Hitting Scenic Byways and Backways – Flaming Gorge, Utah
Mellow sightseeing day trips in Flaming Gorge country is just what the doctor ordered, after our last few frenetic stops. The home base here was at Pine Forest RV Park in Dutch John, Utah (Steve’s review here), which was central to our sightseeing adventures. Virtually every road we drove was designated a national or state scenic byway or backway. What a great way to enjoy and explore the area as my knee continues to mend – although I know I’ve missed a lot of good hiking trails!
When a place has a catchy name such as Flaming Gorge, we wonder how that name came about. In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell and his men saw a red gorge that looked from a distance like it was on fire due to the way the sun hit it. We discovered three spots during our auto hikes of the area that we thought manifested that play of light; Red Canyon overlook, Sheep Creek overlook and Antelope Flats – where Powell thought the water appeared to be flaming.
The heart of this country is the 91-mile long reservoir – also called Lake Flaming Gorge – created by Flaming Gorge Dam which spans the Utah and Wyoming border. With more than 300 miles of shoreline for water activities, the Utah section of the lake winds through colorful narrow canyons, while the Wyoming portion is wider and surrounded by high sagebrush deserts. The Flaming Gorge Recreation Area is a popular Utah attraction, although we were happy to see that it wasn’t overrun by people during our stay.
Of the many byways and backways here, we chose four for our roadway adventures; Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway (green line on the map), Sheep Creek Geologic Loop, Spirit Lake Backway (pink line) and Red Cloud Scenic Backway (red line). The route we took as we moved our home base from Vernal to Flaming Gorge was also part of the scenic byway.
Flaming Gorge-Uinta National Scenic Byway
This drive traversed a wide variety of landscapes. It was a full-day trek that crossed the Wyoming/Utah border while winding through high desert, astonishing rock formations and the glistening eastern flank of the Uinta Mountain peaks.
We stopped at Flaming Gorge Dam, just up Hwy 191 from our campground. Impounding the Green River and creating the reservoir behind it, the dam stands 502 feet above its foundation, and 448 feet above the river.
We joined a free tour (our favorite kind!) which gave us an up-close view inside and around the structure. It was built to provide water storage, with hydroelectric power capability added halfway through the project. Completed in 1964, it took six years to build and 12 more years for the reservoir to fill behind it.
Unseasonably high temperatures during our stay caused excessive runoff into the reservoir, so we were able to view all of the generators running plus water cascading through the dam’s two 72-inch water gates – a rare occurrence.
This poster caught my attention:
Crossing the Utah/Wyoming border, we stopped for lunch at Rock Springs, WY. Then we continued to the Wild Horse Scenic Loop, which was a bust. We didn’t see a single one of the 250 wild horses that roam this vast 392,000 acre area while driving the 24-mile gravel road that exited at Green River, WY.
Next we took Hwy 530 south and continued along the west side of Lake Flaming Gorge. Going through Manila, we took Hwy 44-E back to the campground. It was a long 200+ mile driving day, but we enjoyed each overlook showcasing the splendor of the gorge.
Sheep Creek Geologic Loop
This backway took us through some dramatic geologic features. Despite our recent experiences with spectacular rock formations in southern Utah, we were still in awe of these. More than a billion years of geologic history is showcased on this loop. What’s unique here is that the formations are labelled, allowing folks to identify specific ones from the map and relate to what they’re seeing.
Another interesting feature here is what’s called the Uinta Fault, which runs for more than 100 miles along the north slope of the Uinta Mountains. One formation that really got our attention was the extremely twisted rock layers along the upper part of the loop we drove.
Spirit Lake Backway (pink line)
The Spirit Lake backway spurred off the Sheep Creek Geological Loop. It’s a dirt road that winds through pine and aspen forests, and wildflower-filled meadows. The alpine vistas of the High Uintas was a gorgeous backdrop as we moved along.
Red Cloud Scenic loop (red line)
This drive crossed broad meadows, aspen groves and a sea of lodgepole pine forests. The vibrant wildflowers along the road made me force Steve to stop several times so I could capture them.
Back at the campground we had lots of entertainment – a herd of cows passing through, marmots scurrying around our site and birds stopping by for a snack.
Steve had a conversation with one of the locals:
The Flaming Gorge landscape is aptly named, and there is plenty of room to play in this beautiful scenic place. But our week came to an end, and it was finally time to say goodbye to Utah.