Vermillion Basin Citizen-Proposed Wilderness Study Area, Northwest Colorado
BLM land. East of Irish Canyon, north of Sand Wash, south of Wyoming. 40.852112N,
Map: USGS 1:24,000 Irish Canyon
Access: There are multiple access points. See Coloradoís Canyon Country by Mark Pearson for details on most of them. My access points were both off of CR 10N that runs through Irish Canyon. Thereís a dirt road a mile or so south of the BLM Information Sign at the south end of Irish Canyon on 10N. Follow this dirt road east, then take the first two track that branches off to the north until it peters out, then start walking. Alternatively, drive north out of Irish Canyon on 10Nand take the second dirt road to the east at about 2 miles north of the canyon. Follow it through the closed fence (itís all public land) and on down into the basin as far as Vermillion Creek.
Dogs: No regulations against dogs, but bring water and watch for rattlers.
Weather:Current & Recent Conditions NWS Forecast
North of Dinosaur
National Monument near the Wyoming border lies a shallow depression of
about 80,000 acres filled with rainbow-colored hills and cliffs that blaze
brilliantly under the desert sky. The hills and bluffs are not quite rock,
but not quite sand. Iím no geologist, but to me they most closely resemble
baked clay. The quality of the soil is such that plant life is scarce,
even for this arid region. The distant pinyon-juniper forest of the neighboring
ridges seems lush by comparison. On the slopes of the bluffs, only a few
lonely desert sunflowers or patches of purslane seem to thrive. More plants
call the valleys home, and in the deepest drainages sagebrush and a variety
of wildflowers make a living. This is Vermillion Basin, a seemingly-forgotten
watershed bisected by only a couple of dirt roads and a couple of small
streams. Vermillion Creek is the primary drainage, catching the meager
rainfall that falls in the basin and channeling it doggedly through a 1500-foot
defile in an uplifted limestone ridge on the south end. There are
not many places where one can go to look into Vermillion Basin, and it
is hard to imagine someone stumbling in there on accident, as the dirt
access roads branch from other dirt roads that branch from lonely paved
roads that branch from the long and quiet Highway 40 through northwestern
Colorado. You have to know where youíre going to get to Vermillion Basin.
June 14, 2006
I stopped by the office of the Colorado Wilderness Network in Craig on my way west one windy afternoon in mid-June to talk over the proposed-wilderness areas in the northwest quadrant of the state, also known as Wilderness Study Areas, or WSAís, because the government has to study the area before recommending to Congress that it be designated wilderness. A cynic might argue that the real studying performed by the government is to ascertain whether anything remotely useful might be gleaned from the land in the way of oil, gas, gold, molybdenum, lumber, browse or real estate before they consign it away to eternal preservation in order not to lose an opportunity to trade campaign donations for privileged extraction opportunities. Yes sir, a cynic might just say that. There are several WSAís around Dinosaur National Monument, a few of which I have already had a delightful time exploring. Many of the WSAís are recognized by the BLM and protected as such: Bull Canyon, Skull Creek, Cross Mountain. Others are not recognized by the BLM, and are considered "Citizen-proposed" WSAís. Depending on whoís calling the strikes in Washington, these Citizen-proposed WSAís are either taken seriously and protected as if they were wilderness, or disregarded completely, for example by an administration run by a certain folksy-talking Texan who doesnít read newspapers. A Citizen-proposed WSA called Pinyon Ridge, located between Meeker and Rangely along the White River, was crushed by the BLM like an ant as it issued drilling permits on all parcels within the WSA to gas companies with a zeal seldom witnessed of a bureaucracy as lumbering as the US Bureau of Land Management. The largest Citizen-proposed wilderness area in Northwest Colorado is the 88,000-acreVermillion Basin, covering an area of approximately 138 square miles in a sprawling C-shaped area encompassing Vermillion Basin as well as the pinyon-juniper dotted draws and rugged canyons to the south. Vermillion Basin is not recognized by the BLM as a WSA, and receives no official protection. However, up till now, no extractive industries have entered the basin. In fact, the only sign of mankind in the basin are the broken fences used to keep a few gaunt cows in place. Under orders from above, the BLM is pressured to issue drilling permits wherever and whenever it sees an opportunity to do so. This, really, is the bedrock of our Texan presidentís energy policy, perhaps influenced by his close friends in the Texas oil business. It appears Vermillion Basin is under the eye of the BLM as an opportunity to help feed the nationís insatiable energy demand, a demand which even I contribute to, itís true. Nevertheless, the pristine slopes of Vermillion Bluffs are at risk, and may soon be bladed to and fro to make way for a vast road network for pumping trucks and tankers. It may happen soon. This motivated me to get directions to this place and see for myself this imperiled basin that could soon be stacked with drill rigs and oil wells. While the oil companies make PR statements like, "one would be hard pressed to find the oil wells" or "drilling can coexist with environmental protection", I decided not to chance it, and get my sightseeing in before the dozers arrive.
