If you ever sat down to list the units of the National Park System that are misunderstood and under-appreciated, Dinosaur National Monument would be near the top. That realization can't be ignored if you've floated either the Yampa or Green rivers that cleave into and expose the underbelly of Dinosaur.
That thought first came to me when I drifted down the Yampa with friends back in 2009, and was reinforced in late July during a four-day trip down the Green with Holiday River Expeditions. Floating through the Canyon of Lodore, past Echo Park and massive Steamboat Rock, and then into Whirlpool Canyon and on through Split Mountain, dinosaurs were the last thing on my mind.
Much More Than Dino Fossils
The Park Service in September of last year had, after five long years of waiting and building, dedicated a brand spanking new visitor center for the monument. And the next month it opened the Quarry Exhibit Hall that showcases the fossilized dinosaur remains that convinced President Woodrow Wilson to designate the national monument in 1915.
But geology, history, wildlife, and water -- not fossils -- capture your attention as you run these two rivers.
The Green in particular is rich in history. More than 1,300 years ago the Fremont culture arrived in the area and began to utilize the canyons and plateaus for vegetable plots and shelters and left some of their artworks on cliff faces. And then there was Major John Wesley Powell, who in 1869 led an expedition down the Green and, eventually, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
A pivotal moment in U.S. conservation history played out in this corridor, as well, one that left a black spot on David Brower's career. Mr. Brower, who helped bring the Sierra Club to national prominence, in 1955 fought hard to prevent a dam from rising in Echo Park as part of the Colorado River Project. In return, he agreed to have the Glen Canyon Dam that resulted in Lake Powell built a little higher to hold more water.
In hindsight, the decision, which also thwarted the possibility of a dam downstream from Echo Park at Split Mountain in the monument, was harshly criticized. On one hand, the possibility of dams rising in a national monument -- Dinosaur -- was eliminated. But it also led to the greater flooding of Glen Canyon and the priceless wonders -- prehistoric artworks on cliff walls, ruins, the beauty of this canyon-riddled section of the Colorado Platea -- it held.
In an interview with Salt Lake City-based KUED-TV in Salt Lake City, Mr. Brower explained his thinking at the time, which he came to regret:
"And they were claiming that they needed to build Echo Park Dam because it would evaporate less water. And I began to wonder, 'Well, what can we do to save evaporation by not building Echo Park Dam?' And I came up with the brilliant idea that Glen Canyon Dam, which was already being proposed, should be built something like 35 feet higher in order for it to hold all the water Echo Park was going to hold, and to save evaporation.
"And that's where my thinking was. Let's get Glen Canyon Dam built and let's forget about Echo Park and Split Mountain and save Dinosaur National Monument.
"But as soon as I started talking about making Glen Canyon higher -- and this is where my first fault began -- the Bureau of Reclamation said, 'Well, that would make it more difficult to save Rainbow Bridge from the flood of Glen Canyon. And, besides, we have some concern about the foundations at Glen Canyon anyway, so we don't want it any higher.'
"They didn't want it any higher and the people who knew Glen Canyon -- which I didn't -- had been down there on easy trips where there are practically no rapids said, 'What are you talking about, trying to build more Glen Canyon Dam when we want no Glen Canyon Dam at all?'"
Rafts, Duckies And A Canoe
With most of the day-to-day attention the monument gains tied to the Quarry Exhibit Hall outside of Vernal, Utah, we entered the monument through a backdoor, casting off our three rafts, two "rubber duckies," and one white-water canoe from the Gates of Lodore campground and floating through the tremendous rift the river has cut through this section of the Uinta Mountain Range.
The river's flow was down in late July, no small thanks to the far, far, far-below-normal snowpack from the previous winter. While that low flow tamed some of the rapids -- Disaster Falls (Upper and Lower), Triplet Falls, Hells Half Mile, Moonshine, S.O.B., Schoolboy and Inglesby -- it didn't shame the experience.
Currents thread through rock gardens and roar through channels that spew wave trains, pulling you constantly downstream through ever-changing patterns of light, from shadows cast by the cliffs to full sun reflecting off the leaping waters.
Mountains soar up about you, revealing geologic twists and faults. Promontories of rock jut into the river corridor, while canyons cut deep behind them. Landslides and boulders that time sent down into the river created, and occasionally continue to alter, the rapids that Major Powell and his band of men struggled to conquer. Disaster Falls in particular rightly earned its name from the major.
