Launch: Lucerne Valley Marina, near Manila, Utah lies in the middle of the reservoir. Cedar Springs Marina is located near the dam, at the southern end of the lake. Both have excellent ramps, free parking, and some boating supplies.
Nearby campsites: Both marinas have Forest Service campgrounds adjacent to the launch ramps.

Comments: This is the highest of the cruising lakes on the Colorado River and its tributaries. It is a geological cruise, with dramatic scenery, world famous fishing, and a wonderful historic story.


     "Flaming Gorge? You mean the beautiful slice through the Uinta Mountains. Where we camped on the rimrocks before we rafted the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument? Wow! Can we boat the Gorge? How's the water level? Are the ramps OK for Halcyon?" El was full of excitement and questions.

     "Hold on, kiddo. Let's check it all out at the Lake Powell Park Service office and see if anyone there knows about boating Flaming Gorge."

     We had just completed a magnificent cruise on Lake Powell, perhaps our favorite bit of water on Earth. The season was fast growing too hot and too busy on Powell for us, so it was time to cast our eyes for another patch of water somewhere to the north. We had an appointment with Coos Bay Marine, our friends where we bought Halcyon three and half years ago, but that date wasn't until mid-month. Meanwhile, there was time to play.

     The next day we talked with rangers at the NPS office in Page to see if they had any information on Flaming Gorge. "Not much. That's a recreation area run by the National Forest Service," the District Interpreter told us. Folks at the office had heard good reports about fishing in Flaming Gorge, but there was little specific information.   

     Flaming Gorge is cut by the Green River, a major south-flowing tributary of the Colorado River. The Green River originates just south of Yellowstone, near the continental divide on the flanks of western Wyoming's Wind River Range. It gathers snowmelt from 13,804-foot Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest mountain. The Green and Colorado join at The Confluence, southwest of Moab, Utah, just above Cataract Canyon and Lake Powell. Before the waters finish the journey from Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez, they pass through six National Parks or Forest Service Recreation areas. The first and farthest north is Flaming Gorge, and the others are Dinosaur, Canyonlands, Glen Canyon, Grand Canyon and Lake Mead.

     The gorge straddles the Wyoming/Utah border. Interstate 40 runs east-west just to the north of the Recreation Area, through Green River, Wyoming. The Unita Mountains, the only major east-west mountain range in the continental US, lie across the path of the Green River just across the state line in Utah. The River makes a right angle bend as it encounters the Uintas, deflecting well to the east where it briefly enters Colorado, before returning to its southerly course to the junction with the Colorado River.

     USGS Map

     I have some long-ago memories of Flaming Gorge. During one of my summer vacations from College, I lived in Vernal, Utah working as a field assistant mapping geology in Utah for an oil company. I worked for Dick Upton, an excellent field geologist who believed in starting your day in the field with sunrise and working until sunset. At night we worked up our field notes and maps. He was my first geological 'boss' and a marvelous mentor for a beginning geologist.


          Bill, in the Green River Country (1956)              Dick Upton, in the Uinta Mtns.               

      During that long-ago summer, on a weekend off, I drove the winding dirt road up into the Uinta Mountains above Vernal. Basque sheepherders tended their flocks amongst the aspens. The rounded tops of the mountains were high, green and cool. I drove out a dirt trail to the east and stopped at a log fence that blocked the end of the road. Beyond the fence was an abyss - Flaming Gorge. I walked to the rimrock and peered down almost a half mile to the thin thread of the Green River far below. In the afternoon light, the red walls of the canyon glowed. It was a marvelous sight etched deeply into the emulsion of my brain. Two years later, dam construction began.

     Forty-six years later, Dick Upton caught Halcyon's bow line as we crabbed against current and wind into a slip in Apalachicola, Florida. He and his wife were cruising the Gulf in his Grand Banks trawler and we were mid-way through our Great Horseshoe Cruise around Alabama. Small world.

Dick Upton, Tying Halcyon's Bow Line

     Humans have a long history with Flaming Gorge. Native Americans scribed petroglyphs on the walls of the canyon. They fished, hunted, lived, loved and died along the banks of the Green River long before Europeans first saw the canyon. Fur trappers and mountain men were the first Europeans to hunt and settle on the banks of the Green. General William H. Ashley, an explorer, mountain man, and skilled politician, helped organize the American fur trade in the Rocky Mountains. He and his partner, Andrew Henry, were partners in the trapping trade and together they created the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in July of 1825. This fur-trading, resupplying, and hell-roaring time was held on the Henry's Fork River (named for Henry), a tributary that flows into the Green River just above Flaming Gorge.

