Visitor's Center where you can see excavated dinosaur fossils lying in their natural position.

Difficulty: Class III-IV, with easy scouts.
Price Range: Around $125/day for multi-day trips.
Best time to go: Runoff brings the rivers up by late May, giving great rides. The meltoff starts to dwindle by mid-July. With the Flaming Gorge Dam upstream, the Green can be run well into September.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 7 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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