If you want to see incredible natural beauty, you can’t go wrong if you go West. Today we tell you about the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, located between northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming, surrounded by Ashley National Forest. The area of Flaming Gorge is almost 66 square miles and it is at an average altitude of 6070 ft. The full name is a bit long and is usually shortened to “Flaming Gorge”.
The gorge is shaped like an inverted T and the southern part located in Utah. There are countless breathtaking landscapes, stratified rocks, canyons, hills, trees framing clear waters abounding in fish and green and blue hues contrasting the streaks of red in the rocks. Here nature is still sovereign, even though man has left “his footprint” in order to create a masterful work for the common good and to make this area even more accessible.
- A Short History
- Best Time to Visit Flaming Gorge
- The Flaming Gorge Section in Utah
- The Flaming Gorge Section in Wyoming
- Directions to Flaming Gorge
A Short History
But before we describe the natural landscape, let’s take a short moment to take a step back in time. In the spring of 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine other men boarded small wooden boats in Green River, Wyoming (not to be confused with the town of the same name in Utah) and set out to explore the Green and Colorado Rivers. At the end of May, they completed their journey and decided to name the area they explored Flaming Gorge after seeing and being fascinated by the way the sunlight accentuated the red color of the cliffs of the canyon.
In 1958, the area near Dutch John, along Highway 191, underwent a huge transformation when a dam 1286 ft long and 505 ft high was built (46 ft of which are the foundation that was “anchored” underwater). The result of the work was the great Flaming Gorge Lake and also, at the same time, the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is 90 miles long and follows the course of the Green River “vertically” into Wyoming, where the narrow canyons give way to grasslands, plateaus and desert expanses that are less scenic, but should absolutely to be explored, just as much as the Utah side, and is especially recommended for those who love to go boating.
When visiting this large reservoir, it might be a good idea to rent a houseboat, if you know how to navigate a boat, because it is the best way to enjoy the beauty of this place.
Best Time to Visit Flaming Gorge
In the summer, the mild temperatures make Flaming Gorge a pleasant alternative to the plains where it is hot. This is also “officially” the ideal place for those who fish and want to catch something, especially a trout and some types of salmon. It is also a paradise for those who love water sports such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking, parasailing, jet skiing, water skiing or for those who simply want to enjoy sailing in their boat, take a swim and admire the beautiful scenery.
Flaming Gorge has three marinas and several campsites, some of which are accessible only by boat, that provide closer contact with nature. Flaming Gorge is also a great place for those who enjoy mountain biking. But that’s not all. The sky reflects perfectly on the water and here the conditions of the sky are ideal for astronomy enthusiasts, who will be mesmerized by the Milky Way and the spectacular view of the full moon on the water.
You’ll cross Daggett (UT) and Sweetwater (WY) Counties and pass through small towns. This area is very peaceful and quiet. This is just the right place for those who want to get away from the hectic life in the city.
The Fauna of Flaming Gorge
We have also listened to local experts who talked to us about the fauna in this area. The Golden Eagle is a large predator bird with wide wings and dark brown feathers. It is elegant and enchanting as it flies. They also explained to us that two mammals native to North America are found here. One is the Mule Deer, with ears as big as a mule’s, and the Bighorn Sheep, which can be identified by its large horns that can weigh up to 31 lbs. Pronghorn antelope, on the other hand, are native to the Midwest, and although the name would suggest that they are related to antelopes, they are actually related to giraffes.
The Flaming Gorge Section in Utah
After visiting Yellowstone and Jackson Hole on a tour of Wyoming, you will go down Highway 191, which will take you to Utah, where the elevation is 6430 ft above sea level, to a small town called Dutch John, one of the few towns in the vicinity of Flaming Gorge. It has a strange name for a western town, but it seems like a nice place. Here you can find all the basic necessities as well as sports, marine and fishing supply shops. Dutch John is also the name of the area that includes a large part of the land south of Flaming Gorge. And our actual tour starts here.
