Utah's Hidden Boating Jewel

Flaming Gorge Reservoir

By Jim Favors
Photos By Jim and Lisa Favors

You've probably heard of motor-homing cross country? Well, these intrepid trailer boaters are here to tell you about "boater-homing" by water and land to explore the jaw-dropping Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Photo of Horseshoe CanyonStunning vistas greeted us as we approached the 3-mile-long Horseshoe Canyon at the start of our Flaming Gorge cruise.

When I ask other boaters if they've ever heard of the spectacular cruising ground Flaming Gorge, most give me a quizzical look. The results of my unscientific poll? If you like to experience hidden gems the masses haven't yet discovered, mostly frequented by pleasure boaters, fishermen, and watersports enthusiasts from surrounding states, then Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah fits the bill nicely.

For most of us, our first glimpse of America's waterways happens when we're touring the country by land. One of the initial reasons my wife Lisa and I downsized to a trailerable Ranger Tug R27 was so we could visit cruising destinations unreachable by bigger boats. It was while doing research for our cruise to Lake Powell in 2011 that we began to read and hear about the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The more photos we saw, blogs we read, and online research we did, the more convinced we were that here was a cruising ground not to be missed.

Map of Flaming Gorge Reservoir area

The Flaming Gorge was created in 1964 with the completion of the 550-foot Flaming Gorge Dam, which spans the Green River in northeastern Utah. Water was allowed to flood the canyons and valleys, 91 miles to the north-northwest, up to Green River, Wyoming. The dam was built in order to create hydroelectricity and provide water storage for the Colorado River Storage Project. The bonus was a recreational paradise for boaters. The Flaming Gorge Reservoir offers dramatic canyon walls and rock buttes, similar to the vast scenic charms of Lake Powell but on a smaller scale, providing a more intimate cruising experience.

We trailered our boat 1,530 miles from our home in Michigan before we saw the waters of the Gorge. When trailering long distances, we try to limit our driving, and we were able to break this trip up into three 450-mile days with a shorter 180-mile day for our arrival and launch. At the end of each day, we'd retire from a long day's drive and pull into an RV park. We'd make reservations once we knew roughly where we'd land that night. Staying on our boat overnight on dry land while towing our boat to a designated cruising area is what we call "boater-homing." We use Kismet like an RV and stay in RV parks, state parks, national parks, and on rare occasions, a Wal-Mart or casino parking lot.

Call it what you will, it makes good sense to us. We have our own bed to sleep in and have everything we need right in the cabin, along with a galley for meal prep, and it's a lot less expensive than a motel. There are a few challenges. RV parks often haven't had much experience with trailered boats showing up looking for a "pull-through," but most welcome the opportunity for additional sources of income, as long as the rules are obeyed. We've found the rules to be quite simple: No fluids are to be drained onto the ground (this rule applies to every camper, not just boats). This means we use the RV park's restroom and shower facilities. When we wash dishes, we plug the sink while washing, then simply catch the drain water with a bucket strategically placed under the discharge drain and dispose of the gray water properly; this is, of course, a two-person job. Our boat has a self-contained black-water holding tank, so we sometimes expect to be questioned about how it works, but usually the attendant is so surprised to see our shiny red tug arrive, they're more concerned with whether we'll let them take a photo of it.

We began our trek west, cross country, during the middle of a July heat wave. It was in the mid-90s every day, well into the early evening. I mention this because while our boat has a water-cooled air-conditioning unit, it doesn't work on land. If someone were really averse to extreme heat while boater-homing, an electric roof-mounted air conditioner would solve that problem. We do carry a small electric portable heater, for those times when it's cold, typically in the early spring and fall.

To ensure we have 120V AC power (equivalent to shore power at a marina), we use an RV electric pigtail adaptor to connect to our 30-amp electric cord. It's all we need to get a power hookup at an RV park. We have a generator, but again the boat must be in the water to use it. We do have an inverter onboard and we use it a lot while underway or during a stay in a parking lot or campsite without a power station. It will charge our devices while underway or provide continual power to our Wi-Fi router so we have a hot spot for our iPad while driving in the truck.

About halfway into our first day, just south of Chicago, we booted up the RV Parks app on our electronic device (we've used RVParking.com) and while I drove, Lisa researched potential RV parks in the 450-mile mark of our day. With Lisa's park choices narrowed down, she would call to secure a reservation. We've found at this stage it's better to keep our answers simple and not mention the boat, as this is a hard concept to explain over the phone. We'll simply state that we're 55 feet of rig, including our truck. When we arrived at Little Bear Campground in West Liberty, Iowa, to register, the owner, while grinning ear to ear, stated, "Well, this is a first for us, never had someone camp out on their boat here before."

We followed this same routine each day, with stops in Kearney, Nebraska, and Rawlings, Wyoming, as we worked our way across the heartland of America. By planning to stop relatively early each day, we assure ourselves of extra time for unforeseen circumstances. If things go smoothly, it gives us time to unwind and take advantage of an RV park swimming pool or visit the local town for refreshments or dinner while our "rig" is cooling off under a shade tree.

Photo of towing KismetAfter three full days towing Kismet cross country, we arrived at the entrance to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. We paused briefly at the top to take in the spectacular view.

We arrived in Green River, Wyoming, on the fourth day and began driving down the 4-mile-long serpentine road to the Lucerne Valley Marina, on the west side of the lake. The grandeur of the Gorge revealed itself as we made our slow descent to the water's edge, where we prepared Kismet to be launched. Even though we'd arrived early, we still had plenty to do before our cruising adventure would start.

