Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area Driving Guide
Flaming Gorge-Uintas Scenic Byway
General Description: A 150-mile drive along the eastern edge of the Uinta Mountains and along the southern rim of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, providing outstanding views of the river gorge and the High Uintas as well as roadside geology lessons.
Special Attractions: Utah Field House of Natural History/Dinosaur Garden, Steinaker and Red Fleet State Parks, Ashley National Forest and Uinta Mountains, Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Dam, Sheep Creek Canyon, Swett Ranch.
Location: Northeast Utah. The drive begins in Vernal, runs north to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, then explores branches to Manila and Dutch John.
Drive Route Numbers & Names: US 191/Highway 44, Flaming Gorge-Uintas Scenic Byway.
Travel Season: Year-round. Ice and snow may create hazards during winter.
Camping: Eleven campgrounds in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, numerous national forest campgrounds along US 191 and Sheep Creek Loop, commercial campgrounds in Vernal.
Services: All services in Vernal and Manila; limited services at Red Canyon, Flaming Gorge Lodge, and Dutch John.
Nearby Attractions: Diamond Mountain/ Jones Hole Hatchery, Dinosaur National Monument and Quarry, High Uintas Wilderness Area, Red Cloud/Dry Fork Scenic Backway, Browns Park Scenic Backway.
GPS coordinates of start: 40.455761, -109.528530 (Vernal)
GPS coordinates of end: 40.929180, -109.392339 (Dutch John)
Flaming Gorge presents a vivid lesson in geology at its most dramatic and most varied. This drive presents terrific contrasts: the rugged Uinta Mountains; beautiful alpine forests; a brilliantly colored, 91-mile reservoir at the bottom of a dramatic river gorge; and high desert country to the north.
Because of difficult terrain, poor access to the Uinta Basin, and extremes in weather, this was never a popular region for agriculturally minded settlers, either Native American or white pioneer. In terms of permanent settlement, the place is simply . . . defiant. Still, throughout history it has been a favorite hunting ground for Native Americans and mountain men, a popular hideout for outlaws, and a place for early explorers to marvel. Today the area is a favorite for tourists and recreationists, and a relatively undisturbed home for wildlife. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area offers visitors two information centers, more than 600 camping and picnic sites, and more than 100 miles of trails.
The official state-designated Flaming Gorge Scenic Byway runs from Vernal north on US 191 to Greendale Junction, then takes the left (west) branch (Highway 44) to Manila. I’ve added a recommended side trip of the eastern branch, continuing north on US 191 to Dutch John, and an especially recommended drive along the Sheep Creek Geological Loop.
This is a long drive, at least 150 miles as a round-trip from Vernal, with many options for interesting side trips. With stops to enjoy the scenery, count on at least 5 hours to complete the drive. There are options for finishing it, depending on whether you wish to return to Vernal. All roads along this drive are paved, in excellent condition, and appropriate for all vehicles; traffic is generally light. Snow can be a problem in the winter, though the main road is kept clear year-round. Ask about current back-road conditions and routes at the Ashley National Forest office, 355 North Vernal Ave. in Vernal, or visit their website.
Begin this drive in Vernal, the dinosaur capital of the world and a town with a very distinct “on the edge of civilization as we know it” atmosphere. Few cities in America developed as late in our social history as Vernal did, or remained so isolated. This was still a pioneer outpost until well into the 20th century, partly because there was very little early LDS interest in settling the region, due to an unfavorable report by an exploration party sent forth by Brigham Young in 1861.
Opened in 2004, the new Utah Field House of Natural History interprets the region’s historical, pre-history, ecological, and geological diversity. A mural showing the geological features of the Uinta region, from the Precambrian (2.7 billion years old) to the Pleistocene (11,000 years old) is especially useful in understanding the foundations of the drive through Flaming Gorge. The neighboring Dinosaur Gardens display 14 life-size statues of the region’s ancient inhabitants (including a 90-foot diplodocus and 18-foot-tall tyrannosaurus), all in an outdoor setting of native rock and foliage. Don’t miss these two educational and entertaining attractions.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area is about 41 miles north of Vernal. Head north on Vernal Avenue (US 191), and just beyond the outskirts of town (about 3.5 miles from the town center) you will see on the right a small information board for “Drive Through the Ages Geological Tour.” Stop to read the short route description and pick up the brochure about the signed geological attractions that line the route; signs along the road indicate when you pass from one formation to another.
