Some of you may know I have worked for the National Park Service in the past. I started in the Tetons, then moved to Glacier, Carlsbad Caverns, and Denali until I joined AmeriCorps VISTA to attain my non-competitive eligibility. Now after 18 months away from the NPS I will we donning the “ol’ pickle suit” once again, this time at Rocky Mountain National Park. I will be doing interpretation and assisting with social media duties including managing the parks Instagram feed @RockyNPS (Make sure to follow us!). When I found out that I would not be starting until June 2, I immediately emailed Dinosaur National Monument to see if I would be able to organize a photo trip down the Yampa River. Last year, while with VISTA I visited many parks in the surrounding area and donated some of my photos to them. Dinosaur was one of those parks I visited and upon my first visit its beauty blew me away. The initial plan was to float me down the Yampa but it had already run dry for the season by the time schedules worked out. Alternatively, I was able to do a 4-day/3-night trip through Lodore Canyon. It was an amazing trip. I had a great time and the park extended me the invitation to return and do the Yampa the following season. Since high water for that river is in May, now seemed a great time to take advantage of the invitation, just before my summer season at Rocky.
To give you a little background on The Yampa, it is roughly 46 miles long, its waters come from Steamboat Springs, and it is the last large free-flowing tributary of the Colorado River System. Every year without a dam to stop it, the Yampa dumps huge amounts of woody matter into the Green, which is the starting point for all life in river systems. This woody matter feeds microorganisms and up the chain it goes to fish, fish to birds, etc. To put it another way, the Yampa is the lifeline of the Green River now that the Green is dammed. Yampa Canyon has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years and is evident in the form of rock art, prehistoric ruins, as well as historic ruins from late 19th century settlers.
These days, Dinosaur sees only about 12K boaters on the Yampa and the Green combined each year. To summarize, this park is an under-utilized and under-appreciated resource. Each time I visit I find out more about this amazing place and its spectacular diversity. So here is my attempt to convey how special a place Yampa Canyon is and how awesome of a time I had on my trip.
Arrival: I arrived to Dinosaur on the Quarry side and organized all my gear and food for the trip. I finished early and had a few hours to kill so I decided to go out for a walk around housing to see what sort of wildlife was in the area. I was surprised to find lots of birds including barn swallows, chipping sparrows, Say’s Phoebes, Western Meadowlarks, Spotted Towhees, and even a few new species for me; Bullock’s Oriole, Lark Sparrow, and a Western Kingbird. I also found out that the park has marmots, which is totally crazy to me because I am used to seeing them in alpine ecosystems, not in the desert. I hadn’t even started my trip yet and I was already finding lots of cool stuff to photograph.
Welcome to Dinosaur
Reminded me of Lady and the Tramp
Mama Gathering Grass for Her Nest
Day 1: We all met up at Park HQ made introductions, loaded the boats, and made for Deer Lodge. The two boatmen, Peter and Chris, have a combined 30+ years of experience in Dinosaur so I knew I was in for a great trip. The main purpose of the trip was to float me down and take photos of the Yampa for the park. In addition to the photos, the support team was keeping an eye out for leafy spurge, an invasive plant, so that they could pick it along the way.
As we shoved off from Deer Lodge, the first stops we made were at the Henry Shank Cabin and “Fin” Chapman Dugout and 2-holer. They are both along the Yampa River before you enter the Canyon. I have seen some pretty great outdoor toilets in my life, and the 2-holer’s view is up there among the greats, but it is really special because it allows for a friend to join you.
Henry Shank Cabin
Fin Chapman Dugout and 2-holer
Fin Chapman Dugout and 2-holer
Once we entered the Canyon high canyon walls immediately surrounded us. Our camp for the evening was at Anderson Hole and we arrived in time to go on a short hike up one of the drainages. Along the way we were finding lots of fossils including crinoids, brachiopods, and ammonites. After the crew finished picking spurge, we headed back to camp just in time for a great along the river. We were even joined by a Western Grebe, which is also a new bird for me.