After securing directions and shooting the breeze a bit with Luke and Reed at the Colorado Wilderness Network, I drove west on Highway 40 under an overcast sky, burning up fuel but contributing to the nationís energy demand less than most in my 35-mpg Saturn. Not exactly the choice vehicle for exploring canyon country, but itíll do to get close enough for walking in. The day was stretching towards evening as I turned north at Maybell and headed towards Brownís Park on the north end of Dinosaur National Monument, familiar territory from my stint as a vegetation monitor in 2001. I passed through the semi-town of Sunbeam where I had once waited an afternoon for a differential fill plug for my Park Service truck by examining the fantastic antique car collection of an old time Forest Service employee who lived nearby. I wondered if the fellow was still alive and if those cars still sat still and quiet behind locked garage doors. Onward north I drove over pavement that had been slapped down on the desert floor without any grading or filling, resulting in a roller coaster on the blacktop. I got caught going 15 mph behind a tractor fixed with a combine reaper for a few miles until a wide spot in the road allowed me to pass. I zipped up past the turnoff for the Gates of Lodore and then turned north onto a graded graveled road that led into Irish Canyon, a dry canyon of immense size cut into the limestone of an uplifted ridge. I had been up as far as the mouth of Irish Canyon once before, in August of 2001, but turned back. With satisfaction, I cruised past the BLM interpretation pullout and into the canyon. People who were paid a lot of money to study the issue determined that Irish Canyon was originally cut by Vermillion Creek. When the canyon was deep enough, Vermillion Creek apparently lost interest, and slid off to the east to try a hand at cutting yet another magnificent canyon through the same enormous slab of uplifted limestone. Thus, Irish Canyon is dry at all times but during a thunderstorm. The road was empty, and I drove slowly, craning my neck up to see the sheer walls rising up to jagged points on both sides of the winding route. I pulled off to the east on a small and short two track and parked. Eager to get out and explore, I donned my frame pack with enough gear for one night and set off uphill under a still, brooding sky. I quickly picked up a game trail pocked with enormous elk tracks and followed it through the dense pinyon/juniper forest on my way uphill. The slope was steep, and I breathed hard and sweat harder on the way up. The game trail petered out and I set off through the woods, generally aiming south and uphill. As I rose in elevation, I began to catch glimpses of Vermillion Basin to the east, and the sight was enough to motivate me to climb higher still. Between the basin and I lay Limestone Ridge, and this feature was chiefly responsible for blocking my observation into the basin. I zigzagged through the trees uphill as far as possible, to the tip top of the rock. I set my pack down and enjoyed the sights to be seen, also finding a small jar with a peak log in it (not much of a peak, but then not too many signatures on the list, eitherÖmine is now on there too). The sky was still overcast, but I could clearly see blue patches of sky to the west. So, I sat and waited. The wildfire burning near Greystone sent up plumes of smoke that lay across the valley to the south like fingers. From my lofty perch I could leisurely observe the Gates of Lodore and Zenobia Mountain within Dinosaur National Monument, the latter having a tiny speck on its top that is the Zenobia Firetower. Zenobia Firetower is one of a very few government-operated firetowers that not only is still standing, but still in regular use. Iíve been to it twice, myself. Very nice views from up there, as you are apt to find at any firetower. In all other directions lay undulating ripples of rock and sand, punctuated with dots of juniper and pinyon, but mostly consisting of drab and comforting browns. Earth tones. The only sign of civilization was county road 10N that ran from 131 through Irish Canyon on its way to Rock Springs, Wyoming to join up with the awesomely barren, soul-sucking expanse of Interstate 80. A chill wind blew from the west as I considered this, proving that even June isnít safe from cold snaps. I donned all the warm weather clothing I had lugged up the hill, and still found it necessary to sit behind a big rock, allowing it to take the brunt of the windís force. The rock did so willingly, it seemed. Wind has the interesting quality of really bringing home to you how alone you are when backpacking. I sat and stared off to the eastern horizon, examining the toppled geography of the Vermillion Bluffs under brooding clouds and listening to the delicate pitch changes of the wind whistling over rock and tree. I was deliciously alone, but not lonely.
