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Yampa River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Steamboat Springs to West Cross Mountain
~ 147.8 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Departing Steamboat Springs, the Yampa River runs in a generally westerly direction toward its confluence with the Green River. The reach from Steamboat to West Cross Mountain is 147.8 miles of infrequently paddled water in an area not normally on the agenda of commercial liveries. The river is closely paralleled by IH 40 all the way to Craig where the river turns south, then for another 10-11 miles by SH 13 until it again heads west across the high desert of northern Colorado. There are few crossing roads and public access points, a contributing factor to the lack of crowding you can expect on this section of the Yampa. However, there are several small towns along the way, and they are not far from the river. These include Milner and Hayden along IH 40 between Steamboat and Craig, and Hamilton, Maybell and Sunbeam between Craig and Deerlodge Park. Some limited access and supplies will be available along this reach. Trout fishing in this section is some of the best Colorado has to offer.

The scenery here includes the Williams Fork Mountain Range near Craig, sheer sandstone mountains rising right out of the river down toward Deerlodge Park, and a greenbelt along the river closely shadowed by the desert beyond. Technical difficulty ranges from modest Class I to hairboat Class IV to VI- in Cross Mountain Gorge just before Deerlodge Park, though most of the river will be Class II to III interspersing a lot of long flatwater pools. Paddlers do have the option of taking out at Moffat County Road 85 above Mammoth Falls to avoid Cross Mountain Gorge. It should be noted that river permits are NOT available for paddling between West Cross Mountain and Deerlodge Park, so West Cross Mountain access becomes the last public take-out point for this reach of the Yampa River.

The river usually flows clean, cold and clear from April through August in years of normal or higher snowmelt. No permits are required for the Steamboat Springs to West Cross Mountain section of the Yampa River. Bring along a camera and a good dry bag to contain it. If your boating skills are sufficient, there are numerous tributary rivers and creeks that enter the Yampa along this reach including the Elk (and its tributaries Willow Creek and Mad Creek), Fish Creek, and Little Snake River. Each of these side runs features Class IV or higher rapids and waterfalls that require advanced to expert level whitewater kayaking skills and swiftwater rescue training.

Please observe the following regulations that apply to use of the river and adjoining land:

  • Portable Toilets must be used and solid human waste and toilet paper carried out.
  • Biodegradable soap must be used for cleaning and food particles strained out of dishwater.
  • A fire pan must be used for fires and ashes carried out.
  • Only charcoal, wood that has been carried in, dead fall, or driftwood may be used for fires.
  • All trash and garbage must be carried out.
  • Boating/camping group size may not exceed 15 persons.
  • No hazardous materials or waste may be disposed on public lands.
  • Cultural, paleontological or historic resources are not to be removed, destroyed, or vandalized.
  • Location

    Routt and Moffat Counties of northcentral Colorado, just north of Glenwood Springs. This reach starts in the Rocky Mountains of Routt National Forest. Denver is about 3.5-4 hours to the southeast.

    Distance from major cities

    Durango 390 miles; Grand Junction 215 miles; Denver 170 miles; Albuquerque 600 miles; Salt Lake City 375 miles; Phoenix 845 miles; Oklahoma City 795 miles; Dallas 955 miles; San Antonio 1,125 miles; Houston 1,200 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

    Water Quality and Flow Rates

    The Yampa usually flows clean, cold and clear, though it may become muddy right after a heavy rainfall or during the start of the snowmelt season. High flows of 6,000-12,000 cfs usually occur from mid-May through mid-June, producing a fast 5-7 mph current of very cold water. Starting near the end of July flows may become low enough to require carrying or dragging boats in shallow areas. The 4-mile segment through Cross Mountain Gorge is for EXPERT BOATERS ONLY, and the Moffat County Sheriff's Office restricts that area to kayaks only when flows exceed 5,000 cfs. The cold water and high elevation make it necessary to wear drysuits or wetsuits with base layers, or water-repelling garments that are layered to prevent hypothermia. Neoprene gloves and hard-soled river boots are also strongly recommended. Avoid wearing cotton clothing on the river - it will get wet, trap moisture against your body, and keep you cold until you dry out and change clothing.

    Best time to go

    The prime season for the Steamboat Springs to West Cross Mountain run is mid-May through mid-June, though the river may be navigable as early as April and as late as Audust, depending upon winter snowpack, spring/summer rainfall, spring warming and the amount of water being diverted. Local conditions may extend or reduce the length of the normal paddling season.