     A month earlier, beginning May 3rd, 1825, Ashley floated down the Green into Flaming Gorge with a small party of men. They rowed a bull boat - a boat with a wooden frame covered with animal skins - certainly a fragile boat to dare white water and rocks. William Ashley was a daring man. Eighteen miles downstream from the entrance to the Gorge he pulled ashore at a daunting rock-studded rapid. He rightly judged the rapids to be the first of many, and climbed out of the canyon. First, however, he wrote his name on a large rock overlooking the rapid.

     In 1849, William Manley, seeking a route to the gold fields of California, traced a portion of the Green River through the Uinta Valley below Flaming Gorge. However, no one is proven to have traversed the entire river below Ashley Falls. There are tantalizing scattered reports of a man, trapped in the river and riding a makeshift raft of logs, floating the river. Such tales intrigue historians - perhaps this unfortunate was the first "rafter" through Grand Canyon.

     John Wesley Powell, an ex-Union soldier, who had lost an arm at Shiloh, mounted a voyage of discovery down the Green and Colorado Rivers forty-four years after William Ashley. Powell had four boats specially constructed for this trip: a small pilot boat, the Emma Dean, and three heavy supply boats, the Maid of the Canyon, the Kitty Clyde's Sister, and the No-Name. They were transported to Green River, Wyoming via the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad. On May 24th, 1869, Powell and nine men boarded the four wooden boats, and started down the river. Thus began the First Expedition, also known as the Voyage of Discovery. It was truly an arduous adventure. One man abandoned the trip after the first month. Three months later, on August 30, only 2 boats and 6 men emerged from the lower end of the Grand Canyon.

      In late August, due to the loss of two boats and many of their supplies, the party was low on food and morale. Three experienced and well-armed mountain men, Seneca Howland, Oramel Howland and William Dunn decided to abandon the epedition. They left with Maj. Powell's permission and his offer of their share of the party's meager supplies. They refused the food. Powell tried to talk the men out of leaving, but they were as certain their deaths lay down the canyon as Maj. Powell was certain their deaths would lie in the attempt to ascend the wall of the Grand Canyon. After helping the party portage Separation Rapid, the three men successfully climbed to the north rim.

     A short time later, according to the most plausible hypothesis, recently postulated by Jon Krakauer, they were murdered by residents of Southern Utah Mormon settlements. In September, 1857, the Fancher emigrant party was massacred in southern Utah. This slaughter was organized and carried out by Southern Utah Mormons dressed as Indians and accompanied by Indians, who had been promised plunder for their complicity. One hundred twenty emigrants from Arkansas, including 70 women and children, were butchered just to the north of where Powell's men now sought help. The federal government was searching for the murderers who had disbursed among the remote settlements of southern Utah. The Powell men were probably mistaken for Federal agents or bounty hunters searching for John D. Lee, one of the perpetrators and the scapegoat for the Mountain Meadows massacre.

     Major Powell made two voyages down the canyons of the Green and Colorado, although this is often forgotten since his famous book describing his exploits on the river merge stories from both journeys into one saga. Powell's Second Expedition was a scientific journey. They mapped the river, geology, and archeology.

     The Second Expedition left on May 22, 1871, from Green River, Wyoming, where the First Expedition had begun two years before. This expedition spanned two years and did not involve a journey through the Grand Canyon. Most of the scientific investigations took place north of the river in southern Utah.

     The first month of both expeditions was spent traversing canyons of the Green River around the eastern end of the Uinta Mountains. It was on the Second Expedition that Powell hired a photographer, E.O. Beaman, to record the landscape. Before El and I began our cruise on the Green River, we acquired digital copies of some of Beaman's photographs from the U.S. Geological Survey's photographic archive. We decided to trace the Powell surveys through Beaman's black and white photographs.

     I have roots in Wyoming, having taken a degree from the University in Laramie, and a part of me still resides in this marvelous landscape. Distant cousins continue to ranch outside Green River, and Fieros were at the riverside to witness the launching of both Powell Expeditions.

     This Beaman photograph is of the launching of the Second Expedition. Their first fifty miles drifting southward was through rolling badlands of gray shales and tan sandstones, forming bluffs along the river.

