The Yampa headwater tributaries begin to coalesce on its course down from the Flattop Wilderness by the time the river passes Steamboat Springs. At this point the river is roughly 20% of its ultimate size but has only 8% of its contributing watershed. The Yampa then abruptly turns West on an ultimate quest to join the Green some 200 miles distant near the Utah State line.
Shortly after leaving Steamboat the Yampa is joined by the Elk. The Elk River is an impressive and powerful 34 mile cold mountain stream. Its gradient is nearly a total cascade from its highest perch dropping over a vertical mile to its confluence with the Yampa making it one of the steepest gradients on Earth relative to discharge. Together the rivers march off to meander through high desert and agricultural valleys while cutting two canyons, Juniper and Cross Mountain before picking up the last large tributary, The Little Snake River.
The Little Snake flows Northwest out of the Zirkle Wilderness and Elkhead Mountains seeming to stitch the Colorado-Wyoming boarder together. The Little Snake River contributes the lion share of sediment to the Yampa system functioning essentially as a conveyor belt of sand. The sediment is then flushed by the large discharge of the now full and complete Yampa. The Little Snake joins just in time for the rivers most formal and impressive masterpiece, Yampa Canyon.
The Flattop Wilderness-Park Range-Elkhead Mountains
HEADWATERS OF THE YAMPA
Early journal entries record the rivers name as “Yampah”, in reference to the Ute band that occupied the basin. Yampah was also the common name of a local plant root that both bears and humans would dig up for use as food or medicine. The Ute called the river “kweeyahguht”, or Bear River which early Anglo residents adopted and today the name remains on one of the highest headwater tributaries in the Flattop Wilderness.
The Yampa and the White River are sister’s in it of that they are born from opposite sides of a slope on a thin divide. The Devils Causeway is perhaps the best expression of the headwater area that the White and Yampa embrace. Walking along the high ridge toward the causeway it tappers into a thin jagged spine only several feet wide. This is where rain or snow part toward either river. It gives a sense of pause looking either way crossing the causeway with a sheer drop of over 200ft. Consider this: Ute warriors would lead blindfolded horses across the causway when necessary.
The Yampa Basin is entirely in the state of Colorado and crosses the mid sections of both Routt and Moffat counties before meeting the Green in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. Development in the basin has been optimized to insure an adequate amount of water for demands downstream in dry years and the later months of summer. Stagecoach reservoir is one of two primary storage facilities in the basin. The Elkhead River, a smaller but significant tributary to the Yampa, creates Elkhead reservoir that straddles the Routt and Moffat county line. Annual discharge of the Yampa averages 2.5 million AF with the vast majority flowing through from spring runoff. The two reservoirs hold 36, 439 AF and 25, 550 AF respectively. The Yampa’s voluminous discharge is considered by some to be a major contributor of Upper Basin Colorado River Compact delivery obligations.
Standing center back row is Ni-ca-a-gat, meaning greenleaf, Chief of the Ute White River Band. Known as Jack by early settlers, this man undoubtably knew the Yampa and White river valleys like no other. Ni-ca-a-gat poses in this photo with seven other Ute leaders after signing the 1868 Ute treaty granting the Ute a domain spanning nearly all of Western Colorado, perhaps the most favorable legal document ever passed to Native Americans. Sadly, it was not to last. In a whirlwind of events and caught in the expanding rush of a young nation the Ute would loose everything only ten years later.
AT THE TOP
The Yampa finding its floodplain 2011. Photo by: Kent Vertrees