The Yampa as a Model for What’s Possible


There are simply not that many wild rivers in the Colorado River Basin. By wild I mean rivers that are not controlled or diverted to other basins – rivers that fill with torrents of raging muddy brown water during spring floods providing nourishment to valleys below – rivers that provide a varied, unique and unparalleled recreational experience.

Yampa RiverFloating a wild Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument | Matt Rice

In the Colorado River Basin, there is one river that stands above them all. It is a river that sustains a vibrant agricultural community while providing for world class whitewater boating and trophy trout fishing. Downstream its turbid waters provide life for endangered fish, wildlife, and plants. It is a natural model – a living classroom – a poster child for balance, community heritage, and livability. Despite being the second largest watershed in Colorado, very few people outside of the state know about this river and its importance to the Colorado River Basin, all the way down to Lake Powell.

The wild Yampa River rises in the Flat Top Mountains above Steamboat Springs, Colorado. While it would certainly not be accurate to characterize the Yampa as “undammed” because there are two relatively small storage reservoirs that capture its water in the headwaters, it functions as a wild, free-flowing river. The reservoirs are high in the basin and do not have the storage capacity to capture its powerful spring flows. From Steamboat it meanders through rangeland, past the rural agricultural towns of Hayden, Milner, Craig, and Maybell. Below Maybell, the river flows through the Class V whitewater of Cross Mountain Canyon and into Dinosaur National Monument.

Warm SpringsColorado Basin Conservation Director Matt Rice in front of Warm Springs Rapid

Words cannot adequately describe Yampa Canyon through Dinosaur National Monument, nor can pictures capture its grandeur. Experienced boaters claim that a trip through Yampa Canyon in Dinosaur is the best 5-day float trip in the world. One travels through geologic formations that date back over a billion years, canyon walls that rise over a thousand vertical feet, ancient pictographs and petroglyphs, and long runs of thrilling whitewater. But the entire time, at least in the back of your mind, your thoughts return to one thing – getting through the daunting Warm Springs rapid.

We recently teamed up with our partners at Friends of the Yampa, American Whitewater, and OARS to support a film created by the talented group of artists at Rig to Flip. The film documents the history of Warm Springs rapid, the unique role the Yampa River played in creating the modern river conservation movement, and the importance of keeping the Yampa wild and free.


Warm Springs Trailer

The full length film is available here.

We need rivers like the Yampa – to remind us how rivers are supposed to function, to demonstrate that it is possible to sustain vibrant agriculture while conserving endangered fish and recreation, and to help us improve the management of other rivers in the Colorado Basin. Unfortunately, because of its abundant water, increased demand, and diminishing supplies in the Colorado River basin due to climate change, the Yampa River will continue to be a target for diversion. This is why American Rivers is actively working with partners across the basin to find solutions that will safeguard the Yampa for generations to come. We will always stand up for the wild Yampa River.

P6100173--MattRiceOARS owner George Wendt on the movie set at Warm Springs Rapid | Matt Rice

2 Responses to “The Yampa as a Model for What’s Possible”

Marc W. McCord

The Yampa is truly a spectacular river with a little something for everybody, from its easy flatwater sections through open rangeland to its roaring whitewater near Cross Mountain. Unfortunately, like so many rivers in the US, BLM and other regulatory agencies have limited the number of people who can go and enjoy these rivers in their quest to “maintain the natural character” of the rivers by minimizing the number of people who can run them annually.

Rivers in America belong to the people, but governmental agencies dictate who can and cannot enjoy them, and so the question has to be asked, “Why are we protecting them if we are not going to openly allow people to enjoy them?”

I am a strong defender of river protection, but an opponent of restricted access. The focus needs to be on penalizing those who would harm or destroy a river rather than merely using a numbers game to minimize human effects. As an example I will cite Deso and Gray Canyons of the Green River in Utah where BLM strictly limits the number of people and groups that can launch in any given day. Yet, BLM leased land along the river for natural gas development, an activity that can and will do more harm with a single well than would ever be realized from all the paddlers who would ever venture there. The reason is simple – river runners who would go there take great care to protect the beauty and character of the river, whereas the oil and gas industry destroys everything in its path in its quest for profits.

If governmental agencies are so concerned about protecting rivers, then they need to stop leasing land around them for minerals development and start hiring more river rangers to patrol rivers to insure that river users are obeying the rules intended to protect rivers and their adjacent land areas.