Escape from Time on the Yampa River
After rafting 45 miles along the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument, I spotted my first (and only) sign of civilization: a cowboy, slowly leading two pinto horses toward a small cabin huddled near a sheer sandstone wall. I glanced around at the twelve members of our party and reflected that if it had not been for our group’s gear — PVC rafts, fiberglass oars, insulated plastic coolers — it could have been 1918. Or 1818. Having left our sense of time with our cars and keys at the put-in, it seemed we had entered a new, ageless reality.
In fact, our 72-mile downriver journey had begun just three days before with vigorous bouts of digging, packing, and organizing supplies for the trip. Yet even amid the commotion, our launch was languid and unhurried. We chatted in the shade of bankside cottonwoods, and when conversation lulled we could hear a slight breeze rustling their leaves. When our dry boxes and coolers had been double-checked, we pushed off the shore for an afternoon float through flat water and rolling, pale-pink cliffs.
The miles that followed were not marked by hours or days but by dramatic, unfolding scenery. Gentle pastel-hued ridges grew into chalky canyon walls. The water, slipping noiselessly underneath us, would then become playfully choppy, and we spilled our drinks as our boats lurched over its lively waves.
One evening as the sun hung low above us, we followed a steep, meandering trail to the top of a canyon cliff. There we were met by a spectacular aerial view of tight river bends and gorges. The twisting water, just a small artery from this 500-foot perspective, made my stomach twist as a thought struck me: tucked ahead, somewhere, was Warm Springs Rapid.
Warm Springs Rapid was only a small ripple before 1965, when a flood in a nearby canyon spewed a mass of mammoth boulders into the Yampa, creating a tricky class IV rapid. As we made our way downstream toward it, the canyon walls ominously darkened and rose higher, and the river — even more ominously — grew flatter and quieter. Swollen thunderclouds gathered overhead but were increasingly overwhelmed by a more thunderous sound: the churning waters of Warm Springs itself.
After scouting the turbulence, discussing lines and routes, and performing last pre-rapid rites, one by one we launched downstream. And, one by one, we dodged holes and waves and slid safely into camp. We spent a cool night just below the rapid, listening to the roaring waters above us, transformed from ominous to comforting in the safety of our sleeping bags.
Facing no major whitewater downstream, our satisfied and slightly sunburned party eased into a contented quietude as we flowed along the last miles of our trip. On our final night, a bright moon rose over the rock walls of the canyon we had just left, and we slept amid silent, silver shadows.
Reluctantly back in reality, I sometimes still think of that cowboy I saw. He’s become for me a symbol of the apartness of this journey — an escape in space as well as time, restorative in its simplicity and raw vividness.
Planning a Rafting Trip to Dinosaur National Monument
The put-in is at Deerlodge Park Campground in Dinosaur National Monument, about 2.5 hours north of Grand Junction.
This is a 72-mile section of river, and it takes 3-5 days to complete. Its difficulty varies depending on seasonal river flows but is most typically class II-III with one class IV.
Permits are required for this section of river and are highly competitive. Visit recreation.gov for details. Adventure seekers can also sign on with a guided outfit. Grand-Junction-based Adventure Bound USA adventureboundusa.com and Outdoor Adventure River Specialists oars.com both run overnight guided trips on this section of river.