the sun did in fact peek through a narrow crack of clouds, sending forth
an edgy orange light that skimmed across the rocks in a weird half-light
that seemed more like what one would see on storm-ravaged Venus. I strolled
around the rocks, snapping photos with my trusty Canon. The western glow
lasted only moments, followed by the rise of a pink halo on the eastern
horizon that advanced across the sky to the west like a lid shutting on
the day. As it passed over, bathing everything in a strange pink light,
I retreated to slightly lower ground and laid out my sleeping bag on a
surprisingly flat patch of bare soil among the pinyons. As I lay down,
a nighthawk swooped and buzzed somewhere nearby. Sleep came quickly.
June 15, 2006
The next morning I awoke before dawn, groggy-eyed, and shuffled up the slope to watch the sunrise. A thin veil of clouds lay on the eastern horizon, blunting the sharp morning light. The air was still and cool, but even through the clouds the sun warmed me all over. I stood with the morning stares, letting the sun soak into my clothing and trickle down to my skin. Like the sunset of the night before in reverse, the sun soon climbed into the clouds which seemed to be thickening with each passing moment. Within 30 minutes of sunrise, the sky was almost entirely overcast. I dealt with this turn of events by ambling back to my camp and pulling the sleeping bag over my head to sleep for 2 more hours. The sun, peeking out of the clouds at last, began cooking my prone body around 9:00. I hopped up, packed my things and trotted back down hill in the general direction of the car, missing it upon my departure from the woods by only about 200 yards. Small navigational feats such as this are very rewarding, you know.
Back in the car I motored a short ways to a little dirt road just south of the BLM info station at the southern entrance to Irish Canyon. I followed this road east for a mile, then took a 2-track north into the pinyon-juniper. There were a few tense moments driving over particularly sharp and high-standing rocks, but luckily no one was hurt. I parked at a nice pullout, although the road seemed to go farther. I shouldered a day pack with plenty of water and set off downhill under a persistently cloudy sky. Following a wash, I made my way easily to the bottom of Vermillion Creek, mostly dry, very muddy. The mud, in fact, was very much like quicksand in most places. It looked benign and firm, but was a soup in repose. Luckily, the canyon was not so narrow that I had to walk in the middle of it, yet. The geology was varied, with obvious layers of radically different periods. Slate-gray rock gave way to reddish crumbly soil, which gave way to lighter tan rock broken off in angular chunks. In the bottom, willows and grasses grew along the swampy banks. The descent at the last was steep, but I was able to find an easy way down. Later I discovered numerous easy entries into the canyon. Walking upstream, the canyon opened up into a park, and I tired of following the winding route of the water and followed a cow path to the bench, where I was able to hike more directly to the deeper canyon through Limestone Ridge. On the way, I stopped to explore a couple of short and steep side canyons. One of them curled around a bit, and had a large cottonwood growing within it. It was a very comfortable and hidden place. I sat and listened to the utter silence of this cloudy, deathly still morning.
The canyon was ahead, and I plunged into the narrow defile. For hundreds of feet, rough walls of rock rose straight up. These are not the smooth sandstone walls found in most of the region. The canyon looked like it had been crudely hacked through using hand tools rather than the smooth abrasive wear of water. The chief time consuming activity of the next half hour was how to get around a narrow spot in the canyon. A wall too high to scale without aid completely blocked passage upstream except for a narrow chute in the middle. The problem was that the chute was protected by a large plunge pool of water. Iíve already mentioned how goopy the mud was. Heck, I almost sank to my ankles just crossing the "dry" area below the plunge pool. On the right side of the pool, someone had stacked up some rocks and then used that as a boost to scale the wall. I tried that first, but Iím not much of a climber, and I got a little nervous, being alone and all. So, I decided to wade the water and go up the chute. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in two steps. The water was only a few inches deep by then, but I sunk up to my knees in muck and had no simple time backing out of the gluey gel. Nothing doing there, as I needed another 10 feet to reach the chute. I walked downstream to some rocks and spent about 15 minute rinsing the black and brown ooze off my feet and legs enough so I could put my socks and shoes back on. Time ticking away. The mud wouldnít simply let go by swishing in water. Oh no. I had to physically rub it off every inch of skin and even then some stuck around. Nasty stuff. I decided to try again at climbing up the wall. I stood on the rocks and thought, "No way," but as my hand inched higher above my head, I found a handhold so perfect I could have hung from it all day. I gripped it firmly and pulled my body up, easy as walking. The canyon for the next 200 feet or so was at its best: narrow and almost entirely stone. I walked up a little beyond that and was abruptly sent out into the basin where gentle slopes of clay undulated out of sight. A faint two track led off north, and I followed it for a little while, but when the scenery didnít change much, I turned around and explored the short canyon of Vermillion Creek in reverse. The climb down the wall was a little interesting, but I was just tall enough to reach the rock pile below without losing much of my grip on the upper ledge. A short person might have trouble with this little spot if they are alone.