Crinoid Stem Fossils
Sunset at Anderson Hole
Day 2: The next day we got up and it was spitting rain, but cleared up by late morning. From Anderson Hole Campground there is a small Cabin in disrepair called Stubbs Cabin. If you stick your head in you can see the original stove and cabinets etc. It even had biological soil crusts growing on the roof, which means its pretty freaking old. From there we hit the river and we made our first stop after Teepee rapid and hiked to the Matt Rash Cabin. Along the way there were lots of cool wildflowers and great views of the shape of the Canyon.
Inside Stubbs Cabin
Matt Rash Cabin
Inside Matt Rash Cabin
Then we headed to Big Joe where we would grab lunch, scout the rapid and hike up the side canyon. As we made our way up the canyon we were greeted with great views of the river and some pretty impressive geology. After Big Joe we stopped and hiked up to Signature Cave, whose name is obvious once you make it in. The walls are covered in signatures and pictographs of all the people who had made their way to the cave before us. The cave also doubles as a hanging garden and we found some shooting stars, which are one of my favorite flowers. If you ever see one be sure to take a smell. One of my coworkers in Denali told me they smell like grape kool-aid and I was surprised to find out that they indeed do.
Giant Mud Cracks
Floating Below Big Joe
Johnson Canyon Rock Art and Grafitti
Hiking to Signature Cave
Looking Out Signature Cave
Rock Art in Signature Cave
We pulled into Mathers Hole campground where it was my turn to make dinner. As we were sitting under the Box elders eating delicious dinner, we were surround by little yellow birds singing and darting from tree to tree. I was able to grab a nice shot and figured out that they were Yellow Warblers, which is another new bird for me. By the time I made it up to the campsite it was already dark so I didn’t have an opportunity to see how cool of a spot we were in, but I would find out soon enough.
Singing Yellow Warbler
Day 3: My personal philosophy when shooting is that you only need to get one “keeper” any day that you shoot. Once I get that photo, the pressure is off for the remainder of the day and any additional keepers I get are icing on the cake. One of my favorite things is to wake up and immediately get that shot out of the way, and this was one of those days. I awoke to the sounds of birds and the sight of an awesome sunrise about to happen. Adrenaline kicked in and I jumped out of my bag and grabbed my camera. It was so awesome to watch the sun slowly creep down this massive overhang, continually changing the scene. After taking a few shots up by the place we slept I ran down to the river just in time for me to take my favorite shot of the trip.
Mathers Hole Sunrise
First Light on the Overhang
Light Breaks the Ridge on Mathers Hole
After the great sunrise we jumped on the river and pulled over to hike to a beckrock metate while Pete did a Tamarisk Leaf beetle test plot. For those of you that don’t know what Tamarisk is, it is an introduced plant species that has exploded in the last 50 years in the Desert Southwest. Without any predators, it has outcompeted the native species and now chokes off access to river ways for wildlife as well as recreational uses. Researchers had the idea to study the beetle and see if it could help with the containment of this tamarisk explosion. After 20+ years of study they found that it only eats the Tamarisk and they eventually released it into Dinosaur among other places. This park has been on the forefront of studying the effects of the beetle and most of the information about the beetle comes from the park.
Mano and Bedrock Metate
Pete Recording Bettle Data
The next stop was for lunch and a quick hike up to Pat Lynch’ Cave. Then we jumped on the boat, floated to the other side and hiked to Mantle Cave where we found some great Fremont ruins and granaries. Our last stop before entering Outlaw Park was to some pictographs overlooking the river.