You will continue along Highway 191 and in about ten minutes (about 4 miles), you will reach the Flaming Gorge Dam Visitor Center and you will pass by the imposing dam of the same name that blocks the waters of the Green River (a tributary of the Colorado River) and creates an immense reserve. It’s remarkable! The Red Rock Mountains are the backdrop to this magnificent structure that powers the nearby hydroelectric power plant. I would not recommend visiting the dam to those who suffer from heights. It is enormous and you can’t help but think about the powerful force of the water which it contains.
The visitor center (5959 Flaming Gorge Dam, Dutch John) is open from mid-April to mid-October from 9:00 am. to 5:00 pm. The sun is still shining as you drive on Highway 191. It only takes a few minutes to cover the 2.5 miles to the Cart Creek Bridge, the steel arch bridge (it’s not a pedestrian bridge) that crosses the reservoir. We recommend stopping the car for a few moments near the ramp and walking to the edge of the water, where you will have a view of the bridge from below and can photograph it from a different angle.
When Highway 191 meets Highway 183, turn right towards the nearby Cedar Springs Marina, where you can camp and stay overnight nearby, rent boats and take guided fishing tours. While you are here, you should stop by the Snag Bar & Grill (2685 N. Cedar Springs Rd.) and order something to eat. Once you get there you will understand why it is so special. It floats on the water! The view of the lake is beautiful and worth seeing, but remember that the restaurant is open only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm.
On the way to visit the next stops on the itinerary (which we will be looking at shortly), visit the Swett Ranch National Historic Site (Hwy 191, Rt.158 and Rt.158A), a replica of the ranch built by a Mr. Oscar Swett in 1909. Summer tours are run by volunteers who entertain guests by “reenacting” the everyday life of the early 1900s, when it was not at all easy to survive in this remote part of the Far West.
This farm, which is included in the National Register of Historical Places, has a building with five rooms, two sheds, a mill, a meat storage room, a cellar, a granary, a barn and a bathroom added later outside the house. When you visit, you may happen to see some of the cattle roaming freely on the ranch. You will like the visit to the ranch and find its history is interesting, but then you will want to get back on the road to explore to wide-open spaces. At least, that was our personal experience.
What to do? Scenic Viewpoints and Best Trails
Follow this “schedule” to visit the first three viewpoints:
- Canyon Rim Overlook (Hwy 44, Rt.095 and FR373, coordinates N.40° 53′ 05.17″ W.109° 32′ 47.34″)
- Red Canyon Visitor Center (1475 Red Canyon Rd. alias route 095, coordinates N.40° 53′ 30.10″ W.109° 33′ 37.35″)
- Dowd Mountain Overlook & Picnic Site (Hwy 44 then 94, coordinates N.40° 53′ 49.50″ W.109° 37′ 32.27″)
All three offer views of the 250-ft deep Red Canyon and the tranquil waters of Flaming Gorge. You will see remarkable landscapes, including plateaus, the canyons made of red rocks and the flowing Green River. This imposing but silent panorama “demands” and deserves to be a place of contemplation.
Even if the morphology of the rocks is similar, everywhere you look, at every overlook, you see a work of art, a unique and one-of-a-kind painting with its contrasting red, blue sky and green forest. And even if you have already prepared the itinerary at home and have studied many images, from the moment you arrive here, everything changes. The landscape is brought to life in three dimensions and the light creates a magical effect that will inspire you with awe.
- From Dowd Mountain Overlook, you can take a trail that is almost 11 miles long that is perfect for hiking and biking enthusiasts. Here you can experience an even more up-close the beauty of Red Canyon and the lake. On clear days you can see all the way to Wyoming.
