Wild River – The Yampa


The Yampa River curves right against a towering canyon wall, illuminated at sunrise. Mathers Hole Camp.

Wild River. What comes to mind? It’s a trick question because there aren’t many wild rivers. The Yampa River, which begins as a trickle from melting snow high in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness is the only remaining wild river in the Colorado River watershed. The Yampa flows freely to the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, so the Yampa has a big role if we’re ever to reach some measure of stream flow sustainability in a watershed that runs from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the Gulf of California – it doesn’t make it that far today. Colorado’s thirsty Front Range cities that surround Denver are calling for transmountain diversions from the Colorado River watershed – importing 195,000 acre feet for growing cities and 260,000 acre feet for irrigation. I wonder, does irrigation include growing Kentucky Blue Grass to be installed and watered forever? An acre foot is as it sounds, one acre that is one foot deep. Drought is the new normal, rivers are over allocated, people are flooding in, and there’s this one wild river in northwest Colorado. Logically we must have the courage to let the Yampa run free.


Shawn, one of the OARS guides digs in on the Yampa.

Twenty four like-minded folks, mostly unknown to one another gathered at O.A.R.S. headquarters in Vernal, Utah on a hot and breezy Sunday evening orientation, then retired to sort gear and prep for the next day. Ice was broken on the hour and a half bus ride to Deerlodge put in, where rafts, inflatable kayaks called “duckies”, a Stand Up Paddle Board or SUP, and a paddle boat (everyone paddles) stuffed with gear and twenty four people plus guides were floating the Yampa in Dinosaur National Monument. We all came together for the first annual Audubon Rockies Western Rivers Action Network (WRAN) float trip, an idea hatched by Audubon’s Abby Burk, who’s developing the amazing WRAN campaign. Simply complicated, we should have the courage to keep our Western rivers running free. But there are many straws, humans, developing interests etc. calling for more, more, more water and all of the knowledge accumulated since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Grand Canyon journey is noise to those calling for water… There was a moment for me very early when I realized I couldn’t hear anything but paddle touching flat water, therapy.


A beautifully detailed bighorn sheep painted on Jones Canyon walls offers a visual clue to how long Native People occupied and valued the river that bears the Ute Indian name for Yampa Root, a nutritious staple. We spotted many bighorn sheep along the river banks – and over 35 bird species. Wild rivers support a wonderful web of biodiversity.


“Man of the world” James, one of our guides, stokes the fire.


Teepee Rapid, with a refrigerator sized rock in the middle was our first rapid on day two, an easy trip with water levels dropping – naturally.

Because it’s uncontrolled, the Yampa runs high in spring, flooding shorelines and feeding new cottonwood growth. The river drops gradually as mountain snowmelt tapers off, and runs warm – perfect for spawning suckers, chubs, and pike minnow; all endangered or imperiled, in part because of reduced stream flows and western rivers typically draw cold water from the bottom of a dammed reservoir.


Arriving at each camp, we’d form a fireline to deliver duffels to camp, then disperse with our gear. This isn’t our greatest fireline…


Folding chairs encircle the “living room”, the group gathering place.


In signature cave, the silhouetted group spells Audubon, with the choreographer on the right hand side.

With the journey and conservation group mind our bond, we learn names, why we’re here, how far we’ve traveled to this one special, free-flowing river.


Floating towards Cleopatra’s Couch – We pass by stunning stone features, stacked in layers of ancient time, a layer cake measured in hundreds of millions of years.


You can’t help but feel tiny under Tiger Wall, one of the most notable sites for its bold black streaks created by dripping water and oxidation. Our trip leader Yeti shared the legend of Tiger Wall: If you kiss the wall it guarantees safe passage through Warm Springs Rapid. It must be true, because we bobbed and cruised through the rapid, no sweat.


Tony (guide) and Abby scout Warm Springs Rapid before we make the run.


A soulful end to the day, evening music with Chris, trip leader Yeti, and guides Shawn and Tony.


Yampa Gooseneck aerial, LighHawk aerial Support.

I made this image a few years ago for my Sage Spirit book because during the boom, Dinosaur National Monument was becoming a wilderness island in a growing sea of natural gas. To float beneath those giant walls, one sweeping gooseneck after another is magic.


Echo Park Aerial, confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. LightHawk aerial support.

Another of the Sage Spirit images shows our route on the Yampa from the bottom of the frame to the confluence of the Green River that enters at Steamboat Rock, in the middle top third. It was shocking to feel the freezing cold water pouring in from Flaming Gorge Reservoir upstream. Echo Park is the scene of a 1950’s dispute when the Bureau of Reclamation planned a dam here during the ’50’s dam building free for all. Conservationists, led by David Brower of the Sierra Club and Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society appealed to the American people based on wilderness values to keep the Yampa running free. The dam was never built and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 stipulated that no dam shall be built in a National Park or National Monument. The Act holds up today.


At Split Mountain, named by John Wesley Powell, and later at S.O.B. Rapid (save our boats) we got a taste, a sip of Powell’s journey and the lore of Dinosaur. This place changes you – long may you run wild Yampa. With gratitude to Audubon Rockies, O.A.R.S. and new friendships forged on this wild river. I bet we think harder about how we use water, tell our friends, write some letters, build a movement together…

20 thoughts on “Wild River – The Yampa

  1. Dave,
    You so beautifully put to words our collective journey on the Yampa. Thank you so much for joining us and documenting our trip through your words and gorgeous pictures! Thank YOU for all you do for conservation of our wildlife and wild places…

    1. Thank you Ali, such a joyful experience and great way to get folks to feel the rhythm of the river. Audubon’s rivers campaign is exactly what we need to shine a light on a problem that won’t solve itself. Many thanks to you.

  2. Fondly, you call to mind a trip down the Tatshenshini in Alaska to Glacier Bay, more than a million years ago.

  3. Dave……….you have captured the essence of an inspiring experience provided by the Yampa River’s endless beauty and the shared companionship of our fellow travelers. Congratulations to Audubon and its staff for conceiving and initiating this inaugural river trip. I look forward to many more such majestic river experiences in the future. Count me in for whatever you have planned.

  4. Dave, as always your pictures are fabulous and your narrative inspiring. For years Gertie said how important the water is and how we weren’t doing enough to preserve this precious commodity. Thank you for sharing.

  5. The first annual Audubon Rockies Western Rivers Action Network float trip sounds like a wonderful success. What a beautiful river, Dave— and wealth of stories and reminiscences. We not only owe it to future generations to preserve these places and values– we owe it to honor the legacy and bravery and vision of heroes like Brower and Zahniser. Thank you for sharing this. . . . may the adventure continue.

  6. Dave, I am glad you were able to make such a nice trip. Susan and I did it 40 years ago and it was a bit more of an adventure than you had. We lost one of the rafts and all of its supplies in the rapid and got trapped in a hundred feet of waste deep mud at one of the campsites. But we will never forget it. It is nature at her best.


  7. Dave, your images are breathtaking! And fill us with such sweet, deep memories of a magical trip exploring this intricate and sacred of environment feeding the larger Colorado River Basin system. It was a privilege to share The Rivers (tributaries) with you! Thank you so much for your sensitive vision, and your superb craft, which bring to such vivid life the pulse, beauty, and flow of these unique and cherished fluvial ecosystems!

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