CROSS MOUNTAIN CANYON
It's a Tricky Run to get to Know
By: Pete Skully
The Cross Mountain section on the Yampa river is one of my favorite places on the planet. It changes dramatically with small fluctuation in the flow and has a relatively short season, so it's a tricky run to get to know. Once your in Cross Mountain Gorge there's no easy way out. With the canyons thousand foot walls it's committing at high flows. The water in the colorful canyon reaches 70 degrees during summer. While some of these things make it a challenge... they also make it so uniquely special.
Moffat County has just under 3 people per square mile, which today is still less than the federal goverments definition of "frontier" at 6 people per square mile. To date, this is Moffat County most accurate map.
Cross is out in the middle of no where. If your coming from Steamboat I recommend a stop in Craig at the local City Market to get all your food and water needs taken care of. If your lucky you might see the white car in the parking lot full of birds and dogs, classic Craig America. While your friends are getting the food stuffs you can send someone West over to Stockmans Liquor Store. Los Jibertos, one block West, makes the best burritos in Northwest Colorado depending on your stomach strength. When fully supplied and on the road again your next town West is Maybell, last stop for gas, snacks, and a sticker saying: "Where the hell is Maybell?". Now here's where the directions get a little weird. Your rolling through huge open sage fields and all of the sudden theres a tree, the only tree. Turn right there and its just over four miles down to the put in on a gravel road. Can't miss it...
Running Cross Mtn.
Cross Mountain Gorge is for Expert Boaters only and by order of the Moffat County Sheriff, is only open to Kayakers at flows above 5000cfs.
Cross Mountain is only 4 miles long, but it drops about 275 feet while in the gorge. Kayakers run this at insanely high levels like 17.000 c.f.s. Most rafts run Cross from 5000 to around 700 c.f.s. When the river is high it lacks a pool drop feel, I recommend scouting and setting safety on the following rapids.
The first rapid is Osterizer, marked by a huge rock on river left, the scout is usually done from river right. The first drop is called Mammoth Falls at high water... for good reason. After the first drop there is a ledge of rocks that at high water can surf a raft easily. At lower flows all the current goes right and the easiest chute is far left. There is a large pool at the bottom where you can set safety and recover if you have swimmers.
#2. Body Pizza
The second major rapid is Body Pizza, marked by two huge house sized rocks that you go through, the scout and best safety spot are on the left. At high flows it's less technical with a ridge of rocks down the middle. With lower flows it becomes a tight, snaky, run down the left with a wrap rock waiting at the bottom. There is a sneak line on the right as well. One thing to be aware of is a nasty keeper hole at the bottom of this rapid, that has surfed me and some unhappy guests for over 10 minutes, at flows around 2500 c.f.s.
#3. Look Out Below
Look Out Below is the next challenge, named because it is above the biggest rapid of the run. Swimmers here need to get to a boat, or shore quickly because they face a nasty, long swim if not. The rapid is pretty straight forward, but you are moving constantly to dodge rocks. Get ready to move hard left when you see the huge pointy rock in the middle of the river that marks the Death Ferry.
#4. Death Ferry
The third big rapid is Death Ferry, named for the hard right to left ferry you need to make during this impressive rapid. At flows above 3500 you can sneak left down a chute at the top, and then fight right into the main current trying to avoid being flipped off a rock on the left that forms Corkscrew, the fun drop towards the end of the rapid. Below 3500 you will need to peel out of the eddy and get to the far right side of the river. This is where the ferry starts. There are three rocks, called the stooges, that will motivate you to move left quickly. Once you pass them, there is a hole called Snake Pit, and then a sweet curling drop aptly named Corkscrew.
Crew scouting Ostersizer. Note the log perched above the boulder on river left.
At this point the feel of the river changes, and you can now read and run until the next hard left bend in the canyon. Take a second to spin around a few times and enjoy the beauty of this amazing place. Throughout Cross there are a lot of under cut rocks, and sieves, especially at low water, please keep a good eye on your crew and be ready.
Your Not Done Yet..
#5. Pour Over City
At the left bend in the canyon Pour Over City waits. A large ledge and a collection of huge rocks define this rapid. There are two eddys on the right for the scout or to run down and set safety. At most flows i like to enter on the far left side against the sheer cliff wall to avoid the pourover that the rapid is named for. If you can get left of the first big rock do it, if you go right you will encounter Postage Stamp Rock. The Postage Stamp is a huge square rock sitting on two other rocks under water that create a nasty sieve. Please use caution here, it is possible to go through this sieve if its not blocked by wood, but having done it, it's narrow and not fun. The rest of this rapid is fun and straight forward.
The canyon gets back to a more read and run feel again at this point. There is a great beach lunch spot after the next small rapid on the right. There are two more fun rapids before the next challenge near the end of the run.
#6. Sherms Hole
Sherms Hole is next, the river narrows between rocks and S turns right then left just before the hole. During higher water Sherms is a large hole in the center of the river. At lower flows the rock that forms the hole, splits the river left and right, i like the narrow left chute here. Shortly after this is Ship Rock, a large boulder in the middle of the river that can be passed on either side. At medium flows there is a fun surf wave directly below ship rock, and a spring in the eddy on the right used to access the surf wave. This is the end of the rapids but not the fun. At the end of the canyon there are some fun cliff jumping spots on the left, most people park in the small cave eddy and walk up from there. As with any cliff jump please check the landing before jumping, and enjoy some more of that nice warm water!
These run descriptions are from a rafters point of view, there are many fun surf waves, boofs, and lines that I have missed and for that I am sorry. Thanks to all the kayakers over the years who have picked up me and other swimmers from my boat!
The standard shuttle involves making a right off the gravel road onto hwy 40 then making your next paved right onto the deer lodge road and one more right at the bottom of the canyon which will be the first time you see the river and should be obvious. A couple of fun ways to run the shuttle. You can hike back up the canyon at low flows, easiest on canyon left, river right. Or hike up and over the canyon on river left for some amazing views, this is a bit harder but well worth it. For these options I would recommend parking at the closest parking area to the canyon, known as the Grave Site, accessed by making a left on the way to the put in on a four wheel drive road. This put in requires one short scrambling section, and is best for kayaks or tubes ( not reccommened but if you do flows below 200 c f s ) . If you use the main put in please make sure you pay the fee, even if that vehicle is going to the bottom, so it stays open for years to come.
When To Go
To catch Cross Mountain at the right flow you have to watch the gauges when the time is getting close. I like to use the Maybell gauge, but it is 13 miles upstream so you have to account for the lag time or you can get caught by a rain spike. The other option is use the Deerlodge gauge and minus the Little Snake River that comes in after Cross. With the short prime season think about hitting it on the way up as well in late March early April depending on the year.
The Dark Horse Liquor store can be a good stopping spot if your heading back towards Steamboat. They are friendly and there is a phone and microwave in the bathroom in case you need to multi task. Next door is a Subway and TCBY so everybody is happy. Be safe out there and I'll see you in the Canyon!