Weekend in Colorado's Greater Dinosaur- a place worth saving

The Greater Dinosaur region of northwest Colorado is finally thawing out, after one of the snowiest winters in recorded history.  And when the thaw begins, folks in this part of the world follow the melting snow line towards a myriad of outstanding recreational opportunities available on the region’s public lands.

Last weekend I took part in this migration and set out to explore several of the proposed wilderness areas that The Wilderness Society has been working to protect for over a decade.  Diamond Breaks, Cold Springs Mountain, and Vermillion Basin comprise over 170,000 acres of pinyon and juniper coated canyons, secluded grassy meadows, and creek-filled sandstone narrows.

Just over an hour from The Wilderness Society offices in Craig, Colorado, the proposed wilderness areas of Greater Dinosaur provide a wide variety of recreational opportunities and solitude.

My trip began at Diamond Breaks, an area along the Utah/Colorado border where long meadow-filled draws lead from high plateaus down to the sagebrush and cottonwoods bottoms abutting the Green River.  After a short hike up canyon, I spent a pleasant night under the stars, listening to the sounds of a coldwater spring sending a clear ankle-deep flow down towards the snowmelt emboldened rapids of the Green River.   In the morning, I hiked up a steep sandstone-edged ridge to get a better view.   From a beautiful lunchtime perch, I could look out across the unusually green slopes of Diamond Breaks, past the Green River and  Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, to tomorrow’s destination—the long rolling ridge of Cold Springs Mountain. 

Cold Springs Mountain is one of Colorado’s unknown treasures.  Surrounded by a dry and rugged country, Cold Springs Mountain is an island of coldwater springs, pristine aspen groves, and seasonal lakes.   My hike took me into Beaver Creek—a deep canyon that cuts a crescent-shaped gash into the island of Cold Springs Mountain.  Although my hike started amongst fields of cacti and forests of juniper, I quickly found myself surrounded by a lush riparian area of willows and wildlflowers.  Beaver Creek is known for its resident Colorado Cutthroat trout populations, but because of a high spring runoff, I decided to leave the fishing for another time.

To wrap up my weekend, I hiked out of Beaver Creek and went south to the amazing Vermillion Basin.  Vermillion Basin is the undoubtedly the crown jewel of Greater Dinosaur.   For over ten years, The Wilderness Society has worked with local citizens, state and federal agencies, and a number of like-minded organizations, to ensure that the outstanding wilderness qualities of Vermillion Basin are protected from oil and gas and other development. 

In summer of 2010, the Bureau of Land Management proposed to protect these 77,000 acres as the “Vermillion Basin Protective Management Area”.   Vermillion Canyon was my destination and after a short walk that brought me past the mysterious Medicine Wheel—a Fremont relic of unknown purpose—I was at the bottom of the canyon and staring up at massive and overhanging sandstone cliffs.  Further up the canyon, and after a couple of cold wades across Vermillion Creek, I was as far as I’d make it on this day—the wild narrows of Vermillion Creek—a place where the wind funneling through the canyon blows  the spray from numerous tiny waterfalls high up the sandstone walls, where a voice is repeated back to you as it bounces from cliff to cliff, and a place  where it hurts your neck to see the sky.

While hiking out of Vermillion Basin with a sunset burning over the western horizon, I reflected on what an amazing opportunity we currently have in Greater Dinosaur.  In combination with already protected lands of Dinosaur National Monument and Browns Park Wildlife Refuge, the more than 300,000 acres of proposed wilderness in Greater Dinosaur is a vestige of the true American West, where elk, mule deer, and antelope still make their seasonal migrations, where the longest free-flowing tributary of the Colorado Plateau—the Yampa River—continues its undammed and free-flowing course from the heights of the Continental Divide to its junction with the mighty Green River, and where working ranches continue their own tradition of stewardship and connection to the landscape.  The Wilderness Society will continue to work to see that this vision is carried out, and the lands, waters, and economies of Greater Dinosaur are protected for the future.

Photo 2: Diamond Breaks; Photo 3: Creek in Vermillion Basin area.

Photos by: Soren Jesperson