Category Archives: Green River Formation

The Empty Quarter

Portion of Flat Tops Wilderness

Well, its not a quarter of Colorado, but it’s big and pretty empty.  North and west of the Colorado River and south and west of the Yampa River, the only towns of any size are Rifle, Silt, Newcastle, and Glenwood Springs along the Colorado; and Meeker in the middle.  Craig and Hayden are on the  Yampa.  I don’t count Rangely on the White River west of  Meeker as a real town.  It is just a bunch of oil field junk with a few forlorn people. I recently traveled through the heart of the region.

I am a Western Slope native, so I have been over the relatively well traveled roads.  I-70 (previously highways 6&24) and SH 13 from Rifle to Craig.  As a kid, I went fishing on Rifle Creek with my parents.  The

White River

White River drains the White River Plateau and The Flattops.  Piceance Creek drains the Piceance Basin and enters the White between Meeker and Rangely.

Meeker is a pretty town in the valley of the White River.  It’s a farm and ranch town with a sad past.  The Meeker Massacre in 1879 was the end of the Utes huge reservation  lands in Western Colorado. They were shipped to Eastern Utah.  The reason was the systematic U.S. Policy of cooping the Indians up or killing them.  There are grisly details, but it was just another example of the U.S. Policy of mistreating Native Americans that continues to this day.

Maybe you have heard of Trappers Lake.  It is an enclave surrounded by the Flattops Wilderness, a huge area of timberland dotted with many small lakes.  The only access is on horseback or backpacking.  It’s wet country, catching the storms as they leave the lower country to the west.  Hunters, fishermen, and tree huggers are the only travelers.

I never backpacked there, but two friends humped there way in years ago.  They talked about the beauty,  but mostly about the rain.  One of them had one of those convoluted open foam pads with no cover.  When the water came into the tent, he was lying on a sponge in a soaked down sleeping bag.  They left early.

West of SH 13, along the Grand Hogback,

Grand Hogback Between the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains

you are on the Colorado Plateau.  Go east, and you are in the Rocky Mountains, but not the Rockies you are used to.  The hogback is a remnant of the uplift that formed the Rockies.  The equivalent on the east side are those red rock hogbacks called the Flatirons, Red Rocks, and the Garden of the Gods.

No big mountains here, just a region of high plateaus.  The reason? Volcanism in the form of lava flows.  The White River Plateau was uplifted along with the rest of the Rockies, but instead of being eroded into those jagged peaks we are used to seeing, the basalt from the lava flows formed a resistant, flat caprock.  It’s not rugged mountains, but it has a beauty all it’s own.

Flat Tops Trail

The is a scenic byway between Meeker and Yampa I took for the first time,  At first, it is in the White River valley, then climbs up on the plateau and heads on east to Yampa.  The view to the south is where the Flattops drop down to the river.  It’s not a gentle slope.  The basalt caprock is underlain by the soft White River Formation.  The steep slope is subject to landslides, leaving large open, green slopes surrounded by timber.  It’s great summer range country for sheep and cattle.  It is also some of the prettiest country in our state.  I think I met two pickups on the road east of Buford, where the road turns off to Trappers Lake.  It’s gravel much of the way, but good gravel.

West of SH 13, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, is the huge Piceance Basin.  It is a Structural basin next door to the Uinta Basin, mostly in Utah.  The basins are separated by the Douglas Arch, crossed by Douglas Pass, country where I spent a lot of time in my youth.  The arch is a western extension of the Laramide Orogeny, the mountain building period that formed the Rocky Mountains.  The edges of mountain ranges usually have foreland basins, areas of subsidence.   I am sitting over the Denver Basin.  The Piceance is the equivalent west of the mountains.  As the mountains rose, the fringes sank, creating huge synclines filled with the erosion products of the mountains.    The basins formed huge inland lakes which filled with sediment that became the Green River Formation, famous for its fossils and oil shale.

The Greater Piceance Basin

Because of all that rising and sinking, pockets form, trapping reservoirs of gas and oil.  The Piceance is one of the most productive natural gas fields in the country.  Rangely’s oil is also from the Piceance.  I drove the road running along Piceance Creek, which drains the basin to the west.  The area is all about natural gas, with some ranching along the creek.  There is a gas plant every few miles, and lots of truck traffic.  The basin used to be the home of a huge migratory deer herd, the deer summering in the Flattops and wintering in the basin.  The herd is still there, but all the drilling has greatly reduced the numbers.  Lots of elk there as well, their numbers increasing somewhat, probably due to less competition from deer.

The area is known as the Roan Plateau, which drops off to the Book Cliffs, an escarpment runnng from Palisade, CO to well past Greenriver UT.  It feels like home country to me, with memories of deer hunting in the Douglas pass area.  The scenery isn’t as dramatic as the red rock country to the south, but has its own beauty.  Plus, it isn’t as cluttered up with people.

Piceance, Uinta, Roan Plateau, Book Cliffs, all names for roughly the same country.  My list now includes going up into the basin proper, known mostly by Ute Indians, ranchers, oil field people, geologists, and aging wanderers.

