Rafting the Wild and Free Yampa, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14065B, Raft


  • Raft in spectacular 2,500-foot-deep wilderness canyons
  • Enjoy fun rapids each day, including one of the West’s “10 big drops”
  • See thousand-year-old Indian rock art and abundant wildlife 


  • Licensed professional guides
  • Oar-powered rafts and inflatable kayaks
  • Group visit to the Utah State Park Field Museum of Natural History


DatesJun 2–6, 2014
StaffLisa Katzman

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Trip Overview

The Trip

In the entire vast watershed of the Southwest's seven-state Colorado River system, only one major river remains truly wild and free-flowing. That would be the Yampa River, and it is at its wildest in May and June when it swells with runoff from the high mountain snowpack. The Yampa flows out of the mountains of north-central Colorado and into the canyon country of Dinosaur National Monument, through 2,000-foot-high golden cliffs and wooded canyons carved by rain, snow, frost, and wind. From our launch at Deerlodge Park to its confluence with the Green River at Echo Park, the Yampa roars 46 miles through exciting rapids and a colorful canyon maze, cutting deep into the Blue Mountain plateau.  It then meets the Green River and we continue 31 miles through more canyons to the departure point. The Yampa’s natural stream flow pattern and protected canyons are home to some of the last remaining healthy populations of river fishes and other rare wildlife. Above the river, desert bighorn sheep dance high on the cliffs, while eagles ride the currents in soft, circular patterns and peregrine falcons make dives for prey at blistering speed. There are miles of sheer, white and black tiger-striped walls, side-canyon waterfalls, and 800-year-old Indian rock art.

Because it maintains much of its historic free-flowing stream pattern, the Yampa offers the thrill of running a truly wild river. Our rafts will plunge through many Class III-plus rapids, including Teepee and Big Joe. But the biggest challenge comes from a rapid that was born in 1965. One early evening that June, a huge flash flood carried tons of rock, mud, and boulders down Warm Springs Draw to the river, blocking the narrow river channel. Within 24 hours the Yampa took aim and breached the natural dam, leaving in its wake the Warm Springs Rapid, now rated as one of the "10 big drops" in the West. Hold on tight: Warm Springs during high runoff can be a Class IV rapid!

At Echo Park, the Yampa joins the Green River, flowing south out of the Gates of Lodore. "The Green is greatly increased by the Yampa," wrote Major John Wesley Powell in 1869. "All this volume is set eddying and spinning in whirlpools, and the waters waltz through the canyon."  We will make a lengthy stop at Jones Hole to explore its clear trout stream, waterfalls, and spectacular Fremont Indian rock art. On our last day, we'll run the truly remarkable Split Mountain Gorge, where the river has cut through the mountain instead of going around it. We will try to solve the puzzle that has troubled geologists for years: How did the river run directly into, rather than around, this mountain range? At this point, the canyon walls close in, and the river picks up speed. This is one of the Green's steepest stretches, with the river dropping 20 feet per mile. These last 10 miles will make for an exciting, raucous, and spectacular end to a fabulous trip!

Sturdy 18-foot, oar-powered rafts will accompany our trip, each guided by an experienced, licensed river guide. Also, several inflatable kayaks will be “shared” among participants, which, with minimal instruction, will allow you to play in the river on your own, except in the largest rapids. If you wish to participate by paddling, an all-paddle boat can be added if a sufficient number of trip members wish to do so. You must have had some experience paddling and be in good physical condition. Let the leader know your preferences in advance. 

Sights To See Before Or After The River Trip:

There are many interesting sights to see within an hour or two of Vernal, Utah, starting with Dinosaur National Monument itself. The Cub Creek area near Jensen, UT has hundreds of Indian rock art sites and the Josey Morris historic ranch.  The famous Dinosaur Fossil Quarry in DNM has updated displays that include baby- to full-sized skeletons. The quarry is located in Jensen, UT about 10 miles from Vernal and contains the largest in-situ exposure of Jurassic period dinosaur fossils in the world. A more remote, but worthwhile, place in DNM to visit is Harpers Corner, located at the rim, for a grand vista of the canyons of the Yampa and Green rivers (45 miles north of Vernal).  Dinosaur lovers should also not miss the McConkey Ranch petroglyphs, located up Dry Fork Canyon just north of Vernal, which contain some of the most spectacular Indian rock art in the region.

Farther north from Vernal, up US 191, is Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. You may wish to drive the Sheep Creek Scenic Loop and visit the High Unitas Wilderness Area, containing Utah’s highest 13,000-foot peaks. Farther afield is the Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, accessed by Colorado State Highway 318, running northwest to the town of Maybell. You can drive across the Green River on a historic swinging bridge and see hundreds of water birds -- including ducks, geese, and peregrines -- as well as river otter, elk, deer, and maybe moose.

