This Colorado County Is Home to Wild Horses and Canyons With Dinosaur Tracks — Here’s How to Explore It

In Moffat County, the past lives on, but all eyes are looking toward its potential future, too.

<p>David Williams</p> One of the wild horses of Salt Wash Basin, a herd-management area in northwest Colorado.

David Williams

One of the wild horses of Salt Wash Basin, a herd-management area in northwest Colorado.

I was barely 75 miles west of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and its mountain-chic restaurants, art galleries, and hot-springs-fed swimming pools when I reached Maybell, a blip on Highway 40. "Where the west is still wild," read a roadside marker. Just beyond the town’s Depression-era general store, I swung north onto County Road 318, where green pastures gave way to sandy mesas. "No services for 120 miles," another sign cautioned. If you want to get lost in America, Moffat County, the northwestern-most corner of Colorado, is a good place to go.

<p>David Williams</p> From left: Josh and Maegan Veenstra of Good Vibes River Gear on the Yampa River; the Yampa River as it winds through Dinosaur National Monument.

David Williams

From left: Josh and Maegan Veenstra of Good Vibes River Gear on the Yampa River; the Yampa River as it winds through Dinosaur National Monument.

But there are attractions within those 120 miles, including my destination: Sand Wash Basin, about 158,000 acres of sagebrush-clad hills, dry creek beds, and clay buttes, all overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency in charge of much of the undeveloped land in these parts. It’s a refuge for wild horses — 344 grays, bays, and sorrels — which attract camera-toting pilgrims ardent for the open range.

“It’s magical out here,” said Cindy Wright, a rancher who runs the nonprofit Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin, which raises money to support improvements in the habitat. She served as my guide to viewing the horses, as well as other wonders on the reserve, including petrified wood, ancient turtle shells, and rock walls striped in fossilized algae like prehistoric bath rings. “There’s a lot to offer here, a lot of open space.”

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<p>David Williams</p> The red-rock canyons of Dinosaur National Monument.

David Williams

The red-rock canyons of Dinosaur National Monument.

Wilderness has long distinguished Moffat County, home today to two million acres of public land. It’s a place where the Indigenous Fremont people flourished and where Butch Cassidy and other legendary 19th-century outlaws hid in isolated canyons. But after early-20th-century homesteaders began working seams of surface coal, mining took off and coal-burning power plants grew to sustain the rural county. Now, in response to a statewide mandate to create a clean-energy grid by 2040, its three plants are slated to close in the next four years, inspiring some county planners to position Moffat’s natural assets — vast canyons, high deserts, and wild rivers — as the basis for a new economy built on adventure travel and outdoor recreation.

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<p>David Williams</p> Yampa Valley Brewing Co.

David Williams

Yampa Valley Brewing Co.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re the last place on earth to have what we have, and that we’re on the cusp of amazing things,” said Jennifer Holloway, a Moffat native whose father worked in the mines. She now runs the chamber of commerce in Craig, the 9,000-resident county seat 42 miles west of Steamboat, and the tourism authority of Moffat County. Both organizations are focused on the transition from coal.

Though the region’s primary industry isn’t particularly obvious to visitors, the shift away from it was the talk of the town when I rolled into downtown Craig one bright late-summer afternoon. I stopped at Yampa Valley Brewing Co., where a team of university researchers was meeting to gather community feedback on what an equitable transition would look like. Whitewater rafters and conservationist entrepreneurs mingled with at least one pro-coal rancher over Space Dog IPAs, filling suggestion boards with requests for more bathrooms at river launch sites and pleas such as “Everyone’s culture should be respected, not replaced.”

<p>David Williams</p> The lights come up in downtown Craig.

David Williams

The lights come up in downtown Craig.

It had been a while since I had visited a place where travel had the potential to bring about positive change. Pre-pandemic, overtourism, which afflicted most popular places, was a burden, causing physical destruction of monuments like Machu Picchu and watering down local culture. But Moffat’s sustainable tourism bid trades on a wilderness few know. During my week there, I drove long distances around rangy Moffat, the second-largest county in the state, taking in outlaw history, wild-horse safaris, and river-cut chasms.