Walking along the bench southward, I came across BLM signs regarding archeological sites. I looked around, and it took me awhile to note the large circle of rocks on the ground with an X through it. I have no idea what the history of this might be, but I left it alone. From this area, I spotted a trail that led uphill, so I followed it until it became the very road my car was parked on. Right back to it, in it and back to the county road through Irish Canyon.
Irish Canyon is pretty cool, and I enjoyed it while it lasted. It is short, since Limestone Ridge is not very wide, and north of that the terrain mellows out dramatically. The second dirt road to the east once north of the canyon led me directly into the heart of Vermillion Basin, and right down to Vermillion Creek and a herd of cows therein. It was still cloudy and cool. I took a short nap in the car, then loaded my pack and set off east through the dense reed and sagebrush of the valley bottom. The sand cliffs on the east side of the basin have been barricaded against cows, so I found it a little tricky to get past the fence myself, it not being the standard 3-string but instead a series of T-post crosses at each gulley. Once up above, the land was flat as a frying pan, and I walked across it with ease, dodging the occasional greasewood and watching the several hundred cottontails in residence scurry for cover. I walked north along this flat, alternately studying the jagged pinnacles of rock to the west and the multi-hued frozen dunes to the east. After less than a mile, a deep gulch, perhaps 20 feet down in the soft sand, blocked my northerly progress, so I turned east and walked along the south rim of this gulch until a side channel facilitated access. In the bottom of the gulch it was dry, but more vegetation grew within. I exited at a convenient northerly side channel after ½ mile of hiking in the gulch. I emerged into a duneland almost completely bereft of vegetation. The pictures will do more to describe it than words. The thing I noted was that although the ground looked like it was soft sand, it was really hard as rock. My boots made no impression at all on the surface. The slopes of the hills were almost as hard, with tiny ridges of clay furrowed by drainage channels. Horizontally stacked strata of varying colors were the real interest, as subtle shades of yellow, orange, red and purple could be discerned. Since all that was visible was rock and soil, a geologistís perspective of the area would undoubtedly be fascinating. You will not find that here, unfortunately. I wandered east, uphill through washes and extremely steep slopes until I got well above the dunes and stopped for a break. Here, for the first time, I was able to phone home and give my whereabouts since I had given only vague plans to my wife as I left home. Always good to let someone know where you are. On up the hill I came to a flatter area that was sparsely claimed by grasses and cushion plants, some blooming. I found a nice flat spot under a juniper and set up my tent for the night. It looked like rain, and I was glad to have it up and ready if needed.
Once that was
done, I walked back out to the rim of the bench and sat on a large lichen-covered
stone and read my book, A Walk in the Woods by Bryan Bryson, while the
sun sank behind a screen of gray clouds. Nothing stirred across the miles
of dunes under my observation. I ate a small dinner of jerky and a Clif
Bar, followed by water, of which I had a finite supply as there was absolutely
no running water around these parts. Late in the evening, amid a whipping
and cold northwest wind, the sun blazed through a crack in the clouds and
lit up the bluffs to the south. Mind you, no sunlight came to warm me up,
but the bluffs to the south were splendid in the brilliant orange light.
This lasted only moments, afterwhich the sun sank behind Cold Mountain
and out of sight. I retired to my small tent, and went to sleep.
