April thrills and chills in Moffat County’s Cross Mountain Canyon

Tom Ross
A whitewater rafting party from Steamboat Springs takes the only safe path through the boulder-strewn rapid known as Death Ferry in Cross Mountain Canyon of the Yampa River at ideal flows of 2,700 cubic feet per second April 12. As spring runoff builds later this month, it will become unsafe for rafting.
Courtesy Photo

— There is a brief window in time each spring in Northwest Colorado when Cross Mountain Canyon serves up one of the very best one-day whitewater trips in the entire state. But in order to catch it, you have to be paying close attention, and you best be an expert paddler.

A group of local kayakers and rafting guides timed it just right April 11 and made an abrupt change from ski pants to dry suits in order catch a wilderness stretch of the Yampa River west of Craig at optimum flows.

“Cross is pretty in-your-face, and there’s beauty all around, too,” veteran river rafting guide Andy Radzavich said. “It’s like storm chasing or skiing powder — it’s hitting that sweet spot. The window will open and close this week, and then it’s probably going to slam shut and the river will be too high for everyone but some crazy kayakers.”

Radzavich devotes his year to guiding clients in one sport or another, spending the winters on Buffalo Pass with Steamboat Powdercats, then transitioning to river guide with Bucking Rainbow Outfitters in the summer. He finally shifts to guiding trout fishing clients in the autumn, when the rivers are too low to run.

The next chance to float Cross Mountain in ideal conditions, Radzavich predicted, could come around in late June, when the seasonal high flows have just begun to drop from the annual peak. During a raft-able period that could, with luck, last for two weeks, he and his fellow guides at Bucking Rainbow will be able to take adventurous clients down Cross Mountain Canyon.

The rapids in Cross Mountain Canyon have earned intimidating names such as Osterizer, Body Pizza, Snake Pit and Death Ferry. But their difficulty varies with the flow levels, Radzavich said. They range from a modest 3 rating to an expert 4 and super expert 5.

Pete Scully, another Bucking Rainbow guide, said he and friends have been known to tube Cross Canyon in late summer when flows are at their lowest. But it’s a different float from tubing the Yampa in downtown Steamboat — Scully still wears a helmet and his personal flotation device.

He estimates he has made 115 trips down Cross Mountain Canyon with three guiding companies and said the river constantly is changing.

“It’s such a narrow canyon, it changes dramatically with every 200 cfs (cubic feet per second of flow). It’s such a tight, boulder-choked run,” Scully said. “It’s not like a dam-controlled river where you get to see it at 2,000 cfs day after day. It’s hard to get to know.”

Last week’s rafting party from Steamboat included Radzavich’s and Scully’s fellow guide at Bucking Rainbow, Logan Steed, Steamboat Powdercats photographer Peter “Beuford” Beuth, Ryan McCarthy, Lauren Brooke Davidson, Adam Hirt, Brendan Wu, Ben Saheb and Britni Johnson.

They floated in inflatable rafts with each occupant paddling, as opposed to the rafts with rowing frames used by most private rafters. Everyone wore helmets and most wore dry suits to protect against the frigid water.

The river was flowing at 2,700 cfs at the time, and it still was hanging in at about 2,750 cfs at 1 p.m. Thursday. However, government river forecasters predict the Yampa in that stretch could top 4,000 cfs by Easter Sunday.

Cross Mountain, a BLM wilderness study area, is located about two hours west of Steamboat Springs and 14 miles west of the little Moffat County town of Maybell.

The river gorge at Cross Mountain is just 3.5 miles long, but the gradient drops about 65 feet per mile and the massive trapezoidal boulders in its path provide almost non-stop action.

The Yampa began cutting the canyon about 10 million years ago after the sedimentary rock that makes up Cross Mountain was twisted and uplifted during the formation of the Uintah Mountain Range to the west.

The river put-in for floaters is at a small campground operated by Yampa River State Park and accessible by Moffat County Road 85 to BLM Road 1551. It’s a right turn off of U.S. Highway 40.

Yampa River State Park officials emphasize that Cross Mountain Canyon is not for novice boaters.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.