Colbert: The perils of mud season ignorance
Dinosaur, Colorado — Dinosaur National Monument is a beautiful place to get stranded.
At least, that was my thought as I attempted to get my bald-tired, two-wheel drive vehicle out of the canyon, Mother Nature doing her best to claim another flatlander who thought winter was finally finished.
And, as the semi-blizzard turned the last week of April into a winter wonderland, it was clear I was in over my head.
Before we get to the conclusion (spoiler: I survived), let’s discuss how I found myself in such an unfortunate predicament.
Raised in Kansas, this is my first mud season in the mountains. And when my co-workers suggested we spend a random night in Dinosaur National Monument, a place I had never been, I was all for it.
Located mostly in extreme northwest Colorado, Dinosaur is as remote as it is beautiful, and it can have a velociraptor’s temperament when you don’t take it seriously. We went on a whim one morning last week, barely a glance at the weather report and lacking any serious winter gear.
If you believe in omens, the sign declaring the road to Echo Park was “impassable” wouldn’t have been ignored as readily as it was that day. To be fair, the roads were fine at the time, as dry as mid-summer, and my vehicle made the near 2,000-foot descent into the canyon without issue.
Echo Park, a campsite 45 minutes north of U.S. Highway 40 and equally as far from cellphone service, is located near the spot at which the Yampa River merges with the Green River, which, in turn, merges into the Colorado River and flows through the Grand Canyon. After turning off the monument’s main, paved road, it’s a 12-mile, curvy, dirt road down the side of the canyon face to the campsite.
More than once there was a sign suggesting you keep your sissy passenger vehicles on the pavement — another warning we casually ignored.
The rest of the day went without issue. We found the campsite, went on a few short hikes, and enjoyed a night in mud season nirvana. This sense of serenity proved to be nothing more than Old Man Winter baiting us into his trap.
Even protected by the caressing trees, I could hear the rain tapping against the outside of my tent. It had been raining much of the night, and the soothing sound of spring was a great way to greet the morning.
Unlike one of my co-workers, I wasn’t as concerned about the state of the road as I should have been. I’m a relatively relaxed and carefree person to begin with, and not even the possibility of being stuck in this canyon caused me to worry.
Nonetheless, we packed as quickly as possible that morning, hoping to make the ascent while we still could. Little did we know, that time had long since passed.
We made it about halfway out of the canyon when the trap was sprung. The surface of the road turned to deep, thick mud, and somewhere I could hear the weather gods laughing. Still, we trudged on, somehow making it further down the road, my co-worker often having to hop out and give the car a good shove.
Then it started snowing. This is a good time to remind you my car is two-wheel drive and the tires have the gripping power of a bowling ball. So, long story short, we were stuck. Had it not been for the angelic, white pickup truck materializing out of the snow behind us, we likely would still be in Dinosaur, preserved in Old Man Winter’s embrace similar to the fossilized dinosaur bones that give the monument its name.
The two young men who towed us out of the canyon were coincidentally also Routt County residents. We had met them the night before around the campfire and still owe them more thanks than words can allow. Even with the tow, getting my vehicle out of the canyon was no easy task, but somehow we did, and it was an easy drive back to the safety of U.S. 40.
What did I learn from my misadventure? Mostly, that winter never really ends in the mountains, and to think otherwise can be a costly mistake. Also, weather changes rapidly in the mountains, meaning the road may be dry going in, but it doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
So, before you drive off the grid this spring, make sure your vehicle has the weaponry to do battle with Mother Nature. Read the weather reports, pay attention to the signs and, most importantly, become friends with your campsite neighbors, as they may be your only lifeline back to civilization.
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