I was coming out of my skin with anticipation. Dinosaur National Monument was just around the bend. We had come from a half-day enjoying the pictographs and petroglyphs of Canyon Pintado. Now we were leaving that land behind for something more ancient, something more prehistoric.
Storm clouds loomed to the north as we swerved through the first 25 miles of asphalt road that lead you to Harpers Corner. On a day with less threatening weather we probably would have gone all the way out to the overlook. The last thing you want to do, however, is drive the 13-mile mud slick that Echo Park Road becomes in wet weather. So we angled the truck downhill and made haste for Echo Park. Even in relatively dry conditions Echo Park Road is a beast, with tight switchbacks and shock-busting washes.
“Now this is the West!” I hollered as we passed by some abandoned buildings of the old Chew Ranch. While the ranch disappeared from my rearview mirror, we sank deeper into the red rock country of northwestern Colorado.
We were bound for the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. Up above us hung petroglyphs that were 1,000 years old. Finally, we could make out Steamboat Rock and hundreds of cottonwood trees lining the banks of the Green.
Dinosaur National Monument’s Echo Park is magical and saturated in history. Men like Pat Lynch, the intriguing hermit of the canyons, and John Wesley Powell, the intrepid explorer of the Colorado River, cemented a legacy here. While traveling and rafting down the Green River in 1869, Powell (who imparted the name on this iconic place) described Echo Park:
Standing opposite the rock, our words are repeated with startling clearness, but in a soft, mellow tone, that transforms them into magic music. Scarcely can you believe it is the echo of your own voice. In some places two or three echoes come back, in other places they repeat themselves, passing back and forth across the river between this rock and the eastern wall.
To hear these repeated echoes well you must shout. Some of the party aver that ten or twelve repetitions can be heard. To me they seem to rapidly diminish and merge by multiplicity, like telegraph poles on an outstretched plain. I have observed the same phenomenon once before in the cliffs near Long’s Peak, and am pleased to meet with it again.
For the second time today I bellied out a loud howl through my open truck window. Just as Powell recounted, my voice volleyed from one varnished cliff to the next. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Echo Park was more awesome than I could ever have imagined. Layers of canyon walls stacked like a stairway to heaven. Cottonwoods were just beginning to go through their green to gold metamorphosis. The freshly merged waters of the Green and Yampa tightly clung to the base of Steamboat Rock.
We staked our claim on campsite #3 and would only see two small groups of people the three days and two nights we were down in Echo Park Campground. More petroglyphs adorned the cliff face above us. These etchings into stone high above – two large shields and an unmistakable bighorn – continue to tell the story of the Fremont Indians who thrived in the area from 2,000 to 700 years ago. I couldn’t help but think about how close all of this came to be drowned out by the Bureau of Reclamation.
The Bureau of Rec proposed a dam in the 1950s that would have turned Echo Park into a huge bathtub. The dam would have erased the canyons, the stories left by the Fremont, and countless other natural and cultural treasures. It was the fight to block the reservoir that arguably gave birth to the modern conservation movement and laws like the Endangered Species Act.
The central issue boiled down to this: how do we protect America’s most wild spaces? The construction of Echo Park dam endangered the very underpinnings of the National Park Service. Groups like The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club became household names as they strategically staged their opposition. After six arduous years, the conservationists won. By the end of 1955, the Bureau abandoned plans for the dam at Echo Park as politicians yielded to mounting pressure. Moreover, the conservation coalition was able to ensure that the Colorado River Storage Project would impact no other National Park.
And here we were standing right on ground zero of this battleground. We just set up our tent and cooked s’mores on earth that would have been buried hundreds of feet below water. I share much appreciation for the people who stood up for this place and who continue to stand up for special places.
The night set in. The cold air of Colorado autumn cascaded down the canyon walls. The Milky Way dominated the skyline. (Dinosaur National Monument has one of the darkest night skies in all of the lower 48.) Liz and I joined Z, who we had earlier put to sleep, in our tent. As I shut my eyes and spooned into Liz’s warmth, the turquoise waters of the Yampa fused with the chocolate waters of the Green just 50 yards away. They continue to rush unobstructed through the canyons of Dinosaur!
Here’s a link to a great article about Pat Lynch and Echo Park. Go to page 7 of the pdf to begin reading the short, but history-packed article. The article takes a little while to load, but you will be fully rewarded for your patience.