Vermillion Bluffs Roadless Area: A "Wilderness Without Handrails" Outing

by Kirk Cunningham, RMC Conservation Chair

These days it is not uncommon to have to stand in line, get a permit, pay a fee, and find a parking space in order to visit a local wilderness area. Once inside the wilderness, we encounter well-marked but well-worn trails, people in droves on the trails, and campsites that often display the sights, sounds, and debris of human occupation—better than no wilderness to be sure, but still not quite the "primitive and unconfined recreation" in a pristine environment that the wilderness concept implies and the Wilderness Act promises.

There are potential wilderness lands in Colorado where this scenario does not exist now and will probably never exist. I led an outing to one of them over the Memorial Day weekend and would like to report on my experience.

What conservationists refer to as the Vermillion Bluffs Roadless Area is located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in extreme northwest Colorado a few miles east of the Brown’s Park Wildlife Refuge. You can get there by traveling U.S. route 40 through Steamboat Springs and Craig to the hamlet of Maybell, turning northwest on Colorado Highway 318 for 45 miles, then turning northeast on County Rd. 10N for 5 miles. 10N goes through scenic Irish Canyon which is on the northern border of the Roadless Area.

The Roadless Area is located 50 miles over mostly public land from any town. The general area is visited principally by hunters in the fall and Green River rafters in the later spring and early summer. The Roadless Area features a 1000-2000 foot-high rocky hogback bisected by Vermillion Creek, tens of thousands of acres of shale and clay "badlands," a few cows, no foot paths, and virtually no human beings. Conservationists believe that the Vermillion Bluffs Roadless Area ultimately deserves legislated wilderness protection, and, in the interim, protection of its wilderness characteristics as a Wilderness Study Area.

I camped in a semi-primitive BLM campground (no water, no TP in the outhouse) in Irish Canyon all three nights and had company only one of those nights in the form of a carload of rowdy high school students from Craig. On Saturday, I bushwhacked 300 feet over the south rim of the canyon (in one of the few places that could be ascended without technical climbing), down the other side into a sagebrush-covered drainage marked by gullies and occasional colorful rock outcrops to the lush valley bottom along Vermillion Creek. I walked along the creek (then at high flow) and into Vermillion Canyon where I viewed (undisturbed by other tourists) a petroglyph panel. The day was completed by taking a different route, picked to see a different set of rock outcrops, back to the camp site. Total distance traveled was about 8 miles, none on any trail.

The second day, I hiked 2000 feet up to the top of Limestone Ridge, a prominent feature to the north of Irish Canyon which is not part of the Vermillion Bluff Roadless Area, but does border on the Cold Springs Mountain Wilderness Study Area. I walked off the ridge (after spotting a golden eagle) and down through a steep and rugged dry stream bed into Irish Canyon again. Trip distance was again about 8 miles, none on trail.

This Memorial Day outing was not atypical for adventuring in BLM wilderness lands in far western Colorado. However, no BLM wilderness outing is complete without some accompanying political action. On Saturday, June 6, I participated in an "indoor outing" with over 250 fellow environmentalists—at a Congressional hearing in Grand Junction on BLM wilderness. We made a good grassroots showing and some cogent factual points to Senator Allard and Congressman McInnis, both obviously hostile to our point of view.

Oh, did I mention that I was the only person who signed up for my Memorial Day outing? In the Sierra Club, outings have a broader purpose than just recreation. First, we need to become personally familiar with the lands in question, but second, we then need to transform that knowledge into political action for protection. If we want any BLM wilderness in Colorado, we will need to start visiting these threatened lands. Watch for future outings in this newsletter.