Our first task was to have a boat inspection for invasive species (see sidebar), and we needed to transfer supplies we'd stowed in the bed of the truck onto the boat while still side by side on land. After that, we still had plenty of time to check into the marina, get tied up in our assigned slip, and get organized to head out into the Gorge early the next morning. Our plan was to cruise a 26-mile southeastern route from the marina all the way to the Flaming Gorge Dam and back — a two-day-and-night trip — before returning to the marina to meet up with family for another full day out in the Gorge. Flaming Gorge got its name because of the brilliant red hues radiating from the sandstone, limestone, shale, and mudstone canyon walls. Our first day out, we experienced calm waters and a picture-perfect blue sky, offsetting the hot-red canyon walls and sandy bluffs. Two miles from the marina we made our way around the bluff of Boars Tusk and into the 3-mile-long Horseshoe Canyon. The canyon walls are 200 feet straight up from the water's edge, rising as high as 1,000 feet within a mile of shore.

Photo of Jim Favors at the helm of KismetJim navigating at the helm of Kismet.

We made our way into the canyons of Kingfisher, Hideout, and the 10-mile-long Red Canyon, where the colors and contrasts are spectacular. Because we love the exploration part of cruising, we ducked into many of the smaller canyons and side creeks to investigate. On the way to the dam that first day, we scouted out locations to anchor or beach-land over the next few days. Idling into Carter Creek, with its steep canyon walls, we had the feeling of being inside an open-air cathedral. Carter Creek is just short of a mile deep, and at its headwaters we were treated to cascading rapids produced by mountain snow runoff and a sandy beach.

About seven miles from the dam, we ducked into Trail Creek, a small creek with a sandy beach and dramatic canyon rock formations. We agreed to return to make it our home for the night after finishing our cruise down to the dam that afternoon. The closer to the dam you get, the deeper the water is. For most of our cruise, the main channel was 160 to 240 feet deep, but in and around the dam, the depth is in the 400-foot range. Anchoring, or beach landing, is best in the side creeks, well away from the dam. For those not inclined to anchor, you have three marina options (Buckboard, Cedar Springs, and Lucerne Valley), in addition to "boat camps" scattered around the Gorge. Boat camps are basically docks or floats, strategically located on the reservoir where you can stay overnight tied up to basic docks (for a small fee) and still be immersed in the wilderness of the Gorge.

We also noticed that some people would create a base camp at a beach anchor site by setting up small tents and a campfire area, using it during the day when resting from water activities. Subsequently the campers are able to spread out on the beach and have a little more legroom. Even though these makeshift camps have limited facilities, they provide a beautiful setting for swimming and hiking, while offering opportunities to commune with nature — all good things, especially if you have young children who need the freedom of having more real estate under their feet. This boat-camp approach opens up a whole new realm for people with small boats, large families, or many friends, helping to get more people out into the Gorge to experience this natural wonder.

Our on-the-water experience was relaxed and peaceful, even though it was the height of boating season. There was some boating activity early in the morning — wakeboarders, waterskiers, folks fishing, and a few overnight cruisers like ourselves — but we never felt crowded at the Gorge.

Photo of the colorful mountain landscape of Flaming Gorge ReservoirBlue sky, calm water, and a colorful mountain landscape beckoned us to explore.

Lisa and I spent a total of three full days exploring while anchoring or beach landing overnight at both Carter and Trail Creeks. Overnighting is the only way to truly witness and fully enjoy the impact the sun and moonlight have over steep, textured, canyon walls, with theatrical light shows at all times of the day and night. Glowing saturated oranges and hot poker-red hues contrast with the deep-blue skies during the height of the day, turning to cool pink and demure purple shades at dusk. Shapes and shadows move across the canyon providing ever changing scenery, even on return routes. As the sun came up each morning, we sat in the cockpit of Kismet with coffee and breakfast taking in the slowly warming morning light, and each night we closed the day watching the stars appear like diamonds, unhindered by man-made light. 

Jim and Lisa Favors have been avid Great Lakes boaters for 20 years. In their first year of retirement, they traveled the Great Loop, and now they take their Ranger Tug Kismet wherever road and water allow. trailertrawlerlife.com

— Published: August/September 2014


Know Before You Go

  • Your boat will require an invasive-species inspection prior to launching in the Flaming Gorge. Be sure the boat hull and trailer are clean and the bilge is dry before your arrival. Visit www.wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/invasive-mussels.html for more info about this free (2013) but mandatory inspection.
  • Order a map of the Gorge ahead of time to become familiar with the lake prior to your trip. www.fishnmap.com
  • Make reservations for moorage at one of three marinas on the waterway, based on your cruising tastes & objectives:
    Buckboard
    Cedar Springs
    Lucerne Valley
  • We stayed a night at each end of our cruise at Lucerne Valley because of its central location for our planned route and meeting family, but each of the three marinas mentioned has its advantages.
  • Navionics has an app of all U.S./Canadian inland waterways; we've used this inexpensive but accurate navigation aid on Lake Powell, Lake Tahoe, and now the Flaming Gorge on our iPad. Note: Maps must be downloaded ahead of time over an Internet connection. While underway the Navionics app will track your location with the built-in GPS without the need for an Internet connection (the app costs $9.99 and up).
  • Provisioning for your cruise is best done in Green River, Wyoming.
  • Gasoline is available at the marinas on the Gorge. However, diesel fuel is not. If your boat requires diesel, be sure to fill up in Green River before heading to the lake.
  • If you'll be anchoring overnight, having a stern line and anchor is a must have for anchoring in the narrow canyons, or if you want to beach land your boat.

 

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