Steamboat Springs The bones of the earth have been laid bare in western Moffat County where the Yampa River cuts through a giant block of upthrust sedimentary rock known as Cross Mountain.
The almost record low flows in the Yampa have exposed Cross Mountain Canyon like never before. And although the river is closed to boating from public access points, this summer represents a rare opportunity to walk into the canyon where rapids typically roar. The historic average flow for Aug. 1 at Deer Lodge Park, just downstream from the canyon, is nearly 600 cubic feet per second. This year, it is fluctuating due to irrigation releases, but the most recent reading was 68 cfs, not even 15 percent of normal.
The 200-foot cliffs of Mississippian Madison limestone dwarf human figures picking through the giant boulders on the floor of the canyon. In several places, there are rocks the size of school buses with cottonwood logs perched on top of them. The logs were deposited in other years, the mere detritus the giant flows of spring runoff.
Cross Mountain was folded, broken and uplifted during the formation of the Uintah Mountains in the early Tertiary period. Geologists say the mountains were worn down and buried in their own debris. Erosion uncovered them even as they were upthrust a second time about 10 million years ago. At the same time, the Yampa cut a deep canyon into the mountain, exposing its geologic history.
The easiest way to walk into the canyon is to camp at a state park known as East Cross Mountain. It is the eleventh of 13 public boating access points managed by Yampa River State Park headquartered just west of Hayden.
East Cross Mountain is easily reached in the late afternoon from Steamboat after an hour and 45-minute drive, setting campers up for an early morning hike into the canyon about 1.5 miles away. The river is so low that it is easy to walk along wet sandbars and through ankle deep shallows, which keep hikers cool. As your party nears the canyon itself, it will encounter an abrupt change in gradient that creates a deep pool where large fish can be observed from the surrounding cliffs. Wade out on the right bank of the river facing downstream for the easiest access into the canyon. The left bank ends in cliffs against the water, necessitating a swim to enter the canyon proper.
At least two kinds of footwear are needed for this hike. Although it's fairly easy to hike barefoot before entering the canyon, you'll want a pair of river sandals as well as approach shoes with plenty of ankle and toe protection; even at low water, hiking in the canyon itself is made difficult by the jumble of sharp-edged boulders.
This is a remote area chances are you won't encounter another soul and help is far away in the case of a broken ankle. Don't go alone, and take survival gear.
There is also ample mountain biking in the area for people who want to mount a multi-day adventure. The Bureau of Land Management has designated 100 miles of largely two-track it calls the Yampa Valley Trail. It also includes four-wheel-drive roads, single track and unimproved dirt road. Observe signs and keep in mind there are ecologically sensitive areas where motor vehicles and bikes are prohibited.
The first bike access is 31.5 miles west of Craig, just past Maybell. Traveling west on U.S. 40, slow down on the first hill beyond Maybell and turn right at a green steel gate. This is the beginning of the Yampa Valley Trail. It can also be accessed 8 miles further west of County Road 23 at Cedar Springs Draw. Twenty miles west of Maybell is the Deer Lodge road turnoff. It leads to the Cross Mountain turnout.
According to the BLM, the trail segments between Maybell and Cross Mountain are primarily two-track routes that traverse rolling sand hills. The opportunities for observing deer, elk and pronghorn are best in spring. The trail leading over the south end of Cross Mountain climbs into pinyon/juniper woodlands. There is a spur trail that leads to a view into Cross Mountain Canyon.
The Cross Mountain country is a little austere and forbidding. But if it's solitude that you prize, it could be the place for you. And the experience in this drought summer may prove to be like no other to come for many years.
Adventurers can learn more about recreation on Bureau of Land Management holdings near Cross Mountain area at: http://www.co.blm.gov/lsra/biking.htm.