Just past this board you will pass four blue/white geological information signs in rapid succession, the first of many. Soon on the left is the very attractive Steinaker Reservoir. The landscape is still sage-covered here, but toward the north end of the lake it becomes wooded. Near this end of the lake, another sign indicates a Jurassic Morrison formation—the graveyard of the dinosaurs for which Vernal is famous.
The road is remarkably well marked with geological info signs nearly every 100 yards. Steinaker State Park (with camping and hiking) lies at the north end of the reservoir. About 4 miles past the reservoir is a sign on the right for Red Fleet State Park, which has especially nice hiking trails and camping. Just north of the reservoir, a short paved road on the right takes you to a pull-out marking the start of a fun 2.5-mile hike to dinosaur tracks on the lake’s sandstone shore—and you can jump in the lake to cool off.
US 191 continues to climb, with a handful of pull-outs offering views of jagged escarpments off in the distance. Fourteen miles north of Vernal, on the left, is the turnoff onto FR 018, the Red Cloud/Dry Fork Scenic Backway, also signed for East Park Reservoir. Four miles along FR 018, the route forks: The right fork goes north to East Park Reservoir (with nice secluded camping), the left fork is the backway drive to Dry Fork. This is a lovely forest and mountain drive on one of the few roads that provide access to the lower part of the Uinta Mountains. Driving conditions on this backway vary greatly, from paved to quite rough. Check for current conditions in Vernal, especially if you are not in a high-clearance vehicle. Driving time for the 45-mile loop is about 2 hours.
At around mile 17 on US 191, the sagebrush flats turn to pinyon and juniper. A few miles farther and this has become an alpine drive, with aspen the predominant roadside tree. The Uintah/Daggett county line is the high point of this drive at 8,428 feet. The road passes two nice national forest campgrounds, Red Springs and Lodgepole, then enters Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area at about 33 miles north of Vernal. A mile and a half farther is the intersection at Greendale Junction; right is the continuation of US 191 to Flaming Gorge Dam and the town of Dutch John. We’ll go straight here, designated Highway 44 and signed for Manila.
About 3 miles past this intersection is the turnoff on the right for Red Canyon Overlook and Red Canyon Recreation Complex. One mile up the overlook road is Red Canyon Lodge, where you will find a restaurant, cabins, groceries, gas, fishing, horseback rides, a gift shop, and a kids’ fishing pond. Also up this road are 2 campgrounds, a visitor center, and picnic area. It is 3 miles to the overlook.
Red Canyon Overlook presents probably the most spectacular view of Flaming Gorge Reservoir. From this elevation, 1,700 feet above the reservoir, the water appears in deepest hues of blues and greens. And that 1,700 feet is straight down, with the cliffs below the overlook almost perfectly vertical.
It is about 12 miles of forest driving to the south end of the Sheep Creek Canyon loop, just past Deep Creek Campground, on the left. This recommended side trip is described on the return from Manila, but if you intend not to return this way, you might want to do the loop from here, reversing the direction of the description. One reason for not doing the Sheep Creek Canyon loop on your way north is that it means missing the great view from the turnout and overlook about 2 miles farther north on Highway 44, just at the start of the long descent to Manila. Or you can just dash out to the overlook and backtrack to do the loop.
Manila and Dutch John
Tiny Manila is the county seat and largest community of Daggett County; Dutch John is the only other “town” in a county that probably has a larger population of bears than people. The official state census for the county is 950 (but that probably includes the bears). Small as it is, Manila still provides most basic traveler services.
From Manila you can do a big windblown loop north through Wyoming to the town of Green River (Highway 43 becomes Wyoming Highway 530), then back down US 191 along the east side of Flaming Gorge. Or you can double back from here to the Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Drive and Greendale Junction.
Another option to consider is to head west on Highway 43 (this soon becomes WY 414) on good roads across the northeast flank of the Uintas to reach I-80 at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. This is the quickest route back to Salt Lake City (a little more than 3 hours from here) along flat, high desert farmland.
