Why is the Yampa River such a Big Deal?

By Kim Cassels   •   May 8, 2019

Why is the Yampa River such a Big Deal?

We sat down with veteran river guide Scotty Guttman to talk about the Yampa River. Scotty had so many great things to tell us about the Yampa that we decided to turn his interview into an article to share our favorite parts with you.  

Yampa River Rafting-Colorado White Water-Mild to Wild Rafting

“The way that a child looks at water and is just mesmerized, I think it’s much more than just the fun factor. There’s something hidden behind the current lines, and to watch her eyes just sparkle as we went downstream is something that I get to share with my three-year-old daughter. It just makes my heart more happy than anything in the world.” Scotty Guttman seems to sparkle just as much as his daughter, Scarlet River, at his memory from last month on the Salt in Arizona.  

Scotty is a white water connoisseur with Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours and runs multi-day trips throughout Colorado, Utah and Arizona. He started running rivers in 2006, but his love for rapids started like many a Colorado kid while attending summer camp. His appreciation for the Yampa’s untamed nature and delicate wilderness embodies a special wonder.  

What’s the Big Deal with the Yampa?

So, what’s the scoop? Why do people love this river so much?

“The Yampa is one of the most sought-after rivers. It is one of the most elusive river permits that you could ever get,” Scotty said. “People wait an entire lifetime just to get one opportunity to run the Yampa.”

This river is a 250 mile stretch of untamed, free-flowing water. It begins outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado and meets the Green River inside Dinosaur National Monument. It is the last river in the Colorado River system to exist without a dam.  

Yampa River Rafting-Colorado White Water-Mild to Wild Rafting

“To be able to be a boater, a white water enthusiast, a nature lover, and to just see that geological process happening and unfolding right in front of your face I think is another reason why people just want to see it, and then once they get that little taste, they just want to see the Yampa over, and over, and over, and over again. It’s just unlike any other river system we can imagine.”

It Flows Free  

“What we see coming off the mountains is what we get, and that is what makes the Yampa wild, that’s what makes it so spectacular. There are very, very few opportunities to run a river that has that characteristic.”

Dammed rivers aren’t necessarily predictable, but they won’t be subject to flooding that significantly changes the river bottom and shape. Snow and rain determine the flow of the Yampa. Warm days, frigid nights, and storms change the river’s face by the hour. Flooding disrupts and moves sediment and rocks in a different arrangement every day.  

In 1965 a massive rock slide completely remade Warm Springs into the largest rapid on the river. Two years ago an enormous rockfall also reformed Big Joe, another impressive rapid on the Yampa. 

“As an experienced boater, even though you may know what may be down there, you never really know what it’s going to look like.”

The Rapids are Colossal  

Yampa River Rafting-Colorado White Water-Mild to Wild Rafting

It took decades for bold boaters to run the Yampa successfully. John Wesley Powell began venturing the canyons of Gates of Lodore and the Green River in 1869, which led his mapping travels upstream in the mysterious Yampa River. He got stuck four miles in however, unable to pass its magnificent white water.  

In the early 1900’s, a couple of French kayakers successfully navigated the Yampa’s rapids, spreading the word to adventurers thereafter.  

“I think what really gave notoriety to the Yampa was a Denver Post trip that had some pretty big failures, and they were able to write about the disasters and the hardships they had out there in this wild untamed river,” Scotty said. “It was published and sparked this interest in the Yampa.”   

The Hatch family are known as the pioneers of commercial river rafting. Before purchasing military pontoon bridge boats in the 1930’s, they traveled multiple Colorado and Utah rivers in a far less comfortable, but high adventure fashion.   

“They were really the first ones to go back in wooden boats with wooden crates full of glass mason jars. Hitting rapids, breaking, shattering glass everywhere, flipping their boats and getting to the shore saying ‘Man that was fun, let’s go do it again.’”  

It Shows Us that Water is Finite  

Yampa River Rafting-Colorado White Water-Mild to Wild Rafting

“The nature out there is something that we should all have in the forefront of our mind, I think it’s very easy in today’s age as the towns are growing and people’s numbers are growing that we lose sight of that balance between human and nature,” Scotty said. “And the Yampa, it’s hand in hand out there.”  

This river is the home to multiple endangered fish species and cottonwood groves only found on the Yampa. Without the dynamic currents that disperse sediment and reshape its form, the natural ecosystem will vanish along with the research dedicated to it.  

Keeping the Yampa in a raw state allows researchers to compare it to the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Observing the influence of man’s intrusion of waterways is vital to understanding the changes due to our consumption.  

“It’s in such a state of peril that nobody knows about it.”

Seven states completely rely on the Colorado river systems for water, and the Yampa is on the radar for where populations will get their water from in the future. Water is finite, evidently on the Yampa where one month the river will be at a record high and the next it’s shallow enough to drag a kayak over.  

“Every single human being should see the Yampa to get an appreciation for how precious water really is in today’s day and age.”  

What’s the Best Part?  

“Getting to see record high flows and record low flows, wildlife like I’ve never seen, storms like I’ve never been a part of, tranquility that still rings in the bottom of my heart … To pick out one particular thing about such a spectacular place is impossible for me,” Scotty said.  

For Scotty, anytime is the right time to experience the Yampa.  

Yampa River - Dinosaur National Monument - Mild to Wild Rafting

“For the thrill seekers that want to see what a river in full-blown flood stage is like, rapids that shake your heart cavity when you’re standing on the shores scouting because the sheer volume of water is creating that percussion through the canyon, then the first part of June is really great.”

 Once the melt has tapered off, those wanting a more mellow trip should venture towards the end of June. But remember, this could change as the Yampa’s flow is completely dependent on the weather.

“It’s going to be a great long season, great water this year, and an absolute must for anybody who considers themselves a boater, river enthusiast, or even just wanting to get an initiation into the world of river running, the Yampa’s it.”

More Reading:

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Getting a Lay of the Land: Distances to all our Major Trips

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