Steamboat Springs To gauge when the Yampa River is flowing its fastest, local kayakers and rafters don't just watch the water -- they watch Storm Peak.
"You know those two bald spots up on Storm Peak?" outfitter John Duty asked, referring Monday to two large patches dirt in the melting snow atop Steamboat Ski Area. "When those join together, the river has peaked."
Although the two bald spots are still separate, they're getting bigger -- and with all the melting snow, the river is flowing faster, well above averages compiled during nearly 100 years of measuring the Yampa.
Statistics from the Colorado Water Science Center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, show that as of 5:15 p.m. Monday, the river was moving 3,300 cubic feet of water per second through downtown Steamboat Springs, at a depth of nearly six feet.
The average flow rate, or discharge, for May 22 is less than 2,000 cubic feet per second.
"It's definitely up there -- I'd say we're darn close to peak (rates)," Duty said.
The USGS measurements are taken several times daily at a "gaging" station on the riverbank near the Fifth Street Bridge. That station is one of seven USGS gaging stations in Routt County, including two each in Steamboat, Stagecoach and Hayden, and one in Milner.
For river recreation buffs, keeping an eye on the updates, and on Storm Peak, is a must.
Duty owns High Adventures Rafting and Blue Sky West, a water recreation company recently purchased by Bucking Rainbow Outfitters. The businesses lead rafting trips "all over Northwest Colorado," Duty said.
Whether this is the peak of the runoff season is a up for debate. River levels rise and fall according to temperatures and waves of melting snow from various elevations.
"We might have another peak later in the spring or summer," said Nicolai Bencke of the U.S. Forest Service. Along with Brian Waugh, a biological resource specialist for the forest service, Bencke rode a snowmobile to the summit of Buffalo Pass on Monday to measure the snowpack.
Under a clear blue sky and a blazing sun, snow reached to 8 feet, 4 inches on the tall, white measuring pole stuck in the ground beneath radio towers and a small weather station.
Last week, the snowpack was at 9 feet, 8 inches, Bencke said. The week before that, he measured 11 feet.
In other words, despite the raging waters of the Yampa, there's still a lot of snow left to run down Routt County mountainsides.
"I wouldn't doubt seeing patches of snow up here in August," Bencke said.
He also watches the bald spots on Storm Peak.
"They're still connected," Bencke said. "We're going to see a lot of water this year."