By Susan Munroe
The Yampa River in northwestern Colorado is justifiably famous for being WILD. Unlike every other major tributary to the Colorado River, the Yampa is not regulated by a dam. Every spring, snowmelt spills out of the mountains near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and rushes downstream into multi-colored canyons rich in whitewater, archaeology, and wonder. Holiday’s four- and five-day trips on the Yampa River take you into secret corners of Dinosaur National Monument on the flow of the natural flood cycle.
Perfect for: people wanting to experience a truly natural river, whitewater enthusiasts, families with kids eight and older; custom charter trips are available for groups of 18 or more.
Yampa River Highlights
The Yampa seems to revel in its long descent from the mountains, racing around tight canyon corners and through small but continuous rapids. Each bend in the river reveals another intricate display of rainbow-hued rocks with shades of pink, purple, orange, red, and gray. Ponderosa pines tower over the shores, and box elder trees fill the river banks with glowing yellow-green foliage. Migratory birds use the river as a stopover during their spring journeys; the healthy ecosystem of the Yampa provides food and habitat for a variety of species. Peregrine falcons dive from the cliff edges and big horn sheep graze the river banks. By the second day of the trip, the canyon walls are dominated by smooth, white sandstone. The Yampa slows as it meanders through these ancient, petrified sand dunes, streaked with the dark patina of time. Dinosaur National Monument is an International Dark Sky Park; the Milky Way is sometimes bright enough to reflect off the white sandstone, bathing the river in starlight. Warm Springs Rapid adds a dose of adrenaline to the third day, and then the river mellows again as it approaches Echo Park and the confluence with the Green River. The water of the two rivers can take a long time to blend, and a clear line between the cold, clear Green River and the warmer, sediment-laden Yampa can often be seen for almost a mile downstream. The Green River continues through the red rock of Whirlpool Canyon and the meanders of Island Park, and then shoots through Split Mountain Canyon for one final taste of whitewater.
Only on the Yampa:
- A free-flowing river ecosystem unregulated by dams.
- Teepee Rapid, the longest rapid Holiday runs: over half a mile of wave action!
- Mantle Ranch, a piece of pioneer history and a private inholding within Dinosaur National Monument.
- Kiss the Tiger Wall for good luck; the black-and-white striped wall is just a few miles above Warm Springs Rapid, the biggest of the trip.
- The Grand Overhang, where peregrine falcons nest and hunt from the looming 1,200-foot sandstone wall.
- Critical spawning zones for the endangered Colorado pikeminnow, one of four native fish species that owes its survival to the unregulated flows of the Yampa River.
Yampa’s Signature Rapid:
Warm Springs Rapid, formed in 1965 when a massive debris flow dumped 15,000 metric tons of rock and sediment into what had previously been a placid bend in the river. The debris flow temporarily dammed the river, but when the flood waters finally broke through they churned over new rocks and obstacles and set about arranging what would become one of the most notorious drops in the West. Dee and Sue Holladay were on the river during that storm, and Dee became one of the first boatmen to successfully run the new rapid.
Best Known For:
Doing what un-dammed Western rivers do best: running high with snowmelt in the spring, then gradually dropping out in mid to late summer. The Yampa River is a unique example of what a healthy Western river should be.
The Holiday Way: Echo Park Interpretation
On every Holiday trip, there are certain attractions or stories that simply must be experienced. Echo Park, at the confluence of the Yampa River with the Green River, is one of those places. But it’s not enough to float atop the place where the two currents meet, nor sweep your hand along the base of the iconic Steamboat Rock. There’s history here that is of vital importance to these two rivers. Holiday’s guides will tell you that story. They’ll point to the place where a 500-foot dam was almost built, a dam that would have flooded the entire length of the canyon you’ve just floated. They’ll describe the ensuing fight, and the birth of our country’s environmental movement, and the role that thousands of individual citizens played in speaking up for the protection of Echo Park and the rivers of Dinosaur National Monument.
Meaningful interpretation, like telling the story of the Echo Park Dam, is one of our company’s guiding principles. It’s written into our mission statement, and born out of Dee and Sue Holladay’s belief that a river trip should be about fun, but also about discovery: that a trip should provide the opportunity to learn something about the world around us, and maybe, just maybe, be inspired to speak up for the places we care about.