The heavy wooden doors of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, housed in Craig’s former armory, opened to reveal a luminous, wall-size image of a cowboy, head humbly inclined, riding a chestnut horse across the Yampa River. Painted by local artist Israel Holloway, the mural — said to be the world’s largest watercolor — welcomes visitors to a peerless treasury of natural history, cowboy culture, and gunfighting glory.

<p>David Williams</p> From left: Fueling up at Prodigal Son's Coffee House & Eatery; a charcuterie board at 518 Wine Bar.

David Williams

From left: Fueling up at Prodigal Son's Coffee House & Eatery; a charcuterie board at 518 Wine Bar.

“History is still somewhat tangible here,” Paul Knowles, the museum’s assistant director, told me as we walked around the exhibits, which included a headdress from the Puebloan Tewa people, a 10,000-year-old bison skull, and a braided leather rope that belonged to a real-life cowboy — a recent donation from the cowboy’s octogenarian son.

Historically, Craig has lagged behind the rest of the West. The railroad didn’t arrive until 1913, which meant that locals were still taking the stagecoach 50 years after the transcontinental routes were built. Coal changed Moffat County’s fortunes, and also revealed another source of wealth: fossils. “Coal is the perfect conservator,” Knowles said, pointing to fossilized hadrosaur footprints, which are commonly found on the ceilings of mines. “You can still be killed by a dinosaur here if a footprint breaks and falls.”

<p>David Williams</p> From left: Craig artist Israel Holloway in his studio; a wild horse at Sand Wash Basin.

David Williams

From left: Craig artist Israel Holloway in his studio; a wild horse at Sand Wash Basin.

On the second floor, an encyclopedic collection of gunfighter goods includes a fast-draw shoulder holster and a silver-trimmed saddle once owned by the famed scout, hunter, and showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Visitors to Steamboat often detour to see these artifacts, accounting for the museum’s relatively large annual attendance of 12,000. “We’re proof that tourism is sustainable,” Knowles added.

Other businesses in downtown Craig have benefited from the museum’s popularity. The entrepreneurial energy is evident at the 518 Wine Bar, which is filled with retro sofas and velvet drapes, and Prodigal Son’s Coffee House & Eatery, which sits across the street from the town’s Art Deco–era West Twin Cinema.

<p>David Williams</p> From left: The Museum of Northwest Colorado; the museum's display of antique spurs.

David Williams

From left: The Museum of Northwest Colorado; the museum's display of antique spurs.

Five years ago, Christian Dufresne, who co-owns Yampa Valley Brewing in nearby Hayden, opened a branch in Craig, right next door to the museum. “Craig had everything all these other places had, maybe minus a degree of investment,” he said, referring to more popular small towns in Colorado. Craig’s ready access to river rafting and mountain-biking trails has attracted new residents who have been priced out of Steamboat. “It bodes well for that transition to work-from-anywhere.”

Cindy Wright doesn’t keep the money she charges for her daylong driving tours of the Sand Wash Basin, which include picnic lunches and snacks. Proceeds go to Wild Horse Warriors, which advocates for the health of the Sand Wash herd.

We took her high-clearance Jeep Wrangler Rubicon on rugged roads strewn with sharp chert, a black quartz that shreds lesser tires. It didn’t take long for us to find our first family of horses, which had names — Frisky, Shelby, Faith, Rustler — mostly given by Wright and other avid horse watchers. We had to be quick with our cameras: The horses glanced up momentarily on arrival, then resumed browsing sagebrush, their metronome manes swatting at insects.

<p>David Williams</p> The world's largest watercolor, by Israel Holloway, at the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

David Williams

The world's largest watercolor, by Israel Holloway, at the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

Management of the horses is controversial. Without birth control, a herd can double in four years, Wright told me. In 2021, to allow the land to recover from overgrazing after four consecutive summers of drought, the Bureau of Land Management rounded up about 680 of the estimated 900 horses in the preserve for adoption or sale.

On our safari drive, she stopped to show me stromatolites — rare, reeflike rocks that are evidence of 50 million-year-old lake beds — and palm trees petrified in ocher. We flushed killdeer birds from their nests and watched mountain bluebirds pause on top of greasewood bushes. On Lookout Mountain, the highest point in the reserve, we peered into neighboring Vermillion Basin, a 77,000-acre BLM-managed badlands of mineral-hued hills and canyons.

