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Sandstorms and Geographic Splendor| The Yampa River, Utah

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

My rump was placed gingerly atop the groover (fancy word for portable metal river toilet) when it happened. Before the shouting started, I heard a roar coming from downstream; almost like a small jet engine. Then our trip leader yelled, “batten down the hatches!”. I knew this wasn’t good. Before I had time to buckle my pants, a wind gust slammed into my body. If it weren’t for the conveniently placed handles on the groover I would have undoubtedly rolled over the ledge, with the groover, into the river below. I rode out the sandy tornado-like storm as long as I could, but it wasn’t stopping. As I muscled myself to my feet, I couldn’t help but think this might be the end. I was going to die with my pants around my ankles.

I eventually came to my senses and fought my way through the wind back to camp. Kids were screaming, the cook crew was using their bodies to keep the stove table upright and small camp items were flying everywhere! And it was beautiful. There’s something about storms that draw me in; they’re humbling and invigorating.

I’m blessed to work for a company that allows its employees the opportunity to travel to different rivers. We happened to have a break in our July schedule, so myself and 3 other guides drove 15 grueling hours to Vernal, Utah. I had never seen the Yampa River, but because of its “free-flowing” status, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Canyon boating is something I only recently became introduced to (check out my Grand Canyon experience), but it’s quickly becoming a deep-seated love.

The Yampa, in Dinosaur National Park, is a 70-mile journey through breathtaking geology and endless natural history. I wouldn’t say the whitewater was particularly thrilling, but the scenery was well worth the flat water and impassable wind. The side hikes were littered with ancient petroglyphs and the on-water view of the sweeping canyon walls was absolutely remarkable. That would have been enough for me to hang my hat on, but the camps were also extraordinary. All of our camps provided beautiful sandy beaches, flat kitchens, and glorious sunsets.

Camps are selected before your trip via a reservation system, so there is no need to send a camp runner boat — hallelujah! The camps that we stayed at were Ponderosa, Harding, Box Elder, and Jones. All were great and would accommodate a medium to large size group. I slept on my boat all 4 nights, even during the wind and rain (thanks to a makeshift tarp/paddle shelter), and couldn’t recommend it more! Being gently rocked to sleep by the river’s current, while the sky above you twinkles, is quite possibly the best way to rest your weary eyes.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the Yampa isn’t necessarily a “gnar” run with tons of big technical water. However, there are a few larger rapids that will definitely get your heart pumping. Warm Springs, a class IV, is the most notorious of the bunch — you will want to be sure to scout (from the right bank)! I found this to be the most technical of the rapids, but at a low water level was very manageable. If action is what you are seeking, this is a great river for inflatable kayaks. The wind/flat water can be a bit difficult but the splash factor will greatly enhance your adrenaline experience!

Want to give this adventure a shot? (logistics)

Because of the popularity of this river, permits can be hard to come by, so apply early! It’s also handy to have various members of your group apply to increase your odds.

Location: Yampa River – Vernal, Utah

Put-in: Deerlodge Park

Take-out: Split Mountian Canyon.

Season: Early May- Early July

Mileage/Days: 72 miles, 4-5 days

Rapid Difficulty: Class II-III/IV. Scout @ Warmsprings Rapid (river right)

Permit Information: Unless using a commercial outfitter, you need a permit to float on the multi-day section of the Yampa. For more information click here. If you’d like to book through an outfitter, I recommend using my company, OARS. You can even request me on your trip 🙂

Cost: Commercial trips will cost between $999 – $1,199 per person. Private permits are $185 with a $15 application fee.

What to bring: (not so obvious items)

- Bug spray! Some sections have TONS of mosquitos and deer flies.

- Body Salve. Canyon rafting tends to dry out your skin much more than other geographical regions.

- Permit regulation-compliant items; such as fire pan blankets, crumb mats, shovels etc…

- Alcohol. It’s a real pain in the butt to buy alcohol in Utah, so purchase your booze ahead of time!

Things to note:

- This is a wilderness area with no easy evacuation points or cell service. Bring a satellite phone or some sort of GPS spot device.

- The flow of the Yampa is dependent on snow melt and rainfall, so CFS fluctuates greatly. With that said, it is mostly flat. Expect to be pushing against wind.

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