Yampa River recreation faces two primary dangers, temperature and trees

Kayaker Tia Rexford plays in the quickly rising waters of the Yampa River on April 21, 2022. The Yampa has had heavy flow this spring and could present several dangers to visitors and locals who enjoy river activities.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Yampa River continues to rage as it has recorded multiple gage heights over six feet and a discharge as high as 3,630 cubic feet per second in the past week.

As summer approaches, visitors and locals should keep river safety in mind and take necessary precautions on river-related excursions.

Marty Smith, owner of Mountain Sports Kayak School, says he is hesitant to give out rentals right now because of how dangerous the river can be for someone who is not properly trained. 

“I think that a lot of people are concerned with how high it is, which is definitely a concern for someone that does not know about the river,” Smith said. “In all honesty, I think it is also very safe if you do the right things.”

According to Smith, the two biggest dangers with the river right now are the water temperature and the trees or shrubbery that surround the river.

Over the last seven days, river temperatures have reached as low as 41.36 degrees in the mornings and only as high as 49.64 degrees in the afternoons. 

Smith said falling into that water without a wetsuit on can cause hypothermia within five to 10 minutes. If rafters or kayakers flip over in the middle of the river, their body could go into shock, making it difficult to get back on the raft or swim to shore.

Trees have become a danger because the river is flowing out of its banks. On turns, it is important to remain on the inside of the bend to not get pinned against the trees and bushes obstructing the river or on the outside of the curves. 

“The river is moving pretty quick and will push you into the trees,” Smith said. “In kayaking terms, we call that a strainer.”

Smith said he has seen the river get even higher than this in 2007 and 2011. It is all dependent on how the snow melts, but he predicts the Yampa will continue to get bigger in the coming weeks.

In a typical year, the river gets lower toward the end of June or early July. Commercial tubing is not allowed on the river until it is under 700 cubic feet per second, which Smith does not foresee happening until after the Fourth of July.

Smith’s No. 1 piece of advice is to always look downstream and find the safest route downriver. 

“There are plenty of places to go down the river and a few spots you do not want to be,” Smith said. “I think the river is super safe to go down in a guided trip, but I would not recommend anyone go down unless they know what they are doing.”

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