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Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Colorado-Utah border, is best known for its remarkable dinosaur fossils, thrilling whitewater rafting, beautiful hiking, and peaceful, high-desert scenery. In the 1950s, however, this serene landscape was the focus of a bitter battle that pitted David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director, against the mighty Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency charged with developing hydropower and water storage facilities across the western U.S.
The controversy surrounded the fate of Echo Park, the picturesque valley where the untamed Yampa River meets the Green River to create the largest tributary of the Colorado River. Just below the confluence, the combined branches wind gracefully around Steamboat Rock, one of Dinosaur’s best-known landmarks, in a lush oasis that is a special place to picnic, hike, camp, and reflect.
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In the 1940s, as part of an enormous water-development scheme to harness the Colorado River, the Bureau proposed building a 529-foot-high dam in Echo Park that would flood most of the monument’s “canyon country”—the gorgeous Green and Yampa canyons that the unit was meant to protect. An alliance of river runners and environmentalists banded together to fight the construction of the Echo Park Dam, whose reservoir would have submerged more than half of Steamboat Rock’s steep walls.
Following a raft trip through these canyons, Brower agreed to fight the proposal and threw the Sierra Club’s resources behind the cause, publicizing Echo Park’s beauty and also challenging the Bureau’s claims regarding the dam’s benefits. Ultimately, the alliance forced a compromise that removed Echo Park Dam from the Colorado River Storage Project plans.
In return, Brower agreed not to oppose the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. Years later, Brower visited this canyon just prior to its flooding by Lake Powell, and its lost beauty, which he later wrote about in his book, The Place No One Knew, haunted him for the rest of his life. Despite this loss, the compromise did succeed in preserving Echo Park, which quickly became a symbol of wilderness and helped spark our country’s environmental movement.
Today, there are several ways to see this iconic spot. The easiest is to drive the paved Harpers Corner Road 34 miles north of the Canyon Visitor Center to one of our state’s most scenic picnic areas, which overlooks the confluence. To truly immerse yourself in the site’s scenery and history, however, you need to either float this section on an amazing, multi-day whitewater rafting trip or drive the rough, dirt Echo Park Road, for which a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. Regardless of how you get to Echo Park, its legendary beauty makes the trip a microcosm of the conservation battle—well worth the effort.