Want to escape the crowds of travelers seeking out national park experiences? Head to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area where your American the Beautiful park pass gets you into all trailheads and lake parking lots for free.
Straddling the Utah and Wyoming border, Flaming Gorge truly is an oasis amid red-rock cliffs, towering ponderosa pine forests and groves of aspen trees. It’s filled with water from the Green River and just below the dam is some of the most stunning river country in the West. The first stretch of the Green River to Little Hole takeout is great for family rafting. The 7-mile stretch is called “The Aquarium” because the green waters are so clear you can see rainbow trout swimming past you to depths as great as 15 or so feet. There are numerous shops that rent rafts for those interested in floating downstream to Little Hole takeout where a pre-arranged shuttle can pick you up.
Above the dam, enjoy beachside activities and boating on the lake. You won’t even have to worry about waves from motorized boats. There are actually a number of wakeless paddling trails near the dam at the Mustang Ridge parking area at Sunny Cove five minutes from Dutch John, Utah. There’s also a wakeless area at Sheep Creek Overlook, which is about 15 minutes from Manila, Wyo., so you can paddle in solitude for a couple miles in canyons that rise anywhere between 100 and 1,000 feet.
“It’s really spectacular,” says Ryan Kelly, Flaming Gorge marketing director. “It’s a great way to get that deep canyon experience without going on a commercial trip downstream.”
From Sunny Cove minutes from Dutch John and the Flaming Gorge Visitor Center at the dam, you can SUP and relax at a great beach that also has a campground nearby. If you’d rather sleep on a boat, you can also rent a houseboat and spend several days exploring the 91-mile-long reservoir. There’s camping near the gorge but also above in the ponderosa forests. Skull Creek Campground and others above the reservoir is about 20 minutes from Dutch John and offers cooler temperatures since it is hundreds of feet above the reservoir.
On the Utah side, every road is designated a scenic byway or scenic backway. A “backway” is a back road, not a major highway. These roads make for wonderful scenic drives, but they also are great road bike rides. A fantastic 20-mile road bike loop in Sheep Creek Canyon is 13 miles of scenic backroads and 7 miles of scenic byways. For great scenery, visit Red Canyon Overlook, the most Instagrammed spot in the area with incredible views of the reservoir as it snakes around the canyon walls.
Where are the cool hikes? The best paddling? The mountain bike trails that hardly anyone knows exists? Stop in at the Flaming Gorge Visitor Center at the dam to learn more about the area and to get tips for where to hike. Not every trail is marked clearly in the area, so locals are happy to share tips and specific directions.
The uncrowded trails may take you by surprise and have you planning your next trip a bit differently. It’s amazing to be camped in aspen groves and ponderosa forests above the gorge and then drive down 1 minutes to the lake and be in a redrock environment.
“One of the comments we’ll get often as people stop here between the parks is, ‘We wish we had spent more time here,'” Kelly says. “It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s not crowded. It’s national park quality scenery like the Red Canyon Overlook, which is absolutely spectacular.”
Farther south, you’ll find Red Fleet State Park where you can walk a 1.5-mile trail to 200-million-year-old dinosaur tracks. Go early in the morning or later in the afternoon as the tracks are difficult to see when the sun is directly above you.
To learn more about the ancient history of the area, head to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, Utah. A giant Diplodocus stretching 90 feet from tail to tip will greet you at the door. Inside, get an engaging hands-on primer on what’s been going on for the last several million years. Learn how dinosaurs roamed the area and how to tell fossils apart from pebbles. You can even visit the Fossil Lab to see how scientists work with dinosaur bones.
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Flaming Gorge Country