Retracing Highway 44 south from Manila, it is just under 6 miles to the northern entrance, on the right, to the Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Drive. This 15-mile side trip (one-half to 1 hour) is highly recommended. The road is almost entirely paved, though not in great condition. It should be fine for all but the longest rigs. There are several campgrounds and picnic areas along way, including a very attractive campground immediately on entering the loop road.
Two miles up Sheep Creek Road, on the hill to the right, is the burial site for Cleophas Dowd (1857–97), who homesteaded here from 1885 until 1897, when he was killed by his associate, Charles Reaser. Two of his children are also buried here. At mile 3, just past Sheep Creek Ranch (where you may see llamas grazing), you enter the Sheep Creek Geological Area. Sheep Creek Canyon was split by the Uinta Crest Fault, which exposed 18 distinct layers of strata. All along this drive are nice markers describing the stunning geological formations. Along the fault line, spikes and wavy layers of rock jut up from the canyon floor.
This is a really stunning canyon, with outstanding formations. As you gaze at them, look for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that frequent the canyon. Just past mile 6 the road climbs out of the canyon (nothing radical) and leaves the official geological area. The road has turned into a very nice alpine drive.
At just under mile 10 is the turnoff for Ute Tower Fire Lookout (signed FR 221 for Spirit Lake and Brown Lake). To get to the lookout, turn right, then a quick right again at the signposts. Follow FR 221 a little more than 1 mile to FR 5 on the left. It is about 1.5 mile of rough unpaved road up FR 5 to the tower. It was built as a Civilian Conservation Corps project and was in service from 1937 until 1968, when fire-spotting planes largely replaced towers. The tower, which used to be open to the public, was closed indefinitely for repairs after a 2008 inspection showed it to be unstable. There are no public facilities and no water.
At mile 13 you return to Highway 44, turning right/south. It is about 14 miles from the south entrance of the loop to the intersection with US 191, where you will turn left/north for Flaming Gorge Dam and Dutch John. This road is sometimes closed in winter.
Dam Tours, Swett Ranch, Dutch John and Browns Park
Whether you are interested in visiting the dam or not, you should at least drive up to see the Swett Ranch. Oscar Swett homesteaded this land in 1909 and developed the ranch over the next 58 years. Swett sold the ranch in 1968, and the Forest Service bought it in 1972, preserving it as an example of a traditional Utah family ranch. Half a mile north on US 191 is the turnoff on the left for Swett Ranch. The ranch is 1.25 mile up this reasonable dirt road, which may not be suitable for large RVs and trailers. Swett Ranch is open 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Thurs through Mon only, between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
It’s a little more than 5 miles farther along US 191 to the visitor center at Flaming Gorge Dam. “Dam tour guides” lead groups into the dam and power plant, beginning with an elevator descent to the riverbed. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and tours are given daily during summer and fall months (Memorial Day through mid-October), and Fri through Mon during spring (mid- March until Memorial Day weekend). The visitor center is open in winter, but no tours are given.
If you have time, it is worth the effort to continue this drive about 12 miles out to the viewpoint beyond Antelope Flat, where you will get a sense of how John Wesley Powell must have felt in describing his first impression of the gorge: “The river enters the range by a flaring, brilliant red gorge that may be seen from the north a score of miles away.” The gorge really can appear to glow red from down here, due largely to its composition of red quartzites and red shale.
The town of Dutch John, about 3 miles beyond the dam, was built in 1957 to accommodate workers at the dam. Today it is a strictly practical commercial center of fair usefulness but little touristic interest. About 2.5 miles past Dutch John, watch for the turnoff on the left for Antelope Flat. From the top of this eastern branch of the Flaming Gorge drive, it is possible to continue on US 191 north to Green River, Wyoming, and quick I-80 returns (another 3 hours on interstate) to Salt Lake City.
For a more adventuresome return to Vernal, the partly paved Browns Park Scenic Backway leaves US 191 about 10 miles north of Dutch John and runs east and south to join the paved Jones Hole Road. This route passes through some of the finest scenery in northeastern Utah and near a handful of significant wildlife areas and gives a glimpse of the region’s pioneer era at such historic sites as the Jarvie Ranch. The 55-mile backway, suitable for most cars in dry conditions, requires at least 2 hours. Inquire first at a Forest Service office in Vernal or Dutch John and pick up a driving-tour brochure.
Scenic driving information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press).