       El and I launched from Lucerne Valley, just south of the Wyoming line, 135 years after Powell's first trip. We powered Halcyon, through calm lake water, northerly from our launch. We crossed into Wyoming to witness the scenery of those first miles of Powell's trips.

    The photo to the left was taken by E.O. Beaman in 1871, and the color photo we took in 2004. The Green River in this area is now a lake, but the buttes and bluffs are easily identifiable. Little has changed along this section of the river since the days of those early voyages.


      There is a stretching, loneliness about the land - a wild, haunting forever-ness. We enjoyed the panoramas and vast distances in Wyoming. The snow-capped High Uintas rise like a wall, to the south, from behind the gray, rolling badlands of Wyoming. The spaciousness of Wyoming's valleys give an impression of freedom - a freedom for the spirit as well as eyes, to roam indefinitely and to places we have never visited.


     We reluctantly turned back to the south, between Whisky Bend and Firehole Canyon - the depth sounder was unhappily buzzing warnings about shoal water. As we neared the wall of the Uinta Mountains, the tan sandstones began to bend upward, as though in anticipation of exciting geology to come. Our hearts beat faster, as must those of Powell and his men, as we drifted southward toward the ridges blocking the entrance into the mountains.


     As you drift south of the Utah border, the river flows directly south toward a high mountainous ridge. There is seemingly no route through the mountain. Abruptly, with a right angle, the river slides between uplifted sandstone beds. As the rock rises, red shale and sandstone lift from beneath the land surface. This is the entrance to Flaming Gorge, so named by Powell as the sun shone brightly against the red rocks on that May day in 1869.


     The entrance to Flaming Gorge is to the right. Beaman must have wishfully dreamed of color photography, since much of the drama of the Gorge is imparted by its color.


Flaming Gorge and the Boar's Tusk     

     Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area is ninty-one miles long, at full pool level at 6,040 feet. There are four distinct sections to the Rec. Area: the gray shales of Wyoming, and four canyons named by Powell within the Uinta Mountains: Flaming Gorge, Horseshoe, Kingfisher, and Red Canyons.

     The cruise into Horseshoe Canyon is impressive. After the tight bend into Flaming Gorge, and just past the Boar's Tusk, the river makes a hard bend to port and into a tight meander loop aptly named Horseshoe Canyon.





 Beaman's (left) and Our Photos (right) of Horseshoe Canyon

     The next canyon downriver was named Kingfisher Canyon, by Powell, after he noticed the abundance of the birds in the Canyon.


     Powell's men noted a distinctive rock mound near the end of Kingfisher Canyon. It was so 'infested with swallows' that it seemed like a 'beehive' of activity. Much of Beehive Point may now be under the water of the Lake, but the location is still home for swallows.


     The remote nature of these canyons was a perfect hiding place for outlaws during the last century. Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, and others of their ilk are said to have hidden in the hollows and draws leading into the Green River. Locals have called the next canyon downstream, Hideout Canyon.

     Powell named the last canyon downstream, Red Canyon. The east-west trending walls of red sandstone and shales rise almost two thousand feet above the river. Most of the viewpoints on the road from Vernal to Green River look down into Red Canyon.




     Beaman's (left) and Our Photos (right) of Horseshoe Canyon

     The rapid, 70 miles below Green River and eighteen miles past the entrance into Flaming Gorge, that stopped William Ashley's journey down the Green, also gave pause to both Powell's voyages. They unloaded their tons of supplies and lined the four boats through the rapids. While making the carry, a member of the party found Ashley's name where he had painted it on the rock forty-four years earlier. At the time Powell descended the river, he was unaware of Ashley's trip since the report of his journey wasn't found and published until 1918. Powell aptly named the rapid, Ashley Falls.

     Today there is no vestige of the Falls. The waters backed behind Flaming Gorge Dam drown the rapid beneath hundreds of feet of water (An aside - why can't the Bureau of Reclamation get their geography right - Flaming Gorge Dam is in Red Canyon; Boulder Dam is in Black Canyon!). The site that turned back Ashley's voyage and required both Powell expeditions to laboriously portage tons of supplies is now a patch of flat water over which Halcyon cruised back and forth, sounding out the very rocks that made history.


Powell's Boats Below Ashley Falls, 1871 and the Site Today


Members of the Powell Party, 1871 and Today


  Then and Now

    History is only but an eyeblink ago. An understanding of what has gone before, adds a new dimension of appreciation for the present.  


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