Northeast Utah - Southwest Wyoming
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
I’ve lost track the times I’ve driven up and down the 191 searching, not earnestly, but in vain, for the fabled Flaming Gorge Reservoir. And then I got smart and bought a map and drove east from the 191 near the southern end of that large body of water along forested Highway 44 to the Red Canyon Overlook. Approaching in early May with not a soul in sight, a spur road cut north through somewhat open country of tall Ponderosa and the pine. Slamming on the brakes when a bighorn ewe and her little one galloped across the road, I fumbled for the camera and snapped a blurry shot through the bug-splattered windshield just for the record. Then, step-by-step I shuffled down the footpath to the promontory where I stood clutching the rail at the very edge of the illustrious Red Canyon twisting off into the distance, and felt my jaw drop 1,700 feet to the water below. Wyoming might have ended up with most of the water, but Utah got the best of the scenery.
No doubt famed explorer John Wesley Powell and his nine fearless men were equally impressed when they floated their wooden boats down the untamed Green River whose source originates near the Continental Divide near the rugged Wind River Mountain Range of Wyoming. During that spring trip of 1869 Powell named the writhing slot that cuts through red walls of Weber Sandstone “Flaming Gorge” on account of the setting sun that set the forested cliffs ablaze. It’s uncertain what the grizzled explorer would think of the 500-foot-tall Flaming Gorge Hydroelectric Dam (tours available) that plugs the deep-green waters of the Green River that really is green.
After six years of construction, the dam was completed in 1964 and gave to man 91 flooded water-miles of recreational bliss that have them visiting this otherwise parched corner of the West in the thousands. With 42,000 surface acres surrounded by 360 miles of shoreline, flaming Gorge is water-sport heaven, even if it can be a tad bit chilly.
Powerful powerboats can be seen roaring along the base of red cliffs looming high overhead dragging water skiers bristling in goosebumps hither, and occasionally yon, the V-shaped cut of the wake crisp and white. They jet ski, they RV (the verb) in houseboats. Kids frolic and splash and folks raft down the river and swim until their legs turn blue, and they para-sail. And now and then someone gets bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake, or step on a scorpion, though I find scorpions in Wyoming difficult to envision.
And due to opportune water temperatures they fish by casting from boat or shore, and partake of a bountiful harvest of trout, chubby ones, here in the reservoir and downstream past the dam where the Green flows toward relatively nearby Dinosaur National Monument. Rainbows, brownies, small-mouth bass and Kokanee Salmon all call the Green and the Gorge home. In fact, Flaming Gorge Reservoir (elevation 6,045’) has a reputation for delivering up trophy lake trout; thirty-pounders are caught each year, including one Utah record-breaking 51-pound behemoth.
Catering to this water-logged crowd are five full-service marinas which provide launch sites, maintenance and storage facilities. Though they have motel accommodations in tiny John Day near the southeast corner of the reservoir, and over in larger but distant Manila in the high desert, brown scrub-lands and farm country, most visitors at Flaming Gorge, and the greater 270,000-acre Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, head for the campgrounds of which there are 43 offering 700 campsites and 27 sites for groups large and small.
Topographically the recreation area is bipolar. Utah’s southern end is high country, dense with evergreen and aspen trees, and delightful green meadows habitat to elk and deer. Up here the Gorge is narrow and winding and plunges away to dizzying depths. But northward the canyon flattens out and the land drops and the waters widen, surrounded by parched brown desert that rolls off endlessly to the horizon; scrub country, with some pinion and juniper and crazy, frightened herds of pronghorn racing away from the camera at breakneck speed.
My recommendation to anyone driving north from Vernal up those infernal switchbacks is to veer west at the Highway 191/44 junction, the road that will take you to Manila and the Sheep Creek Geological Area loop, a favorite for rock hounds who come to be mesmerized by twisted sedimentary layers put down over eons. From the Red Canyon Overlook west down the 44 is where you’ll get the big, sprawling views of the reservoir and mountains of red and white, cake-layered, tilted strata. The drive will plunge you down along twists and around turns and through an unbelievable record of geologic history. As the landscape becomes drier and dustier you’ll notice signs along the way pointing out the various daunting geologic periods, all of it making me feel, I don’t know, dizzy from the drive, and fleeting in light of hundreds of millions of years of erosion.
The Wyoming side of the Flaming Gorge isn’t as bleak as many portray it. For some, desert is a developed taste, one that I’ve learned to savor. Especially on the east side of the reservoir, it’s beautiful and remote, dry crunchy country with abundant sage. It’s a long ten-mile drive to get down to the water from the highway, but well worth the detour if the weather accommodates. Tall sandstone outcroppings, spires and buttes await which remind me of Southern Utah, and who doesn’t love Southern Utah?
Standing on the rim of Red Canyon gazing out across open space and down the curvature of the Green River under temporary bondage to the dam framed by cathedral elegance, and walls that are burgundy red and stand very tall, I’m certain that on this very spot over the course of hundreds of years stood Shoshone, Comanche and Ute Indians in similar reverential awe trying to assimilate the beauty of it all, watching John Wesley Powell’s red walls set on fire by the setting sun. I turned from Red Canyon and walked through towering Ponderosa behind me and found one struck by lightning, a mighty gash down its bark, top to bottom, and thought to myself,” Not a good place to be in a July thunderstorm.” And then we left.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.