Hiking to Pat Lynch' Cave
Pat Lynch's Historic Signature
Looking out from Pat Lynch' Cave
Lunch on the River
Mantle Cave Granary
Lower Laddie Park
Looking Downstream into Outlaw Park
Once we made it into Lower Yampa the Canyon the light was just amazing. We were greeted with amazing canyon views around each corner and as the water grew still I knew that we were nearing the rapids. We were now on Warm Springs “lake.” It was the calm before the storm. Eventually we made it to the rapids where we got out to scout. After a good 20 minutes Pete and Chris had their lines scouted and we made our game plan. Both boats made near perfect lines past Godzilla, over Ledge, and past Maytag. It was the crux of our trip and we were out of it barely even wet. It was a huge relief since a few boats had already flipped there earlier in the season. Once we were out of the rapids we pulled over at our campsite and were greeted with amazing afternoon light. After a nice dinner it was off to bed so we could take an early morning to hike at the Confluence (Green and Yampa), now only a few miles away.
Floating by the Tiger Wall
Lower Yampa Canyon
Lower Yampa Canyon
Lower Yampa Canyon
Lower Yampa Canyon
Scouting Warm Springs Rapid
Warm Springs Rapid
Warm Springs Camp
Warm Springs Camp
Warm Springs Camp
Day4: We hit the river early and made it to the confluence around 9am. We decided that we were going to hike the Outlaw Trail to the ridgeline where we would be able to look down on Lodore Canyon and the confluence. This is when having experienced people like Pete and Chris with us REALLY started to show. Pete is also a photographer and a history buff. One of the cool projects that he has taken upon himself is to do repeat photos of early explorers that came to Dinosaur. This hike was to one of those spots. Needless to say it was breathtaking, in more than one way.
Bedrock Metate Overlooking the Confluence
Overlooking the Confluence Wide
Overlooking the Confluence
Overlooking the Confluence Zoom
Calling Red-tailed Hawk Seen From the Ridge
Pete Overlooking Lodore Canyon
Overlooking the Confluence from the Ridge
After the hike we stopped at the confluence to visit with a friend that I used to with in Carlsbad, had lunch, and then went for a short hike in Lower Echo Park. On the way to find some rock art we came across some huge elk sheds that appeared to be from the year before, 8 in total. After getting back on the river we came across a family of Canada Geese, a Desert Bighorn ewe and lamb, and another new bird for me, the Lazuli Bunting. Then the wind started to pick up so we pulled into camp and hunkered down for the remainder of the night. Since this was the last night, I was really interested in getting some night photos. All the other nights had been somewhat of a bust. So I woke up at about 2am to clouds and rain, but I decided to wait it out a little and I am glad that I did. Since there wasn’t a great foreground I decided to make one with my tent. I just set my camera on my pillow and started shooting away until I got the shot that I was looking for.
Chris Holding an Elk Shed
Pictographs and Approaching Storm
Canada Goose and Goslings
Desert Bighorn Ewe and Lamb
View From the Tent
Day 5: Today was the day that we would be taking out. It was a cold and rainy morning and I was not looking forward to sitting on the boat. We pushed on and wouldn’t you know it, the sun decided to make an appearance and it turned out to be the hottest day of the trip, which was great because we had a few rapids in Split Mountain to go through. Along the way we stopped to see the bison petroglyph and to look at a bald eagle’s nest in Island Park. It is actually the first document nest in the area. We made pretty good time through Island Park and geared up for the last rapids of the trip. With the water running pretty high it made for some fun splashy rapids and some great photo ops.
Cliff Swallows and Nests
Pete Rowing Through Island Park
Beaver in Island Park
Rowing Towards Split Mountain
After Getting to do Lodore last year and Yampa this year, I would say that this place is quickly creeping up the list of my favorite parks. It has world-class geology, amazing human history, amazing rivers, opportunities for wilderness experiences and solitude, diverse wildlife, amazing hiking, oh, and dinosaur fossils. If you get the chance to visit I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you cant get on the river, just get away from the paved roads. I guarantee you won’t be sorry. And be sure to tell them Jake Frank said “Hey.”