Southwest from Vernal via U.S. 191 is Nine Mile Canyon, home to spectacular rock art and a rare Indian kiva.  Farther south in Price is the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. This is an excellent museum, with most of the display materials collected in Utah -- well worth the drive!


The trip begins and ends in Vernal, Utah.  Our itinerary provides a relaxed pace with exciting rapids to run and many canyons to explore.   

Pre-Trip: On the afternoon before the trip starts, participants meet in Vernal, Utah for a group visit to the Utah State Park Field Museum of Natural History in Vernal. Finished in 2006, the Field Museum contains full-size dinosaur skeletons and extensive collections of all types of fossils. After the museum visit, there is the mandatory pre-trip orientation at the Best Western Dinosaur Inn, 251 Main Street. Your Sierra Club leader will distribute waterproof bags, go over final trip logistics, and answer any last minute questions.  

Day 1: On the morning of our departure, we will meet at the Best Western Dinosaur Inn and shuttle vehicle and people to the nearby outfitter office and parking area. From there we will take a two-hour van ride to Deerlodge Park on the Yampa in Colorado, our launch point. After a safety talk, we launch on the river, where we will learn about canyon ecosystems and geology, observe wildlife, and run the first rapids.  We will camp in wilderness along the river. Lunch and dinner are provided.  Our evening discussion on the history, hydrology, and wildlife of Yampa Canyon fill in the details on what we see from the boats.

Day 2: The day starts off with an exciting run of Teepee rapids. Later, we will stop to observe wildlife and talk about river ecology and the endangered fish of the Yampa. A short hike up a side canyon is optional. In the evening, we'll discuss the Indian cultures of the area.

Day 3: After coffee is brewed and we are on the river, we will explore the historic Mantel Ranch and nearby Mantel Cave, a Fremont Indian archaeological site. We will run Warm Springs rapid. After camping at Box Elder, we will have an evening discussion on early river runners and the Echo Park dam controversy.

Day 4: We will launch on the river, floating a few miles downstream to the confluence with the Green River. There we will compare the free-flowing Yampa with the dam-controlled Green and discuss impacts of dams. After a short float, we will arrive in Echo Park and explore the caves, Indian rock art, and historic structures. Back on the river after lunch, we will run the fun rapids of Whirlpool Canyon, then set up camp near Jones Hole. We will have an optional hike to archaeological sites and a waterfall. Our last night's dinner is served.

Day 5: An early morning departure takes us through Island Park and into Split Mountain Gorge. After lunch, we will take a moment for reflection about the trip, then run some exciting rapids; what a fun way to end a trip! After coming off the river about 3:00 p.m., we will be shuttled back to our cars at the outfitter parking area, to the Dinosaur Inn, or to your motel in Vernal. At 7:00 p.m. in Vernal, we will have our farewell dinner (not included in the trip price) at the Golden Coral Restaurant.



Getting There

Our mandatory pre-trip meeting is 4:30 p.m., June 1 at the Best Western Dinosaur Inn, 251 Main Street, Vernal, Utah.  We meet by the swimming pool, or if there's inclement weather, in the lobby of the motel. Your Sierra Club leader and head guide will distribute waterproof bags, go over final trip logistics, and answer any last-minute questions.  

You are responsible for getting to and from our meeting place, at the Dinosaur Inn in Vernal, Utah. At this time there is limited direct airplane service into Vernal, Utah. If you are flying into Vernal, the only service is from Denver via Great Lakes Aviation (800.554.5111). Other alternatives: Fly into Grand Junction, CO from Denver and then drive a rental car to the meeting place, about 2.5 hours. The most commonly used alternative is to fly into Salt Lake City and drive a rental car to Vernal (about 3.5 hours). Driving time from Denver is about six hours. Please arrive in the area the day or evening before the launch date, since we have an important pre-trip meeting at 7 p.m. Once at the Vernal airport you can call your motel for a pickup (many do this for free, so ask in advance) or the Vernal City Cab (435.790.1212) (fare is usually under $15). If you stay at one of the motels listed in this info under Accommodations and Food, you will be within four blocks of the Dinosaur Inn meeting place and can walk to it.

Driving: Vernal is on US Highway 40, approximately 180 miles (3.5 hours driving) east of Salt Lake City. Many families find flying into Salt Lake City and then driving to Vernal to be the least costly option. The Best Western Dinosaur Inn is in the heart of downtown Vernal on US 40. Vernal is about a six-hour drive from Denver, CO and about a 2.5-hour drive from Grand Junction, CO.