    Hazards to navigation

    The Upper Yampa River has many Class II and III whitewater rapids that can be problems if not negotiated properly. Serious hazards are usually few, but occasional log jams from avalanche debris may pose unexpected problems. It is advisable to scout the river from the road before beginning a paddle trip on this section. Nearing Deerlodge Park, just below Moffat County Road 85, sits Cross Mountain Gorge, a series of huge waves, big holes and fierce rapids in the Class IV to VI- range. This area includes Mammoth Falls (a.k.a. Osterizer), a potential killer for paddlers lacking sufficient skills and experience in big whitewater conditions, and The Snake Pit, arguably the most difficult rapid on the Yampa, which is characterized by a zigzag route clogged with huge boulders and big waves that make it a tough run. The Moffat County Sheriff's Office restricts that area to kayaks only when flows exceed 5,000 cfs. Unless certain about your abilities, it is recommended that you take out at CR 85 and bypass the Gorge. Inquire from locals about known current conditions and hazards.

    River Access Points

    Put in at Mt. Werner Road in Steamboat Springs at 0.0 miles; Pine Grove Road at about 0.5 miles; Safeway at about 1.0 mile; 5th Street Access at about 2.0 miles; 9th Street Access at about 2.5 miles; 12th Street Access at about 3.0 miles; Pump Station at about 28.0 miles; Double Bridges at about 40.5 miles; State Wildlife Area at about 48.0 miles; Yampa Valley Golf Course off SH 394 douth of Craig at about 58.0 miles; Loudy Simpson Park off SH 394 south of Craig at about 61.5 miles; South Beach Access of SH 13 south of Craig at about 64.8 miles; Duffy Mountain Access off BLM Road 1593 / Moffat CR 17 intersection at about 96.8 miles; Juniper Canyon Access (State Parks access fee required) off Moffat CR 53/CR 74 intersection at about 108.8 miles; Maybell Bridge (State Parks access fee required) off US Highway 40 at about 114.8 miles; Sunbeam Access off Moffat CR 23/CR 318 interesection at about 131.8 miles; East Cross Mountain Access (State Parks access fee required) off Moffat County Road 85, 4 miles below East Cross Mountain boat ramp at about 143.8 miles; West Cross Mountain boat ramp (State Parks access fee required) off Moffat County Road 85 at about 147.8 miles; other access points may be available.

    Campgrounds and accommodations

    Camping is available adjacent to the river and IH 40 about one mile below the 129 Road intersection just west of Steamboat Springs, on river right. There are no other public or private campgrounds on this section of the Yampa River. Much of the adjoining land is privately owned, and paddlers should secure permission before making camp on private land. Hostilities toward paddlers can be high, so please be courteous and leave behind only footprints.

    Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

    There are at least two commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the Yampa River.

    Reviewer's comments

    Running the Yampa from Steamboat Springs to West Cross Mountain is not a commonly paddled adventure for most boaters. However, many people enjoy short segment runs between any of several access points along this reach of about 147.8 miles. The river is spectacular in its scenic beauty and offers some decent Class I to III whitewater rapids (Class IV to VI- in Cross Mountain Gorge) that can be exciting as they test skills and nerve. This is truly a trip for marathon paddlers on wilderness adventures. There will be other people on the river, especially on weekends in late-spring through late-June, as it passes through the high desert of northcentral Colorado, though a greenbelt does line the banks on either side for a few yards. Fly fishermen may be working the river, so be careful to avoid getting "caught", and be friendly as you share the river with them. Vistas are awesome, and demand that you bring a camera, secured in a good drybag, of course.

    Officials at Dinosaur National Monument state that permits for running the river between West Cross Mountain Access and Deerlodge Park are not available, and that only those with a permit can enter the river at Deerlodge Park for trips through Yampa Canyon to the Green River confluence below this reach. Most of the land between West Cross Mountain and the boundary to Dinosaur National Monument, which is about 7-8 miles east of Deerlodge Park, is privately owned and access is not available without prior consent of the landowners in that area.

    Technical Data
    Class Rating I to III (IV to VI-)
    Length 147.8 miles
    Minimum Flow cfs
    Optimum Flow cfs
    Maximum Flow 12,000 cfs
    First Put-in Mt. Werner Road
    Lat. / Long.
    Last Take-out Deerlodge Park
    Lat. / Long.
    Elevation msl
    Gradient fpm
    USGS Gauge Web: Steamboat Springs
    Web: Craig
    Web: Maybell
    Web: Deerlodge Park
    Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts, Dorries
    Season April (?), May through July (August ?)
    Permits No

    Map of the Yampa River public access points courtesy Colorado State Parks Department
    Map of the Yampa River public access points courtesy
    Colorado State Parks Department

    Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

    Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

    Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

    Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

    Click HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

    Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Yampa River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

    [ Yampa River Homepage ] [ Steamboat Springs to West Cross Mountain ] [ Deerlodge Park to Split Mountain Campground ]
    [ White River ] [ Elk River ]

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    Last updated January 1, 2015

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