The Green River Formation

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

About fifty million years ago the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River did not exist.  The area was surrounded by the Wind River Mountains, the Uintah Mountains, the San Juans, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and the newly formed Rocky Mountains.  This huge area had no outlet to the sea.  The climate was similar to our current Gulf Coast, warm and moist.  During the six million years we are exploring, things changed.  Lakes formed and receded, land rose and subsided, and through all this the surrounding highlands were sending their sediment into the lakes.   

The Green River Formation is the result of all the sedimentation.  It is up to ten kilometers in depth, thinner at the margins.  At first the lakes were fresh water, but later became saline, leaving large deposits of carbonate rocks.  The trona deposits at Green River, Wyoming are some of the richest in the world.  The margins are sandstone and conglomerate interlaced with the fine silt that filled most of the basin.  The formation is rich in the fossils of the abundant life in the lakes.  They are world famous for their variety and abundance.   

There was an anoxic layer at the bottom that preserved the organisms settling there.  The lakes were abundant in blue-green algae.  The remains of the algae are the source of the oil shale deposits the region is known for.  The oil shale is there in millions of barrels, but it is expensive to extract the petroleum from the rock.  It may never be commercially viable, but the formation has been extensively studied as a result.  

Green River Formation Map

Green River Formation Map

Standing in my home town of Fruita looking north, the white cliffs behind the Book Cliffs are the Green River Formation.  The Roan Plateau is huge, but does not attract visitors like the red rock country to the south.  A huge exposure is the highlands west of I-70 from Rifle to DeBeque Canyon. 

My interest is from visiting ranchers and hunting in the Douglas Pass area in my youth.  Most of our visits were to ranches in the Green River Formation.  The elevations varied greatly.  The ranches were along West Salt Creek, but there were back country roads that went from sagebrush desert to piñon-juniper to oak brush shaly hillsides with sandstone rims to high country timber with world class mud.  In fact, the mud is world class everywhere in the region. 

Back before four wheel drive became common, there was a pile of rocks at the bottom of every big hill.  Load them in the back of your pickup, go where you planned, and unload them on the way home.  There is a network of canyons with side canyons branching off.  All of it is fine deer habitat.  My favorite places were at the head of a canyon with the wind in my face and a view of the LaSal Mountains and the Uncompahgre Plateau in the distance.  Flat, wooded country gives me the creeps. 

Access to a lot of the country is difficult.  Most of the land is BLM land, but the early ranchers homesteaded the choice land that had water.  The private land meant locked gates.  We knew some of the ranchers, family friends.  Hunting season was a big deal.  There were maybe a dozen or more people, hunting during the day and drinking and playing poker at night.  The big ranch house had a big kitchen with a wood burning stove along with the stove in the big main room.  There was a light plant in the shed next to the house.  It looked like no generator you see these days.  There were also lots of Coleman lanterns when the light plant failed.  Good times and lots of venison.  The unheated bunkhouse was upstairs. 

Douglas pass was up the main road, gravel in those days.  It isn’t that high by Colorado standards, but made up for it with the switchbacks up the head of the canyon to the summit up through that shale.  When the shale is wet, it moves.  The road trapped the runoff, wetting the soft shale, and most every spring one or more places slid.  The mountainside now is braided with old road cuts.  It wasn’t much of a main road in the 1950’s, but now there is so much oil and gas development that the road is a paved state highway that the highway department spends money on. 

The road crosses the desert above the Highline irrigation canal before it goes into the canyon.  It is on the Mancos shale, responsible for all that flat desert in Colorado and Utah that turns to grease when it is wet.  There was one hill the road went over then descended into the wash on the north side.  That meant the road was on a north facing slope for a distance.  That hill was named Coyote, because it could bite and gnaw on you if it was wet.  A bit farther north was a ten or twelve foot high rock on the side of the road, all by itself.  

The county employee maintaining the road in those days had his grader blade scrape on that rock every time he bladed the road.  It would leave a bump, so he would have to drag dirt over to level things out.  One day he got fed up and dug that rock up and moved it off the road.  It was probably a two day project, but he never had to fight that damn rock again. 

After I could drive, I ran around that desert quite a bit.  I learned how to drive a two wheel drive pickup in that greasy stuff from my father.  He was the telephone man in Fruita, responsible for maintaining the toll line as far as Cisco, Utah.  That meant navigating two ruts through the cheat grass and sagebrush.  He could put a two wheel drive pickup into places that were a challenge for a Jeep.  Rocks in the back, chains if needed, put it in second gear and putt along.  He seldom used the granny gear or used the gas pedal.  Those old Chevy sixes would just lug their way along.   

I am as guilty as any back country explorer for spending most of my time in the Rocky Mountains or the Utah red rock country, but the Mancos Shale and the Green River formation are calling me.  I just need to see if my tire chains are in good shape.  I think I will go over Douglas Pass, loop around and look the Piceance Basin over. From Rifle I will go down to Plateau Creek (my father and grandfather said platoo crick) and up to Collbran to look at the big slide.