The Yampa River in northwestern Colorado is touted as the largest free-flowing tributary of the Colorado, and this is largely true if one can ignore Stagecoach Reservoir, a small man-made lake near the Yampa’s headwaters. The Yampa itself begins near the Town of the same name as the confluence of smaller creeks that drain the Flat Top Mountains to the west as it proceeds on its 170 mile course to join the Green River near the Utah border. It takes on a number of distinct personalities. Flowing north from the town of Yampa, the river meanders through scenic pasture lands and aspen groves, interrupted by a section of hills, a small canyon, and the aforementioned reservoir. Upon reaching the resort town of Steamboat Springs, the Yampa makes a quick left turn, and as it passes through town the current picks up providing some nice class I – III whitewater. As it heads west out of Steamboat, the landscape quickly changes, becoming increasingly drier and flatter. For its final 80 or so miles to its confluence with the Green, the Yampa winds through the spectacular canyonlands of Dinosaur National Monument, claimed to be one of the last, best wilderness rafting trips in the nation.
Though is passes through the busy resort town of Steamboat Springs, flowing generally alongside or between US 40 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, I chose to paddle this section of the Yampa because of the excellent beginner to intermediate whitewater, and because the Yampa Valley Core Trail, a paved bike/walking path follows the river for all but a small section of the run, making for an easy bike shuttle. After dropping my kayak and gear off in a secluded spot in River Creek Park on the east side of town, I drove west through the city of Steamboat Springs to the take-out location, an unmarked riverside park a half-mile or so past the end of the commercial zone on the west side of town. Leaving my car there I pedaled back to the put in, an easy, level seven miles. I scouted the tougher rapids in the heart of town as I made my way back. The water level was about 1100 cfs, a bit below the normal of 1550 cfs for June 20, when the river is still running strong with snow-melt from the high peaks. This area often receives 30 or more feet of snow each winter. Still, this is much higher than when I ran it last year, several weeks later in the season, when the flow was ranging from 450 cfs down to as low as 175 cfs, barely passable with a lot of scratching and rock dodging.
So I was a bit anxious about how much tougher the rapids might be, how much bigger the waves, especially below some of the tougher class II+ drops in the center of town. They didn’t look too bad from the shoreline or the pedestrian bridges that provide a great view of the key drops, but I figured I’d better wear my spray skirt. I hadn’t needed the skirt the year before, when the water was lower – at most I’d ship a few quarts of water splashing through the bigger waves. Now I was pretty sure that some of the waves might swamp me as I plunged over the drops and into the wave trains below. Wise choice as it turned out…
I got back to the put in around noon, locked my bike to a tree, and loaded myself and my gear into the kayak. It was a beautiful, cloudless day with shade temperature in the mid-80s and a light wind out of the north. The lagoon where I launched provided a calm place to get everything adjusted, and as I left the park and highway behind and paddled the flat several hundred yard channel out to the river, I felt the bustle of the busy town of Steamboat recede and my energy was totally with my boat and the water beneath it. Turns out this was to be the last calm water I’d see today. Arriving at the main stream of the Yampa revealed what a difference 700 extra cubic feet per second of water can make in the speed of the current, not to mention changing the character of the river by, for instance, washing out many eddies and opening up smaller side channels. This section of the river meanders through grassy meadows and wetlands, splitting into two main channels almost immediately – both are navigable and while the current is strong here there are no real rapids to speak of, only a few rocks to dodge. This is a popular section with local anglers, and I saw over a dozen folks fly-fishing on this beautiful Friday afternoon. After about two miles of leisurely floating, a few small rapids (class I) woke me from my reverie, and I came around a right-hand turn to see the wood bridge that signifies the start of the “Town Run” that is so popular with locals on their inner tubes and paddle boards during the summer. Surprisingly, however, the river traffic did not increase here as I’d expected and I saw only a few tubers and several other kayakers the rest of the way. Pausing to admire the modern-yet-classic design of the bridge, I grabbed a quick snack and gulp of water, tightened up my spray skirt, and moved on toward the whitewater.
Modern wooden bridge spanning the Yampa, two miles below the put-in. This is also an alternate put-in for tubers and rafters.
Coming into downtown Steamboat Springs, the rapids increase in both number and fun. Starting out as a few isolated class I to II- drops with nothing more than some waves to worry about, the current, quick as it was at this flow, rapidly propelled me into the more continuous run of class II water that told me I needed to stay alert. Seemed to me that last year I’d had much more time between individual rapids, and the continuous sections were now a lot more continuous! Many of the bigger drops had waves of 2 – 3 feet below them, and water frequently washed over my fore-deck and spray skirt. The current splits into two approximately equal channels as the river flows around Railroad Island; I chose the right side as I recalled that’s where the channels rejoin below the island. The combined flow is forced sharply left and those in the left side channel have a particularly tight left turn to make at the end of a good class II drop. At this flow rate there were fewer rocks to avoid, but it was difficult to move laterally in the channel quickly enough to always be in the optimal line for the next rapid. And, with most of the familiar eddies washed out, it was difficult to find places to pause and survey downstream. At one point I had to drive my kayak hard onto a sandy section of riverbank in order to get out of the current enough to put my paddle down, get a drink, and adjust my skirt.
Passing through the heart of the city, between the shopping district on the right and Howelsen Park on the left, the rapids become more discrete, increasingly steep drops with reasonably calm pools in between. The last two of these drops, down by the library and the stinky hot springs, I would rate as class II+, maybe class III- at 1150 cfs. The biggest is about a three-foot drop contained in a channel that is only about 10 yards wide – a lot of water pouring through a small spout, producing a big hole followed by a train of three-foot waves. By running these to the far left or right it is possible to avoid the big waves, but you run the risk of getting turned sideways and sucked into the mixmaster in the center – not a pleasant prospect. So I took each of these drops head-on, thankful that I had a spray skirt. With some hard paddling prior to reaching the drop I had enough momentum to easily penetrate the hole and blast through the waves that followed – but not without taking a load of water in my face and chest. Without the skirt I would have been swamped several times over! After shedding the water from the top of my spray skirt and taking a few moments in the rare eddy that I found behind a rock after the last big drop, I looked back and up at the pedestrian bridge and realized that I’d had an audience of a dozen or so people who were now applauding me and giving me the thumbs up.
Below the downtown rapids, the river eases up and the last three miles or so were mostly class II drops with quick current in between, though one tougher rapid comes in a hard left bend just as the river approaches some very modern-looking condos on the west side of town. Increasingly, the banks become less developed, the valley widens, and the river widens as well, which in times of low water makes this a scratchy section. Today, however, there was plenty of wet covering the river bed and I was able to enjoy a quick but relaxing cruise around the last few bends before dealing with a challenging landing. The takeout on river right happens to be located adjacent to a modest class I+ rapid in the middle of a modest left turn.
Yampa at 450cfs at the take out. Note the ski area is visible in the background.
At lower water levels, e.g. 400 cfs, it is not hard to either run the rapid to far right and then pull quickly into an eddy and then pull out, or pull over right before the rapid into a little “harbor” that is out of the current. This time, though, I could tell that if I ran the rapid I’d get pulled well past the take out area by the strong current – the helpful eddy having disappeared with the higher waters. So, I managed to pull hard right onto the stony bank right before the rapid and jump out into the stiff current, somehow managing to avoid capsizing or slipping and falling into the river. Once safely on the shore I took more than a few moments to enjoy the warm sun, the view of the mountains and surrounding valley, and the happy gurgling and splashing of the river in front of me.