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Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

A primordial oasis of rivers, bighorn sheep, and canyons.

by: Phil Carson

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Little Known Fact:
Humans occupied the Dinosaur National Monument area as far back as 7500 B.C.

The sky is filled with stars, yet an inky blackness stretches across the river. The blackness comes from the 500-foot-tall Steamboat Rock, which marks the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers in Dinosaur National Monument. Throughout the night the mingling rivers gurgle and groan in a soothing but indecipherable language. The murmur of the mingling rivers becomes less mysterious with daybreak; the chatter of birds makes the world familiar again.

The incessant movement of the Green and Yampa rivers has carved deep meanders in the surrounding sandstone here in the far northwestern corner of Colorado. Aside from creating a primordial land of rock and river, erosion has in places exposed some of the world's finest assemblages of dinosaur fossils.

The monument itself was established in 1915 and expanded in 1938. Today the park encompasses 211,000 acres. The pristine nature of the area reflects the care of both the Park Service and the visitors.

I decide to explore both upstream and downstream of Echo Park, located at the confluence of the rivers in the heart of the monument. I hoist my pack and walk downstream, pausing after several miles where the sandy shore disappears and vertical rock rises from the riverside. Undaunted, I wrap shorts, shirt, water and food in a waterproof bag and swim across the Green to the opposite shore, where I can continue my hike downstream on another sandy beach.

As midday heats up (temperatures reach the 90s in October), I find shade under a juniper tree and catch my breath. Soon a score of bighorn ewes and lambs wander up the opposite shore grazing, oblivious to my presence. Moments later, rustling on the game trail to my right causes me to look up and see a ewe and lamb peering from around a bush not 10 yards away. As I move to let the two bighorn through (after all, I'm on their trail), the ewe bounds off with lamb in tow. The herd on the opposite shore catches sight of the ewe's startled movements and bounds off downstream.

The next day I make my way upstream, along the south bank of the Yampa. As I leave the broad grassy fields of Echo Park the canyon narrows, and suddenly a bald eagle slides off its perch high on the canyon wall and disappears up-canyon.

Several miles upstream from Echo Park a cleft in the towering cliff to my right marks the entrance to Sand Canyon. The luxurious vegetation at the canyon's mouth almost disguises its presence, but after pushing through the willows and cottonwood and slogging through a little mud, I reach the mouth. Barefoot now, I inch my way up the treacherously smooth chutes, wade their pools and climb a short rock outcrop.

As the ribbon of sky above me starts to show signs of sunset, I head back to Echo Park, the rivers talking all the while.

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