- From the Sheep Creek Overlook (Rt.503, Manila, coordinates N.40° 54′ 28.87″ w.109° 41′ 54.48″) you can enjoy a view of Navajo Cliffs, that looks like a postcard (with amazing light effects at dawn and sunset). This is probably one of the most popular views in the area, precisely because it is one of the most stunning. You will see the splendid cliffs, which have stripes of different shades of red, and a plateau further away, slightly inclined, which seems to emerge from the water. This truly enchanting image is a symbol of the spectacular Flaming Gorge.
- And then there’s Kingfisher Island, an island only accessible by boat, where you can camp in a spartan way in perfect harmony with nature. The nearest boat ramp is Sheep Creek (less than 3 miles away). Many avid fishermen come to practice their favorite hobby here and also enjoy the scents and sounds of nature (singing birds, jumping fish, croaking frogs) as well as its silence.
- Horseshoe Canyon is an incredible horseshoe-shaped gorge that is also very popular from above because of the view of the bend, but still ideal for boating and fishing.
A Pit Stop in Manila
You will continue on Highway 44 and head to Wyoming. So far, you will have traveled about 37 miles from the beginning of the journey at the east end of Dutch John and now, near a small town called Manila (capital of the county of Daggett County at 6,348 ft above sea level), you will see the Lucerne Valley Marina (1 Lucerne Valley Recreation Rd.) where you can rent houseboats and cottages on the water, you can practice water sports and there are ramps for boats. This marina has a Yacht Club and an oasis of serenity and beauty.
While in Manila, we recommend that you dine at the Lakeside Grill (5570 E. Lucerne Rd., Manila), which serves burgers, fish tacos, salad and ice cream. The restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday from mid-May to early September and it is worth it to try their homemade breakfast.
Next to the Marina, there is the Lucerne Campground (5570 E. Lucerne Valley Recreation Rd.), which is open from the end of April to mid-September. This large campsite is situated directly on the banks of the reservoir and the only downside is that there are not many shaded areas. The campsite has spaces where you can set up your tent or park your RV and there is a swimming pool, general store, sheltered picnic tables and a boat ramp.
Where to Stay near Flaming Gorge in Utah
Here are the places where you can stay in Dutch John:
- The Flaming Gorge Resort (1100 E. Flaming Gorge Meadows, Dutch John) is pet-friendly with rooms and suites with a basic layout and wooden finish. There is a restaurant, picnic area, gift shop, and general store on-site. There are also two campsites within walking distance of the property.
- The rustic Red Canyon Lodge (2450 Red Canyon Rd., Dutch John) is located in the forest at the foot of the scenic overlook and features cozy wooden cottages located on a private lake. Since you are in the middle of nature, you are allowed to bring small pets. The cottages have a mini kitchen, two beds, living room, bathroom and a covered porch. It is a peaceful oasis and for this reason, there is neither TV nor telephones. It is possible to use the wi-fi only in the main building. On-site there is a restaurant and you can go horseback riding.
Here I will list the accommodation options in Manila:
- 7 miles from the Lucerne Valley Marina, there is the Vacation Inn (250 UT-43), a family-run establishment that can accommodate “four-legged family members”. The rooms are simple and rustic and each one has a small kitchen and porch with a view.
- The Rocky Ridge Outpost (750 W.South Valley Rd.) near Manila will give you an authentic Western-style experience with wooden cabins, yurts and teepees. It is a great place for an overnight stay. There are also ponds where you can go swimming and rowing.
- We also recommend the KOA (320 W. Hgwy 43), the historic camping chain. It has a small facility open from mid-April until early November with cottages and spaces for RVs and tents under poplar trees. From here, you can enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains and Lake Flaming Gorge. The campsite has an outdoor swimming pool that is accessible from Memorial Day in May until Labor Day in September. There is wi-fi and also a playground. Small pets are welcome, but must be kept on a leash.