Accommodations and Food

Our pre-trip meeting will be at the Best Western Dinosaur Inn, and a block of rooms will be held for our trip at this motel, but there are other lodging options in Vernal. Below are three motel suggestions and others can be found on www.dinoland.com:

  • Best Western Dinosaur Inn
    257 East Main St., Vernal, UT, 84078
    (800) 782-9422, (435)789-2660
    One of the best in Vernal, more expensive. Pool, playground, and restaurant.
  • Weston Lampligher Inn
    120 Main Street, Vernal, UT, 84078
    (435) 789-0312
    Mid-price range. Across the street from Dinosaur Inn. Pool and playground.
  • Econo Lodge
    311 E. Main Street, Vernal, UT, 84078
    (435) 789-2000
    Less expensive but clean; 2 blocks from Dinosaur Inn; pool; free Vernal airport pickup.

Or if you are camping:

  • KOA Campground in Vernal: (435) 789-8935.  Clean, spacious facility, grass tent sites.
  • Green River Campground in Dinosaur National Monument (12 miles north of Jensen). This campground is first-come, first-served, no advanced reservations. Scenic location.

Well-balanced meals with quality fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables are provided, from the first day lunch to the last day lunch. There is a vegetarian option at each meal. The guides double as camp chefs and the menu includes a wide variety of dishes. Lunches usually consist of hand-foods served picnic-style at riverside stops. Dinners and breakfasts are cooked over an open fire and often include tasty Dutch oven-baked treats.  If you have a special dietary need, please inform the leader upon enrollment. It may not be possible to meet all special dietary requests, but the sooner the request is received, the better the chance.

The river provides plenty of highs and excitement. For your safety and the safety and enjoyment of others, no alcohol drinking is allowed during the day or while on the river. However, you may bring your favorite beverages in plastic bottles or cans for camp.

Trip Difficulty

This is a trip of intermediate rapid difficulty. On the international scale of I (easy) to VI (unrunnable), the Yampa and Green in late spring are Class III runs. Most of the rapids we will encounter are Class II-III; but Warm Springs Rapid is Class IV. This is considered a late-spring trip, and the high-desert West can be chilly. Daytime high temperatures range from 45-80 degrees. Nighttime lows can be in the 40s. Thunderstorms are possible at any time. The water will be cold since it is just two or three days removed from the snowpack. Past trips have taught us to be prepared for anything, from cold, wet, and windy to hot, dry, and calm. While you can always cool off on a river trip, it is less easy to get (or stay) warm, so we'll have to pack for cool weather. Our day-to-day itinerary on the river is related to our assigned campsite, but is flexible during the day depending on water levels, weather conditions, and the inclination of the members. The total trip length will, however, remain the same.

Although we make every effort to ensure a safe trip and we have an excellent safety record, whitewater boating, hiking, and wilderness travel involve some risks. Physical challenges are inherent in rafting and are partly why people seek this kind of adventure. If you elect to participate, you must be in good health and willing to participate in a few group chores and activities. Trip members are expected to assist in loading and unloading the rafts. The trip leader will screen participants for their suitability for the trip in advance of final acceptance.

Our side-canyon explorations will range from easy walks to more difficult hikes that require some scrambling. Although these hikes are optional, good physical conditioning is important in any wilderness outing. We strongly recommend, for maximum enjoyment of the river canyon experience, that you engage in a program of regular exercise prior to the trip.

We'll move at a leisurely pace, allowing plenty of time for hiking, photography, and exploring. It is a great trip for new river runners and experienced canyon-country aficionados alike. No previous rafting experience is required. Minimum age for this trip is 12 (solo is 18).

Equipment and Clothing

All boats and rafting equipment are provided. Each participant will have one large waterproof bag for your clothes and camping gear. You will also be given a smaller "day bag" to place items you need to access during the day. A complete personal gear checklist is given upon acceptance. You can rent a "sleep kit" -- including sleeping bag, ground cloth and inflatable pad -- if you let us know at least two weeks in advance. Two-person tents can also be rented for a nominal fee. You won't need much else beyond your personal items.

What do I keep in my day bag? Since your large waterproof bag will be inaccessible to you during the day, you will want to keep some items handy in your smaller day bag. We suggest storing the following in your day bag: raingear, sunscreen, moisturizer, cup, extra sunglasses, river guidebook, camera, and film.