At the foot of one of these runs, early in the afternoon I found a place where it would be necessary to make a portage, and signalling the boats to come down, I walked along the bank to examine the ground for the portage, and left one of the men of my boat to signal the others to land at the right point. I soon saw one of the boats land all right, and felt no more care about them. But five minutes after I heard a shout, and looking around, I saw one of the boats coming over the falls. Capt. Howland, of the "No Name," had not seen the signal in time, and the swift current had carried him to the brink. I saw that his going over was inevitable, and turned to save the third boat. In two minutes more I saw that turn the point and head to shore, and so I went after the boat going over the falls.
The first fall was not great, only two or three feet, and we had often run such, but below it continued to tumble down 20 to 30 feet more, in a channel filled with dangerous rocks that broke the waves into whirlpools and beat them into foam. I turned just to see the boat strike a rock and throw the men and cargo out. Still they clung to her sides and clambered in again and saved part of the oars, but she was full of water, and they could not manage her. Still down the river they went, two or three hundred yards to another rocky rapid just as bad, and the boat struck again amid ships, and was dashed to pieces. The men were thrown into the river and carried beyond my sight.
No one died in the mishap, though the No Name was smashed beyond repair, some scientific instruments were lost, and some rations for the months-long adventure washed away. But the men did manage to save two barometers...and a keg of whiskey.
Mesmerizing Geology And Natural Resources
Trying to understand the geology alone would take more than a four-day river trip, as the monument showcases roughly two dozen layers of rock that represent some 1.2 billion years of time. Whether you understand the machinations that went into the creation of these layers, you can't help but be impressed by the forces that bent, folded, and tilted them.
Bighorn sheep clamber along the cliffs and browse the still-green grasses and forbes along the riverbanks. Ancient cottonwoods, pungent junipers, and contorted pinyons range across this landscape from riverside to mountain top. In between and closer to the ground are orange globemallows (a plant with clusters of small, orange, globe-like flowers) and scarlet gilia (which features trumpet-like flowers that draw hummingbirds) and even hedgehog cactus with its yellow flowers.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to appreciate this rugged and wild landscape in 1938 and enlarged the monument by 200,000-plus acres to encompass the Green and Yampa river corridors.
River Time Spent Well
A river trip through the Green River arm of Dinosaur allows time to contemplate the earth's forces and decorations, as well as the tenaciousness of Major Powell and his crew and those early river runners who worked to tame the Green after World War II.
And it offers time to truly disconnect from the wired world and reconnect with friends and family. The crew at Holiday River makes your disconnection from the "real" world complete. On the river, the guides lead you through the rapids, intersperse the river running with hikes to limestone overlooks high above the Green or to ancient palettes bearing images both recognizeable as bighorn sheep and mysterious as other-worldly aliens, all the while regaling you with the human history that has risen up from those who have traveled the river's surface.
On the river, the canyons change color as the sun drifts across the sky. Deep reds, vermilion shades, blacks, whites, browns and buffs paint the rock, while earthly minerals add their own hues to the mountains' seams. About these earthy tones, rich hues of green burst skyward where vegetation has taken root and figured out how to thrive in this arid setting.
Melodious songs of unseen canyon wrens cascade upon us, mixing with the crescendo of the river's rapids. Small bands of bighorn sheep, sometimes just a ewe with a lamb, other times four or five individuals traveling together, come into sight on the shorelines or a bit higher up on the canyons' flanks.
And yes, it can be hot on the river in late July and August, with temperatures of 90 degrees and above. But they're remedied by a quick dip in the river or an icy cold drink pulled from a cooler.
At camps tucked up onto sandy beaches with shaded tent sites, the guides prepare sumptuous meals -- breakfasts of granola and yogurt, pancakes (blueberry or strawberry and peach), or "Big Drop" omelets; lunches of chicken ceasar salad wraps, pasta salads, cold cuts and fresh fruits; and dinners of tender steaks, mahi-mahi, or pasta.
After dinner you can relax with the "Broom Dance," a comical routine that tests your skills of observation, or learn more about your fellow rafters through a game of "two truths and a lie," or simpy watch the sunset stain the mountains while the river gurgles by.
Nights can be as magical as days. As the sun departs, bats arrive, flitting about to eat their dinner, while high overhead the Milky Way begins to draw back its curtain. Moonglow can illuminate the canyon walls, not in the rainbow hues created by the sun, but more a black-and-white or even sepia tone.
At one camp, the resident skunk came out around dusk. Not to welcome us to this patch of Dinosaur or to defend it with his perfume, but merely to search for any morsel that might have dropped unnoticed from our plates.
Overhead, the moon was bright, casting the monument in yet another light.
The lure of the fossils sheltered within the Quarry Exhibit Hall is not to be minimized, but the pure rawness of the landscape found along the river corridors within Dinosaur's boundaries adds so much richness to the monument. Until you experience that landscape first-hand, you'll struggle to fully appreciate Dinosaur.