Five days on the Yampa River provide ample time for side hikes and excursions.
- Stubs Cabin, a historic structure hidden in the trees just a short walk from the river.
- Starvation Valley begins as a meandering hike up a sandy wash beneath improbably forested canyon walls; the more ambitious can scramble onward until reaching a hidden spring.
- Discover the vivid red pictographs of Johnson Canyon, a short climb from the river.
- Wagon Wheel Point, a strenuous but spectacular hike to the canyon rim, with views of the Yampa’s curved, domed, white sandstone stretching for miles.
- Signature Cave, a moderate hike through open grasslands and over sandstone to a natural opening in the canyon featuring inscriptions of historic river runners.
- Mantle Cave, once an important food storage and dwelling site for a community of prehistoric Native Americans.
- Jones Hole, downstream of the confluence with the Green River, is a five-mile-round-trip hike along a small, wooded trout stream to ancient rock art and a fun waterfall.
Starting and Ending Points
Yampa River rafting trips begin at Holiday’s warehouse in Vernal, Utah. The put-in at Deer Lodge Park is approximately an hour and a half drive to the east. The river flows almost due west until it meets the Green River and turns southwest. The trip ends at Split Mountain boat ramp, where our vans meet us for the 20-minute drive back to the warehouse in Vernal where we began.
- 71 river miles (46 on the Yampa + 25 after the confluence with the Green River)
- Class II–IV
- May and June (depending on the river flow)
- Because the Yampa is free-flowing, its flows fluctuate wildly, anywhere from 300 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 30,000 CFS in a given year.
- The average peak flow during our spring trips is approximately 8,000 CFS.
- Required, administered by the National Park Service. The short season and strict permit limits mean that the permit for the Yampa is currently the most difficult to acquire in the United States. Holiday is proud to hold one of the few concessionaire permits for the Yampa, which allows us to share this amazing river with you!
First Known Descent of the Yampa River:
1909, Nathaniel Galloway and son, Parley. Galloway was a trapper and prospector from Vernal, Utah, whose river-running career began as early as the 1890s. In addition to being the first to run the Yampa, Galloway designed and built his own boats and pioneered the “stern-first” style of rowing, in which the boatman rows facing downstream, the better to see and avoid obstacles in the river.
Yampa River Weather
Types of Boats Used
On the Yampa, Holiday uses custom-built, 18-foot-long, inflatable rubber rafts to carry both passengers and gear. These rafts are set up as “oar-rigs”, with wooden frames, oarlocks, and two oars that a single guide uses to row the boat and steer through rapids. Carefully designed for maximum comfort and efficiency, our rafts can comfortably carry up to five passengers, who are free to relax and enjoy the ride. Guides will provide instructions for where to sit and how to hold on during the rapids.
Occasionally, we can also bring paddle rafts on the Yampa. These are lighter inflatable boats that require a team of six to eight passengers, each with a paddle, to work together to move downstream and navigate through rapids. A guide acts as paddle captain, sitting at the back of the raft, giving directions, and steering. The fast-moving current of the Yampa makes paddle boats a good option for groups who have six to eight people who are eager to be active and paddle the majority of the trip. Available by prior arrangement only.
We also bring inflatable kayaks (IKs), typically from one to three per trip, depending on the group size and interest. IKs, or “duckies”, are great fun for people who want to be more active or take on a solo challenge. Sitting down at water level makes even the smallest rapid look big! There are also plenty of stretches of calm water for people looking for a quieter kayaking experience. IKs are available most days for guests to take turns using. We’ll pack them away for Warm Springs Rapid; other major rapids are run at the discretion of your trip leader.
Holiday does NOT use motors—and not just in Dinosaur National Monument, where motors are specifically prohibited. We feel strongly that the best part of a river trip is letting go of the fast pace of our modern lives, and letting the river carry us at its own speed. We use human-powered craft on every section of river we run as a way to preserve the magic of going with the flow.
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com, and photos of the river life here: www.susanmunroe.zenfolio.com.