Long before you board a raft for the three-day, two-state, one-national-monument, 42.6-mile, class III-ish, 1,700-cfs odyssey through Northwest Colorado’s Lodore Canyon, you’ll be faced with far more daunting numbers. Rafting permit applications here can exceed 10,000 in a given year. For about 300 slots. That makes this remote slice of the Green River—gushing through a spectacular gorge system dubbed “the Little Grand Canyon”—one of the longest-odds whitewater journeys to get on in the country.
“We’re pretty off the beaten path, but we’re also about preserving that pure solitude people come here to experience,” says Paul Scolari, superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, who I join on a trip leaving from the fabled Gates of Lodore. “We only have so many designated campsites along the river, so it’s a matter of capacity.”
Poking out of flat, high-desert country, the “gates”—billion-year-old red quartzite cliffs—flank the northern tip of the 210,000-acre monument. Hop in a raft and float through those colossal formations and you feel completely gone. Later stretches of the canyon deliver magnificent sandstone and limestone cliffs hulking beside a river tumbling into cheerfully named rapids like Disaster Falls and Hell’s Half Mile.
“Right down in there is where [19th-century explorer] John Wesley Powell and his crew lost their first boat,” points out our oarsman and director of Visit Moffat County, Tom Kleinschnitz, an authority on this vast corner of largely untapped Colorado beauty. He nods at a sheer, 500-foot sandstone cliff. “Up there is where Powell got stuck on a ledge and had to hoist himself all the way down on a leather strap.”
The southbound Green River meets Colorado’s westerly Yampa River at Echo Park. The trip’s geological opus, it’s a natural amphitheater with huge cliffs and a monolithic centerpiece called Steamboat Rock. We strike camp on a beach, heat a pot of elk chili and plan our run to the Utah border the next morning. On the off chance we miss our takeout at Split Mountain boat ramp, we’ll eventually hit the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park and that other Grand Canyon in Arizona. “What the hell?” I think beneath a star-strewn sky. “My luck has held this far. Why not chance those odds as well?”
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