One hundred and fifty years ago in, May, 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran set off with nine mountain men on a scientific expedition to map one of the last blank spaces left on the U.S. map: The Green and Colorado Rivers through what would become known as the Grand Canyon.
John Wesley Powell’s 1,000-mile, three-month adventure, officially called the Powell Geographic Expedition, started in Wyoming and ended in Arizona. But the heart of it went through Utah and its jaw-dropping wilderness — through what would become Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Dinosaur National Monument, Canyonlands National Park and Lake Powell.
Certainly, some of the scenery and route has changed since the May 24, 1869, trip (which Powell repeated in 1871): dams were built, altering the rivers and flooding the canyons he explored. But much of the route remains protected, ensuring a rugged and wild adventure for those following in Powell’s wake.
Here are key segments of his trip and what they offer today:
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
This national recreation area’s famed crystal-clear, trout-stuffed water and year-round destination for everything from boating to snowmobiling earned its name from Powell and his men.
They entered modern-day Utah about 60 miles and three days after they put in. Wowed by the reflection of the sun off the brilliant red gorge that looked like it was aflame from a distance, they called the canyon Flaming Gorge.
Today, canyons near that famed gorge — including Horseshoe, Kingfisher, Hideout and Red look much the same as in pre-dam days.
With its 375 miles of shoreline, more than 600 camping and picnic sites and 100 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, the reservoir and surrounding recreation area provide an endless number of activities: paddleboarding, kayaking, scuba diving, waterskiing, backpacking, cross-country skiing.
Below the dam to Little Hole, the Green River is called “The Aquarium” with its earned reputation as a premier trout fishing stream. The 7-mile Little Hole National Recreation Trail parallels the river and provides access for fly-fishing and hiking.
This was the first major canyon of the expedition and it proved challenging: One of the boats was lost along with 2,000 pounds of equipment and food. Someone on the trip also named the canyon Lodore, perhaps after an Englishman’s poem.
This portion of the Green River through the Dinosaur National Monument area offers what some river rats consider the best trip along the Powell route. (Read: Remote Adventure on the Green River.) The river is different because the flows are regulated by Flaming Gorge Dam, which allows a longer river season. Still, the views remain much the same, since access to most of the surrounding land is gained only by the river and permits are limited.
The Gates of Lodore provides a striking entrance to the canyon, as blood-red sandstone walls rise abruptly from the water. A river trip also features Echo Park, where the Green meets the free-flowing Yampa River at the face of the massive Steamboat Rock, along with side trips to petroglyphs.
Dinosaur National Monument protects the river and surrounding area and offers opportunities to learn about the giant reptiles that used to call this place home.