Activities and Events in the Area
Trout Creek Flies (1155 Little Hole Rd., Dutch John) is an experience. It is a reality to be discovered first hand and it is important that it be lived in a place where you can be one with nature. Its staff has thirty years of experience and a passion for fishing (and not only) and welcomes and guides visitors so that they can live unique experiences. There is rafting and also guided excursions on horseback. There is also Browning’s Restaurant and comfortable accommodations in wooden cabins equipped with all amenities, as well as a sports shop, are all part of this inviting and excellent facility.
You may be interested to know that the Freedom Festival in Dutch John is in early July. There is live music, a car show and fireworks. The town is small, but the event is very popular and well-publicized. Don’t miss out on the fireworks in early September in Manila. More information can be found at the Flaming Gorge Chamber of Commerce (95 N. 1st West – Manila).
Recommended Activities in the Area: Vernal
We recommend that you stop in Vernal, Utah, a few miles south of Flaming Gorge. If you enter the city from the east, you will be greeted by Dinah, a pink dinosaur. This may sound strange but, in fact, this is the starting point for the nearby Dinosaur National Monument (about 7 miles north of Jensen, UT) and in particular the Quarry Exhibit Hall, a spectacular exhibition hall located just over 1970 ft from the visitor center.
Dinosaurs once roamed in this area that is now a “national monument” and the unique Quarry Exhibit Hall was designed to house a large rock wall in which you can see the fossils of Jurassic giants. Other bones have been assembled to reconstruct complete skeletons. To reach the Quarry Exhibition Hall, you can take a shuttle or your own transportation. I highly recommend visiting it.
And if you are in Vernal in July, don’t miss out on the Dinosaur Roundup Rodeo (Western Park Arena 300E. 200S.). It is a big event in town. You can find more information about the city can be obtained at the Uintah County Travel Board (152 E. & 100 N. – Vernal).
Where to Stay in Vernal
For your overnight stay, choose the Quality Inn Vernal (1684 West Hwy 40) with its rustic lobby. The rooms include a refrigerator, microwave and coffee machine. Pets are welcome in the pet-friendly rooms. The hotel has a restaurant, fitness center, business center, indoor heated swimming pool, free wi-fi and hot breakfast included in the price.
- The 7-11 Ranch Restaurant (77 E. Main St.) is the oldest restaurant in town serving American cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner at affordable prices and is furnished with wooden chairs and tables.
- The Café Rio Mexican Grill (1205 W. Hgwy 40) serves North Mexican, South Texan and New Mexico cuisine made with fresh ingredients.
The Flaming Gorge Section in Wyoming
The trip continues in Wyoming. The section of Flaming Gorge in Wyoming is the largest water reservoir in the state. Here the scenery changes, but it is just as spectacular.
- The Green River Basin Scenic Byway is the scenic route along Flaming Gorge, and the mountainous landscape gradually gives way to desert. Here you can see Mule Deer, Pronghorn Antelope and wild horses. The route (loop) takes about three hours and is accessible all year round.
- Buckboard Marina (on Hgwy 530, McKinnon) was built in 1969 and is located 25 miles south of the town of Green River. It has a campsite and, very importantly, there is top fishing here as well. Then if you have a boat it’s worth sailing to Buckboard Cliffs. The Marina is modern and functional, designed for fun and comfort. There is a shop, a boat rental shop, a gas station, restrooms, a boat and car repair shop for boats, wheelchair ramps and a tour guide should you need assistance. Buckboard Marina offers a beautiful view of Buckboard Bay and the Uinta Mountains in the distance.
- Firehole Canyon is a unique area at the top of Flaming Gorge. The rocks of Chimney Rock North and South, high pinnacles, remnants of ancient volcanic activity emerging from the ground. There is no doubt that here we are faced with an example of “a remote beautiful landscape” that can be admired from both land and water. Here too there are some facilities, which include a campsite (Forest Rd.106, McKinnon), a picnic area, a boat and restrooms.
I would like to mention once again that the section of Flaming Gorge in Wyoming is also spectacular and we enjoyed visiting it, but if you are planning a trip, keep in mind the advice of local experts that the best way to experience it is on the river.