“A lot of emotional healing takes place here,” Wright said as we made our slow and steep descent back to Sand Wash. “Sage is cleansing in Native American culture, and we’ve been driving around breathing it all day.”

“Craig is the last spot before the wild begins. You can get lost for weeks out here and not see another footprint,” he said, before breaking into a smile. “This is the last great place to have fun.”

I was about 50 miles into those 120 miles of service-free County Road 318 when I reached the northern entrance to Dinosaur National Monument. Some 90% of visitors to the park, which straddles the Colorado-Utah border and is famed for its rich quarry of Jurassic-era dinosaur bones, enter from the Utah side. That leaves just 10%, or about 10,000 people a year, approaching it from the Colorado side, where the south-flowing Green River meets the westbound Yampa River, carving through 540 million-year-old layers of rock. The resulting Class II and III rapids send whitewater rafts pinballing off submerged boulders and plunging down spray-blasting swells.

Running the rivers in Dinosaur is a popular multiday adventure that many visitors book with commercial outfitters like OARS and Dinosaur River Expeditions. I joined a 10-raft flotilla — a private launch of land managers, tourism officials, and local entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the county’s transition to tourism over a three-day river run. Immersed in nature by day and sharing campsites and cooking duties by night, we became fast friends.

Setting off on the Green River, we immediately entered a 2,000-foot-high chasm girded by Uinta quartzite, some of the oldest strata revealed by the river, known as the Gates of Lodore. Within the canyon, some of the rapids are gentle Class I or II or roly-poly Class III, but the aptly named Disaster Rapids were whoop-worthy Class IV, and nearby, we found a group of boaters working to dislodge their raft from a wall overhang where the waves had wedged it. On his seminal 1869 trip down the river to the Grand Canyon, explorer John Wesley Powell lost a vessel on this stretch, but the crew, according to park rangers, worked furiously to salvage its contents, which included a compelling keg of whiskey.

Between riverside campsites shaded by juniper trees, we floated past mud-domed nests of cliff swallows pasted onto rock overhangs, diving osprey, and bighorn sheep tiptoeing on the ledges overhead. Opposite Steamboat Rock, a 1,000-foot monolith around which the river flexes, a field filled with starburst-shaped Rocky Mountain bee plants attracted scores of hummingbirds. A rare rain shower produced countless pop-up waterfalls spilling over the cliffs.

On the second day, I rode in a boat piloted by Josh Veenstra, who, with his wife, Maegan, co-owns Good Vibes River Gear, a Craig start-up that outfits rafts with boat bags and camping accessories, many of them custom-sewn. Later, over Sierra Nevada pale ales, Josh explained that he learned to sew when he worked as an insulator mechanic at a local power plant, before a three-week trip on the Yampa and Green rivers led him to bet on the town’s transition and launch the business.

“Craig is the last spot before the wild begins. You can get lost for weeks out here and not see another footprint,” he said, before breaking into a smile. “This is the last great place to have fun.”

Where to Stay

The nearest high-end accommodation is Gravity Haus Steamboat, a design-forward resort in Steamboat Springs. The town of Craig has affordable chain hotels including Candlewood Suites and Best Western Plus, as well as Airbnb options.

Where to Eat and Drink

518 Wine Bar: Find wine, whiskey, and shareable snacks at this friendly local in the heart of Craig.

Prodigal Son’s Coffee House & Eatery: A Craig charmer. Try the bacon and egg on a biscuit.

Yampa Valley Brewing Co.: Northwest Colorado’s craft-beer mecca has taprooms in Craig, Hayden, and Steamboat Springs.

What to Do

Dinosaur National Monument: Hunt for fossils and ancient petroglyphs across 210,000 acres of wilderness on the border of Colorado and Utah. Rafting companies OARS and Dinosaur River Expeditions can organize single- or multi-day expeditions.

Good Vibes River Gear: Get fully equipped for rafting at this shop in downtown Craig.

Museum of Northwest Colorado: Artifacts of cowboy culture and railroad history, housed in a former armory in Craig.

West Twin Cinema: You can’t miss the retro marquee of this Craig two-screener, which made its debut in 1939.

Wild Horse Warriors: This nonprofit arranges tours of Sand Wash Basin, a refuge for wild horses just outside the town of Maybell.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "All Points West."

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