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.

Red Canyon
Red Canyon frames the reservoir
Sheep Creek Overlook
Sheep Creek Overlook off of Highway 44
Flaming Gorge
Flaming Gorge is best dramatized at Antelope Flats.  Doesn’t it look like the gorge is 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.

Lake Flaming Gorge
A small section of the 91-mile Lake Flaming Gorge

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 byways

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.

Art Gallery of Time
Art Gallery of Time overlook – Wyoming Hwy 191
Cart Creek Bridge
Cart Creek Bridge on Hwy 191 spans the reservoir

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.

Flaming Gorge Dam
The rushing water from these pipes was deafening!

This poster caught my attention:

Colorado River Plumbing
A good illustration of why so little water if any makes it to the Gulf of California nowadays

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.

Wild Horse Scenic Drive
In search of a wild horse – none over here!
Wild Horse Scenic Loop
Finally a wild horse!  Oops, just a lone fat sheep in the middle of nowhere

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.

Highway 44
Beautiful green mountains along Hwy 44
Sheep Creek Overlook
Sheep Creek Overlook on Hwy 44
Sego Lily
Sego Lilies were abundant here
Unita Mountain Range
The Uinta Mountain Range is the tallest in Utah, and the only one with an East-West orientation
Red Canyon Overlook
Flaming Gorge Reservoir framed by the Red Canyon, viewed from the visitor center
Big Horn Sheep
Nice earring, Miss #13

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.

This whole mountainside was severely twisted

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.

Steve was disappointed that the tower was closed and he couldn’t go to the top
Deer and Fawn
A new family strolls in a meadow
Uinta Mountains
The Uinta Mountains still had plenty of snow

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.



Ashly National Forest
I took a rest from all of the auto hiking 🙂

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.

A magpie and marmot check each other out
Herd of Cow
Hairy Woodpecker
A hungry Hairy Woodpecker

Steve had a conversation with one of the locals:

Yellow-bellied Marmot
Does this coat make me look fat?

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.



A logjam of fossils – Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

In 1909, Earl Douglass, a paleontologist working for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg, PA discovered a formation layered with prehistoric plant and animal fossils.  What he found that summer day turned out to be part of the most complete Apatosaurus skeleton ever discovered.  He called the digsite Carnegie Quarry.

For several years he was busy digging, excavating, documenting and shipping out fossil bones for the Carnegie Museum, which funded his efforts.  The original monument was established in 1915 to protect 80 acres in the quarry area.  Today, Dinosaur National Monument has increased its size to 210,000 acres, and not only is the quarry protected, but also the scenic canyons cut by the Green and Yampa rivers, and many cultural features left by ancient cultures.

Dinosaur National Monument

We didn’t know what to expect when we visited the quarry, since neither one of us are really into dinosaurs.  What we saw was a preserved cliff face enclosed within a large building and covered by hundreds of large fossilized dinosaur bones.  It was what remained of the ridge that Earl Douglass had excavated for 15 years.

Dinosaur National Monument
Timeline of how the quarry was discovered and later protected
Fossil Quarry Exhibit Hall Map
The brown area details the fossil quarry exhibit hall
Fossil Quarry, Dinosaur National Monument
The newly refurbished building

Inside the hall we saw fossilized bones embedded in a sloping rock formation.  From the plaques we learned it was once a sandbar on the edge of a large river.  As the river carried animal carcasses downstream, many became stuck on the sandbar, which eventually turned to rock.  As a result, fossils from hundreds of creatures were concentrated into a small area. The fossilized bones we saw were partially exposed and left intact in the rock.

Fossil Quarry Exhibit at Dinosaur National Monument
At the mezzanine

In 1923, Douglass recommended that the government leave the bones and skeletons in relief and house them.  He believed doing so would create “one of the most astounding and instructive sights imaginable.”  It took more than 30 years for his vision to become reality, but his assertion was correct – this place is truly unique.

Dinosaur National Monument
Ground floor level

We viewed approximately 1,500 fossilized bones from 100 individual dinosaurs and other ancient animals that make up the “logjam” on the quarry wall, including AllosaurusApatosaurusCamarasaurusDiplodicus, and Stegosaurus.

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument
There were a few huge bones we were allowed to touch, this one almost as big as me!

There are two ways to get to the exhibit hall, shuttle bus or hike.  The hike would have allowed us to see more bones along the trail, but my current “bone issue” forced us to take the shuttle.

Back at the visitor center, the park rangers were running a special event titled “Safe Views of the Sun”.  It was excellent, and we were happy our timing was perfect to catch it.

Sun Viewing

Through the telescope we saw our star in real time, including some disturbances rising out of it that the ranger informed us were “prominences.”  Very cool!

The sun viewed from a

Although the quarry is the main attraction here, there are other unique features worth exploring.  With the help of the $1 auto guidebook we drove the 24-mile roundtrip scenic drive.  Features along the route include petroglyph and pictograph panels, Josie Bassett’s cabin built in 1913, and great views of geologic layers.  I snapped a few dramatic sceneries:

Split Mountain, Dinosaur National Monument
Split Mountain – geologists believe the Green River split this mountain
Green River, Dinosaur National Monument
The Green River was running high due to high temperatures and excessive snow melt
Dinosaur National Monument
Upturned rocks

Evidence of the Fremont people who lived here were displayed on rock ledges high above the road:

Josie Basset Morris was a homesteader and local legend who lived here for 50 years. Walking through her home and experiencing the beauty and solitude of her land got us to thinking about what life must have been like here over 100 years ago.