June 16, 2006
The following morning, day 3 of my trip, was the outstanding morning I had been waiting for. The crystalline-blue pre-dawn skies heralded the main event and I was up before dawn, packing my gear. Being interested in photographing the area, I naturally wanted good light, and I got it that morning. The sun rose slowly over the eastern horizon, and initially was muted by a thin sheen of clouds that sprung up and then disappeared just as quickly. Slowly, the arid hills around me glowed ever more orange in the light of the sunís corona. The blazing heat of the fire in the sky then came down with a vengeance as the shadow I had been standing in fled before the light. I snapped away while the sunlight slanted low over the bluffs and dunes, walking around and enjoying the dramatic ruggedness and nakedness of the terrain. Itís quite a place. I tried to imagine it with roads and gas truck activity, not hard to do since it goes on all over. Here, though, I could return to a pleasant reality where there were no roads save the single lane that I drove in on, and no sounds other than the wind and the sound of my footsteps. I walked slowly west, losing elevation as I descended into a gulch, my shadow slanting for a hundred feet to the west of me. In the narrow drainage, I heard birds chirping, and ducked low to see a nest of tiny birds in a small grass nest on a mud ledge. All too soon, I was back at the sand gulch, which I gratefully entered for the respite from the sun. A jackrabbit in the gulch didnít move on until I was within 20 feet of him, then he scampered downstream and out of sight with lanky, loping hops. I like the way jackrabbits never seem to get flustered. Cottontails always look flustered, running just as fast as their legs will churn everywhere they go. Jackrabbits only run as far and as fast as needed, almost seeming lazy, but acting in just the way a human might act in the same situation. No need to exert oneís self excessively. If I have to come back to this world as a rabbit, I definitely want to return as old Lepus californicus. I left the gulch when I felt it was time and headed south along the bench in almost the same route I had taken in. I crossed Vermillion Creek a little further to the north than before, disturbing a few white cows who probably hadnít seen a human in months. My car was still there, and I hopped in and drove out. As I left, I wondered if this could be the last time in my lifetime that I have the option of looking out from this thin line of dirt road to see and hear nothing but desert wilderness.
Update: March 15, 2007
In 2001, the BLM inventoried Vermillion Basin and found that most of it had "wilderness character" and would be managed to preserve this wilderness character. In February 2007, the BLM released its Draft Management Plan for the Little Snake Planning Area, which includes Vermillion Basin. This is a draft plan only, and is not the final policy, but the BLMís preferred Alternative "C" (of 4 options) is to open ALL 77,000 acres of the Vermillion Basin to oil and gas development on a limited basis. Despite years of lobbying by a broad-based environmental coalition, the BLM prefers a management plan that would almost certainly permanently prevent wilderness designation for Vermillion Basin. So what happened between 2001 and 2007 to change the BLMís position? Hereís a hint: "He's the decider". The Bush energy policy is to drill for domestic oil, period. Every photo on this web page shows an area that could shortly be up for oil and gas development if the BLMís preferred Alternative C becomes policy. It has the momentum to do so, and it will be reality unless the BLM receives strong negative feedback. If youíve no idea what oil and gas development looks like, check this out. To be fair, the BLM intends to severely limit drilling within Vermillion Basin to less than 1% of total surface area at any given time, yet over decades, road scars, erosion and abandoned wellpads that are not properly reclaimed will take their toll on this beautiful landscape. Make no mistake: Vermillion Basin will no longer provide a wilderness experience under Alternative C. Not many people will come across this site, but if youíre here, and youíd like to do something, write a polite letter saying you support wilderness protection for Vermillion Basin. Only Alternative "D" closes Vermillion Basin to oil and gas development. It is most important to send letters of support for Alternative D to the BLM Little Snake Field Office during the 90-day comment period that ends May 16, 2007. It's quick, easy and it could make a big difference!
February 2, 2008
Update: August 3, 2010
The BLM dropped it's plan to drill within Vermillion Basin, and will continue to manage the area essentially as a wilderness area, though it does not yet have that status. This decision came from high up, and if you voted for Obama hoping he would stem the rape of the west for energy, this is your reward. Not surprisingly, officials in the energy industry, like David Ludlam, Director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, are crying foul that they can't drill this small portion of the Little Snake Field Office (though millions of acres surrounding it will still be leased), and he is upset that the "consensus" on the BLM plan was overturned by the administration. If it were a consensus, I'd agree, but from my perspective, the voices of those who weren't financially vested in oil and gas revenues were completely ignored. If oil and gas company execs feel as if their voices were muted by this decision, then it is only fair that they should be, after nearly a decade of madness when their voices seemed to be the only ones that mattered in western land management. For now, I am breathing a little sigh of relief that Vermillion Basin is safe...at least for the next 2 years.
See more canyon country photos in the Colorado & Utah albums at www.LandscapeImagery.com
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