Leave valuables at home! For those essential items (wallet, credit cards, travelers checks), please double-bag them in Ziploc-type bags and store them in the bottom of the waterproof bag containing your clothing or place them in your hotel safe prior to departure. Handle medications with you on the rafts in a similar fashion.


Even a rudimentary grasp of the desert Southwest's natural and human history will greatly enhance your experience on this trip. The following are especially recommended:

  • Belknap, Buzz, and Lorie B. Evans, Dinosaur River Guide. Strip maps of the Green and Yampa rivers, showing rapids, points of interest, river lore. Made of waterproof paper; to be used while on the river. You will want to get one before we leave for the put-in.


  • Hansen, Wallace R., Dinosaur's Restless Rivers and Craggy Canyon Walls. A similar guide to Belknap, except with much more information on geology of the river canyons; printed on waterproof paper for use while on the river.
  • Powell, John Wesley, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. The historic, heroic 1869 descent of the Green and Colorado rivers. A classic!
  • Cosco, Jon M., Echo Park: Struggle for Preservation. The complete story of the battle to save Dinosaur and defeat the Echo Park Dam, featuring the leadership role of the Sierra Club.
  • Cole, Sally J., Legacy on Stone: Rock Art of the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners Region. Describes the rock art and cultures of the prehistoric and modern people of canyon country.
  • Reisner, Marc, Cadillac Desert: the American West and Its Disappearing Water. The story of how the misuse of Western water has wasted a once-beautiful landscape. Though daunting in depth and scope, this book is a "must" for conservationists.
  • Norton, Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. A concise presentation of approaching global water supply issues, with encouraging proposals for avoiding local and international conflicts.
  • Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire. Abbey's classic, poetic description of his seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Monument.

These and other books about the region are available from the Intermountain Natural History Association website or at their store in the Dinosaur NM Quarry. Bookstores in Vernal also carry many of these. 


"Let us remember that we cannot create wild rivers, we can only spare and celebrate them." - David Brower, 1995

The Yampa and its canyons are indeed a unique rare natural area. In addition to an exhilarating five days of river-running, we will take the time to consider both the historical and present-day conservation issues in this part of the West. Dinosaur National Monument was at the center of one of the epic conservation battles of the last century, and it was out of that battle that Sierra Club raft trips were born.

In the early 1930s, after the signing of the Colorado River Water Compact, Bureau of Reclamation engineers sought to build a number of massive dams in the upper reaches of the Green and Colorado rivers -- including two huge dams in Dinosaur. One of these was to be built at Split Mountain (and the other at Echo Park), which would have flooded much of the Yampa.

On this outing, we'll discuss the legacy of the Echo Park battle, new threats to the Yampa, the ongoing "red rock" wilderness battles in Utah and Colorado, and the role of the Sierra Club's environmental advocacy and activism programs.

A very dangerous proposal has been put forth to dam and divert up to 1/3 of the Yampa River water flow just above DNM and pump it back over three mountain ranges 170 miles to the Denver area. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has released an assessment to build the $3-4 billion Yampa Pumpback project. The pumpback project has also been included in the recent Colorado State Wide Water Supply Initiative. This project would have drastic adverse impacts on the Yampa flows, wildlife and geomorphology, and a spectacular national park.  On this trip you will learn about the proposals and be requested to get involved and help protect the Yampa

As David Brower reminds us, "All wilderness victories are temporary; all defeats, permanent."

"The Utah deserts and plateaus and canyons are not a country of big returns, but a country of spiritual healing, incomparable for contemplation, meditation, solitude, quiet, awe, peace of mind and body. We were born of wilderness and we respond to it more than we sometimes realize. We depend upon it increasingly for relief from the termite life we have created. Factories, power plants, resorts, we can make anywhere. Wilderness, once we have given it up, is beyond our reconstruction." - Wallace Stegner

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



Lisa Katzman has led private rafting trips throughout California, Idaho, Oregon, and the Southwest for over 30 years. She was an activist and guide trainer for Friends of the River in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Her husband is also an experienced rafting guide and they've raised their family on river trips. In fact, they first took their sons down the Yampa River when they were less than two years old. Over the years they've organized river trips on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, Rogue, Salmon, Tatshenshini rivers, and many rivers in California. By the time of this trip, she will have completed the earlier version of this same trip as a trainee. She's a volunteer rafting guide for the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings and especially enjoys sharing rivers with kids and first-timers. She has current EMT and WFR certifications and is an active member of the National Ski Patrol. Last summer she completed the John Muir Trail in 22 days and has led numerous backpacking trips in the Sierra. She looks forward to using her broad outdoor background to enrich your experiences on the Yampa.

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