Turtle Rock, Dinosaur National Monument
Can you see the turtle on top? This is entrada sandstone, the same type of rock that formed the arches in Arches National Park
Quarry Exhibit Hall, Dinosaur National Monument
Quarry exhibit hall as seen from the scenic drive
Tilted Rock, Dinosaur National Monument
Tilted rocks seen from Hwy 40

And with that adventure completed we’re moving on to our last stop in Utah!



Bird’s-eye view of arches and canyons – Moab, UT

2016-04-23-UT-1200572.jpgOne activity that always gets Steve’s blood flowing is airplane tours.   Since he stopped flying several years ago so we could pursue our travels, he has missed it but he always jumps at a chance to watch a pro when we take an air tour.  So I knew there would be no argument from him when I commented about how cool it would be to see the arches and canyons we had been visiting from the air.

We booked the Arches and Canyonlands tour through Redwing Aviation at Moab airport. On our tour day, winds were particularly high, over 40mph, and we knew it would be a bumpy ride.  However, the pilots were ready to go so we could hardly back out.  After all, we had been through many bumps during our flying years!

Moab Plane Tour
Off we go into the wild (and windy) blue yonder

Capturing the arches, fins and other intriguing rock formations below as the plane jumped around was very challenging.  But in hindsight I think keeping busy taking pictures alleviated any motion sickness we may have felt.  The other couple with us didn’t fare so well; the poor woman was sick throughout the flight and she got no pictures, relying on her husband to get them all – and he was looking a bit green himself!

We first flew over Arches NP, then Canyonlands NP during our hour and fifteen minute flight.  We gained a new perspective of both Parks’ awe-inspiring landscape, and seeing the geology of the area from above really showed how large areas were created in their own unique ways.

Because of the bouncy ride my aerial photos are not the best.  I included some pictures taken at ground level to show how some formations looked from both perspectives.

Arches National Park
Approaching Arches NP
Devils Garden
This section of fins is called the Devils Garden

According to geologists, Arches National Park  lies atop an underground salt bed that is responsible for the sandstone arches, spires, balanced rocks, fins and eroded monoliths.

Arches National Park
A closer view of the massive fins in the Devil’s Garden

To show the sheer walls of just one of those sandstone fins, here’s Steve gawking at Private Arch up-close:

Private Arch
Private Arch – one of several arches within Devil’s Garden
Tower Arch
Tower Arch within Klondike Bluffs
Tower Arch is impressive from the ground
Windows Arch
At the Windows area, trails can be seen leading to the Spectacles and the Turrett
Here’s little ol’ me at North and South Windows – AKA the Spectacles

When we headed over Canyonlands NP, it felt like we were looking down at another planet with all its interesting patterns and textures:

Long Canyon
John and Pam drove us out here through Long Canyon in their Jeep

Canyonlands is home to a scenic mosaic of mesas, plateaus, and canyons with profound geologic and archeological significance.  Its centerpiece is the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

The Y-shaped river system dissects the park into three equally enchanting and distinct sections:

confluence of the Green River and Colorado River
Confluence of the Green River and Colorado River.  On the right is the Needles district, in the top middle of the “Y” is the Island in the Sky district and at the lower left is the Maze district

To the west of the rivers is known as the Maze – rugged, remote and the least accessible. And because of its remoteness the Maze made a great hideout for the notorious Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch.  It has been called one of the most remote and unreachable regions in the U.S.  You don’t want to get lost out here!

Chocolate Drops
Chocolate drops and maze canyons

From the air one can see a tangled web of dry stream beds and passages between spires, knobs and canyons described as the “30-square-mile puzzle in sandstone”:

The Maze District
What an amazing maze!

In the southeast corner are spires, pinnacles, and grabens that formed the Needles district. The dominant landforms are the “needles”, rock pinnacles banded in red and white that stand upright in a tangled formation:

Needles District, Canyonlandss
The Needles district

Island in the Sky is the highest and northernmost section of Canyonlands.  As the most accessible, we visited here twice – first with John and Pam, and then with our friends Vic and Pam.

Dead Horse Point Overlook
Dead Horse Point overlook and along the rim is where we hiked
Monument Basin, Canyonlands NP
Looking down at Monument Basin

On the ground, an enigmatic 1.6 mile-wide circular depression known as Upheaval Dome can be viewed by taking a short hike from an overlook:

Upheaval Dome

Canyonlands is a wild and rugged showcase of sedimentary geology.

For a geologic explanation of Canyonlands NP, click here.

To learn why there are so many arches in Arches NP, click here.

Moab, Utah
The hub of all outdoor adventures in the area – Moab

After what seemed like endless jarring and bumping around, we were glad to get back on the ground.  Steve said the turbulence was light to moderate, but it seemed pretty severe to me!  Despite the feeling of discomfort during the flight, it was worth it and we enjoyed our new perspective of this amazing place.

Lowes Travels
Steve was a happy passenger, despite a slightly upset tummy!