Steamboat Springs Even with a subpar start to our skiing and riding year, all that snow has to go somewhere come runoff. And when it does, it careens into the Yampa River and on downstream, fueling another sport relying on gravity and precipitation: river running.
The followers of this cult number more than you might think in Steamboat. Like birds migrating back from their winter climes, they take to the area’s rivers in rafts, dories, canoes, kayaks and even stand-up paddleboards, letting the river provide the manpower for multiday forays into the wilderness. And Steamboat is in the heart of this river running region, with classic western runs like Yampa Canyon, Gates of Lodore, Deoslation/Gray, Westwater and Ruby Horsethief all within easy striking distance.
But there’s a catch. Since the pastime has become so popular, most multiday western waterways require a permit obtained through a lottery system. And most of these applications need to be received by the managing agency by Jan. 31. Furthermore, some permits are difficult to obtain (the odds of getting a permit for Yampa Canyon through Dinosaur National Monument are 6 percent). So if you’re not a cook, good looking in a thong or able to play the guitar like David Crosby, chances are you won’t get invited along. That means you have to play the game.
For those with the proper experience, we’ve made it easier with the following list of regulations and contact information for some of the more popular multiday runs near Steamboat. Consider it a set of Cliffs Notes for getting into the cliffs of canyon country. And we’re gambling that while it technically reduces our chances of obtaining a permit, perhaps you’ll invite us along.
Westwater Canyon, Utah
A classic 17-mile canyon run with 7 miles of Class III to IV whitewater. Beware Skull Rapid and the Room of Doom. Agency: Bureau of Land Management. Information: BLM, 82 Dogwood, Suite G, Moab, UT 84532, 435-259-7012. Permit season: March 1 to Oct. 31. Price: $3 per person. Lottery: Jan. 1 to March 1. Send postcard with name, address, phone number and social security number, or call for application forms. Allocation for 75 people or five launches per day. Maximum party size: 25.
Cataract Canyon, Utah
A three- to four-day flatwater float leads to one of the country’s best Class III to IV big-water canyons, which last year topped out at a nerve-racking 90,000 cubic feet per second. Agency: National Park Service. Information: Canyonlands National Park, 2282 South West Resource Blvd., Moab, Utah 84532, 435-259-4351. Permit season: All year. Main season: April 15 to Oct. 14. Price: $25 per permit. First come, first served after Dec. 15. No lottery. Allocation for 4,000 permits. Maximum party size: 40
Desolation/Gray Canyons, Utah
Located south of Vernal, Utah, this Class II to III stretch (with one new Class IV) lets you follow the wake of John Wesley Powell through one of the West’s most beautiful canyons. Just beware the bugs on Night 1. Agency: BLM. 125 S. 600 W. P.O. Box 7004, Price, Utah 84501, 435-636-3622. Permit season: All year. Main season: April 1 to Oct. 31. Price: $13 per person. Applications taken Dec. 1 to Jan. 31. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Maximum party size: 25
Gates of Lodore, Colo.
A classic three- to four-day Class II to III trip (one Class IV) that can be run into October (weather permitting), thanks to releases from the Flaming Gorge Dam. Woe be to those with bad lines in Hell’s Half Mile and Disaster Falls. Agency: NPS. Information: River Office, Dinosaur National Monument, 4545 U.S. Highway 40, Dinosaur, CO 81610, 970-374-2468. Permit season: All year. Main season: May 14 to Sept. 14. Price: $12 application fee plus $75 if awarded permit. Application requests accepted Nov. 1 to Feb. 1. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Allocation for 300 (split between Yampa and Gates of Lodore) main season private launches. Maximum party size: 25.
Yampa Canyon, Colo.
The crown jewel for Steamboat floaters, winding 71 miles through Dinosaur National Monument from Deerlodge Park to Split Mountain campground. Note: Pull right for all your worth to avoid the Maytag hole in Warm Springs Rapid. Permit information: See Gates of Lodore website at www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/upload/2012-Lottery-Application-fillable-2.pdf
Selway River, Idaho
A bit of a road trip, but the ultra-schnizzle for kayakers and rafters (and as hard of a permit to get as the Yampa). Agency: U.S. Forest Service. Information: West Fork Ranger District, 6735 West Fork Road, Darby, MT 59829, 406-821-3269. Permit season: May 15 to July 31. Price: $6 application fee. Applications taken Dec. 1 to Jan. 31. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Allocations for one launch per day. Maximum party size: 16.
Middle Fork Salmon River, Idaho
Like its Selway neighbor, a 100-mile wilderness run that should be on every river runner’s resume, complete with riverside hot springs every night. Agency: USFS. Information: Middle Fork Ranger District, P.O. Box 750, Challis, ID 83226, 208-879-4112. Permit season: All year. Main season: June 1 to Sept. 3. Price: $6 application fee. Applications taken Dec. 1 to Jan. 31. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Allocation for seven private launches per day. Maximum party size: 24.
Main Salmon, Idaho
Cue Chevy Chase’s family vacation. A haul to get to, but perhaps the best multiday family trip in the country with football field-sized beaches and kid-giggling wave trains. Agency: USFS. Information: North Fork Ranger District, P.O. 180, North Fork, ID 83466, 208-865-2700. Permit season: June 20 to Sept. 7. Price: $6 application fee. Applications taken Dec. 1 to Jan. 31. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Allocation for four private launches per day. Maximum party size: 30.
San Juan River, Utah
The quintessential April spring break trip for Steamboat residents wanting a dose of the dessert, complete with plunge pools in side canyons and Anasazi ruins. Agency: BLM. Info: Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 7, Monticello, UT 84535, 435-587-1544. Permit season: All year. Main season: June 1 to Sept. 30. Price: $4.50 to $12.50 depending on section. Applications taken Dec. 1 to Feb. 28. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Allocation for 75 people or seven groups maximum per day. Maximum party size: 25. Website: www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/ut/monticello_fo/recreation.Par.86013.File.dat/2012%20San%20Juan%20River%20Application.pdf
Rio Chama, New Mexico
Arriba! A classic dam-released, three-day Class II to III wilderness run south of the Colorado border. Agency: BLM. Information: Bureau of Land Management, 226 Cruz Alta Rd., Taos, NM 87571, 505-758-8851. Permit season: May 1 to Sept. 30. Price: $6 application fee plus $5 per person. Applications taken Feb. 1 to March 15. Lottery. Send postcard or call for applications. Allocation: Two private launches weekdays and six on weekends during low season May 1 to June 5; 11 private launches per day during high season July 16 to Aug. 31. Maximum party size: 16.