Green River: A Strategic Town
Route 530 ends in Green River, which can be the starting or final point of your visit to the reservoir. The town is the capital of Sweetwater County. It has 13,000 inhabitants and is located at an altitude of 6,132 ft. In our case, it was the end of the trip, since we started in Dutch John in Utah, drove up to Green River (WY) and then continued driving in southeast Wyoming to Denver, Colorado.
The Green River area does not have many attractions, but it’s a great place to look for accommodations, refreshments, travel needs and, in our opinion, it has some great scenic spots where you can take pictures. In June, there is an event called Flaming Gorge Days with a parade, concerts, outdoor activities, entertainment for children, basketball, volleyball, soccer and a race.
Where to stay in Green River
Hampton Inn & Suites (1055 Wild Horse Canyon Rd.) is a good choice for an overnight stay. It is located in a scenic area surrounded by mountains (one of the scenic spots we referred to above). The rooms and suites are spacious and have wi-fi and a coffee maker. Some rooms also have a microwave and a mini-fridge. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool, conference room, fitness room, free hot breakfast and is pet friendly.
We recommend Subway (375 Uinta Dr.), where you can quickly get a sandwich with “all the toppings you want” that eat there or get it to go. The Hitching Post Restaurant & Saloon (580 E. Flaming Gorge Way) serves typical local dishes. As the name suggests, there is also a characteristic saloon in the restaurant.
Recommended Activities in the Surroundings: Rock Springs
19 miles east of Green River, Rock Springs is the fourth most populous city in the state. It is located at 6,824 ft above sea level and has about 24,000 inhabitants. It has a historic downtown but, additionally, those who love open spaces should keep Rock Springs in mind for the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop, a 24-mile dirt trail that leads to the top of White Mountain. This trail is very close to Flaming Gorge that starts on Highway 191 west of the city, heading south.
Here you will feel like you are in the Far West, amid the plateaus, hills and rock formations where you can admire wild horses and many desert elk, coyotes, hawks and eagles. Once you conclude the trip, since the city is nearby, why not take a walk along Main Street and then enjoy the local cuisine? Since 1991, Santa Fe South West Grill (1635 Elk St.) has been serving Southwest cuisine and from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm, you can enjoy the Happy Hour Special.
Between the end of May and the beginning of June, Bunning Park hosts International Day, an event with local, regional and international shows (e.g. from Ireland, Japan, Poland, the Caribbean), food, activities for children and handicrafts. This is a way to celebrate the uniqueness of this small town where people of 56 different nationalities live.
Where to stay in Rock Springs
For an overnight stay here in Rock Springs, we recommend the Homewood Suites (60 Winston Dr.) with its spacious suites with a full kitchen, living room and free wi-fi. It also has a swimming pool, fitness room, business center.
Directions to Flaming Gorge
Usually, Flaming Gorge is visited on tours between Yellowstone and Denver or on US-191 to/from the parks of Utah. In either case, it is a perfect intermediate stop to break the long journey from north or south and vice versa.
If you plan to fly to Flaming Gorge, we recommend Salt Lake City International Airport (776 N. Terminal Dr.), which is about 4-hour drive from Flaming Gorge and Denver International Airport (8500 Pena Blvd.), which is about a 5.5-hour drive. In addition to traditional car rental, you may choose to explore these endless landscapes on a motorcycle or in an RV, an alternative that we strongly recommend from personal experience.
In the United States, there are many corners of paradise. Those who love nature and wide landscapes will have countless places to explore. We would like to emphasize that we venture beyond the most famous places because in doing so we discover areas not as well-known. Flaming Gorge is the perfect example, but it is spectacularly beautiful nonetheless. Because the United States has so much to offer, it is necessary to take several trips…which we do not mind at all! Today we have figuratively “taken you” to Flaming Gorge, a charming and peaceful place that you should definitely visit in the future.