Worth Visiting: Colorado’s Vermillion Basin

Vermillion Basin in Colorado. Photo by Soren Jespersen.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Wilderness Magazine, our annual publication that features in-depth coverage and features about the day’s most pressing conservation issues. Become a member and receive a free copy!

By Jennie Lay

If you want to get a spectacular view of northwestern Colorado’s inspiring canyon country, head for Lookout Mountain above Vermillion Basin. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter was there in 2007, with then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, and is said have had his “come to God” moment. He went away committed to keeping the pristine basin free of oil and gas development.

Vermillion Basin’s vast expanse of crimson bluffs, fossil beds, wily creeks, and meandering canyons is one of the Rockies’ best-kept secrets. You are virtually guaranteed to never see another soul there. In fact, if you ask most folks in the nearby town of Steamboat Springs about Vermillion Basin, they will have no idea where you’re talking about.

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Fortunately, it seems that this natural treasure won’t be tarnished anytime soon. In June 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a 20-year resource management plan that bars oil and gas development across the basin’s 77,000 acres. These delicate badlands will remain off-limits to the heavy trucks, pipelines, drill rigs, and man camps that embed their signature on many nearby landscapes. Vermillion Basin’s stunning silence and vistas will prevail.

“Almost five million acres of Colorado lands belonging to the American people have been leased to the oil and gas industry,” says Soren Jespersen, who represents The Wilderness Society in this part of the Centennial State. “We have been working with other groups and local citizens for a decade to keep Vermillion Basin from becoming next on the list and are enormously pleased that the BLM made this decision.”

Eagle in flight. Photo by Pat Gaines Photography.My first trip into Vermillion Basin was to visit Vermillion Canyon on the west side of the basin, a steep, narrow, mile-long oasis of water, shade, wildflowers, and towering grasses. A squawking peregrine tracked my every move from overhead, and I’d been forewarned that the resident mountain lion likely would be doing the same. Tracks in the canyon’s mud have been sighted so fresh as to stand hairs on the back of your neck. I practically forgot about them as I became mesmerized by the panels of Fremont petroglyphs that line the canyon walls. Among the other creatures that depend on Vermillion Basin are pronghorn, mule deer, and majestic golden eagles.

Traversing to the south side of the basin, over rough two-track roads and washed-out creek crossings, we intended the next stop to be G Gap, followed by a hike in to Sanders Draw to see a field of stromatolites: 65-million-year-old balls of fossilized mud and algae. It was not to be. When we were halfway in, fierce lightning and sideways rain pelted our ridgeline and threatened to leave us stranded on slick roads. I’ll be back.

That is a good cue to make it clear that Vermillion Basin is not a place to visit if you want to travel in comfort. This is a spot that will challenge you. There are no scenic byways, developed hiking trails, or campsites.

Rafter in Vermillion Basin, Colorado. Photo by Dan Dailey, Flickr.Bear in mind that summer days can be scorching and winter snowstorms in northwestern Colorado are often epic. Crossing the basin requires climbing up and down the sharply-cut banks of dry creek beds, where a layer of crust curls back like saturated cardboard, and mica sparkles in the red dirt. When storms move through, they are fast and furious, easily turning dry creek beds into fast-moving floods and making the soil thick and greasy as it gloms onto your boots.

But none of that kept me from returning. On my second venture, I traveled with three BLM archaeologists. Until now, the land had never been archaeologically surveyed. So we set out walking the eastern reaches of the basin near Dry Creek in 40-square-acre increments — snaking back and forth across randomly selected tracts at 20-yard paces. We traversed sage flats and rolling piñon-covered rises below the steep Vermillion Bluffs. While Lookout Mountain dominated the horizon on our side of the basin, our eyes pored over the earth in search of shards, stone tools, or maybe an ancient hearth. Ultimately, 1,000 acres of Vermillion Basin will be surveyed this way.

Our day in the field paid off. We found numerous shards, shatters, and flakes, and a tool that was likely left by Fremont people migrating across the land as they hunted or moved between camps. “People were all over this area,” says archaeologist Robyn Morris.

But we discovered no shelters or hearths — nothing suggesting permanent settlement. “People have left a light footprint here for a long time. They were moving through, maybe made some tools and got the heck out of Dodge,” archaeologist Ethan Morton says.

Flower in Vermillion Basin, Colorado. Photo by Soren Jespersen.The sweet smell of sage was pervasive. The desert soil is deep and dank, and every footprint leaves its mark. A long-legged cow elk careened through the sage, rabbit brush, and prickly pear cacti. Two rattlesnakes clattered loudly to make sure they were seen. The rock was striped with red, yellow, white, and orange, and juniper trees bearing fat berries offered welcome shade.

After you leave Vermillion Basin, you might want to sample Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, just seven miles to the west. It was established in 1963 mostly for the benefit of migratory birds flying along the Central Flyway. An eight-mile wildlife drive takes you along the Green River and elsewhere, and you may see osprey, songbirds, river otter, moose and elk. Also nearby is 200,000-acre Dinosaur National Monument, protected a century ago after a Pittsburgh paleontologist discovered a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils. It was significantly expanded by President Franklin Roosevelt to include the heralded Green and Yampa rivers, which pass through the area forming deep sandstone canyons. This national monument crosses into northeastern Utah.

As you leave Vermillion Basin and environs, give thanks to the foresight shown by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Governor Ritter, Presidents Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and others. Your visit will leave you committed to doing your part to keep this place just the way it is.

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Jennie Lay is editor of the Steamboat Springs Visitors' Guide. From her off-the-grid log cabin south of Steamboat Springs, she writes for High Country News, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Yoga Journal, and other publications.

Vermillion Basin in Colorado. Photo by Soren Jespersen.
Eagle in flight. Photo by Pat Gaines Photography.
Rafter in Vermillion Basin, Colorado. Photo by Dan Dailey, Flickr.
Flower in Vermillion Basin, Colorado. Photo by Soren Jespersen.