We inched our way through two feet of palpable red earth soup entering the Harding Hole Overlook. It hadn’t rained in over four unseasonably hot fall days. Yet, standing pools of mud from a strong storm nearly a week earlier proved resilient. The park ranger we met in Echo Park said the road should be passable in our Tacoma and encouraged us to go. He was right. The road was generally parched in most places – a Corolla could have tackled 90% of it. Nonetheless, the lonesome Yampa Bench Road gave us a couple of small fits in places. It certainly brought back mud-spattered childhood memories for Liz of the last time she had visited Dinosaur.
It wasn’t much after 8am when we broke camp and began our four-hour journey up the Yampa Bench Road. The morning sun still cast long shadows throughout Echo Park and the campground. We carried only memories and photographs of our few days and nights out with us and embarked on 42 miles of pure dirt road bliss, 27 miles of which were within Dinosaur National Monument.
Yampa Bench Road was the scenic highlight of our time in Dinosaur. I joked with Liz how we wouldn’t see a single person the entire drive…but I was just being optimistic. As it turned out, we didn’t encounter another soul (or sole) along the way!!!
The road runs almost due east and west for its entire course. Towering cliffs line the path to the south. The time-carved Yampa River canyon forms an impenetrable barrier to the north. Sagebrush, pinyon pine, juniper, and sun-scorched earth fill up everything in between. The Yampa Bench Road slithers up and down in serpentine fashion while offering unparalleled photo prospects of the landscape.
After about 3.5 miles of driving, we encountered the Castle Park Overlook. We turned off to the left and peered down into the depths of the Yampa Canyon. What we saw below was truly a marvel. A treasured and privately-owned inholding, the Mantle Ranch is a geological, ecological, and cultural jewel located in a bewilderingly beautiful and serene river corridor with thousand-foot yellow and red sandstone canyon walls carved by the wild and free flowing Yampa River. We took in its beauty.
We jumped back onto the Yampa Bench Road and passed through Hells Canyon as we continued east. This part of the thoroughfare through solitude got a little rougher as it climbed steeply and switch-backed in a few places. We saw the sign for the Harding Hole Overlook and took the slight detour for yet another view of the canyon.
I climbed out of my mud-covered Toyota truck and sprinted 50 yards to the overlook. There are simply no words to describe what lay ahead. The untrammeled panorama of sandstone sliced apart by water flowing from places like Zirkel and the Flattops blew me away. You can’t miss this opportunity if you have the time.
After another 30 minutes on the bench road, we came to the Wagon Wheel Overlook. This scenic observatory was probably about a half-mile walk from the parking lot. Like the other two overlooks we stopped at earlier, it was well worth the time and effort.
The final few miles within Dinosaur National Monument climb up Blue Mountain through an area that was long ago charred by a forest fire. You’ll continue to catch remarkable views of the area behind you.
Take it all in! Value that you traveled through land once roamed by dinosaurs. Appreciate that you got to spend time in a national monument – a protected area that is similar to a National Park, but can be created from any land owned or controlled by the federal government by proclamation of the President of the United States. In this particular instance, it was President Woodrow Wilson who in 1915 set aside this phenomenal place that we can still cherish today.