Trail Cafe: Trip report - Flaming gorge


Title: Flaming gorge
Trip type: seakayaking
Summary: lake paddle throught the Flaming Gorge and Horseshoe Canyon.
Author: Scott Baxter
Country: USA
Province: Utah
Location Route: Flaming gorge
Distance: variable.
Directions to Set in or Trail head: If you are coming from the North or South take I-15 to I-80 (from the North I-15 to I-84 to I-80 is fastest). Follow I-80 East through Evanston and take Exit 39 onto state highway 414 South bound through Mountain View. Continue on 414 South and East to Manila. Their are two good launch spots near Manila. You can continue East to Lucerne which is a developed marina and campsite or go south on highway 44 to Sheep Creek where there is a less develped boat launch and nearby camping. Lucerne is less scenic and more exposed but it is a great place to see Pronghorn.
Directions to Set in or Trail head: loop
Author's Experience level: Experinced - guide.
Boat Type Used: kayak.

Editors note/update:

Scott has provided the following link to pictures from this trip:
Link to Pictures from the Flaming Gorge Trip

Trail Description:

The Utah portion of Flaming Gorge is by far the most scenic. If you are coming from the North or South take I-15 to I-80 (from the North I-15 to I-84 to I-80 is fastest). Follow I-80 East through Evanston and take Exit 39 onto state highway 414 South bound through Mountain View. Continue on 414 South and East to Manila. Their are two good launch spots near Manila. You can continue East to Lucerne which is a developed marina and campsite or go south on highway 44 to Sheep Creek where there is a less develped boat launch and nearby camping. Lucerne is less scenic and more exposed but it is a great place to see Pronghorn. It requires a crossing of almost 2 miles due South across a bay that can be very windy in the afternoon. It is difficult to see the notch through the mountain that gives you access to the gorge but just paddle due south and you will find it. If you return this way don't get confused and paddle to Antelope Flats which is a large marina to the East. Sheepcreek is more scenic and offers a more protected approach to the gorge. This is an undeveloped area and their is no survelance where you leave your vehicle but crime has not been an issue yet. Regardless of the approach you will want to paddle both the gorge that the area is named for and Horshoe Canyon. There is an undeveloped campground on the Northeast side of Kingfisher Island and a developed campground complete with flushers in Hideout Canyon. Camping is also permited anywhere large enough to pull up a boat and unroll a sleeping bag

If you want to make a one way trip you can take out at Dutch John where you cna land and launch from Cedar Springs or Mustang Ridge. Cedar Springs is a developed marina nad camping area, Mustang Ridge is a developed campground.

This is a big body of water that is subject to high winds and suitable landing areas can be a mile or more away due to the steep sides (sometimes several miles). Other than wind the lake is all flat water allowing for enjoyable paddling. Like all desert paddles come prepared to protect yourself from the sun. Lake Powell is best suited for long paddles, 100 miles is not a long paddle on this lake.

The Trip Report:

They say the Inuit have about 50 words for ice and snow and for some reason as I paddled I thought of the frozen north and the verses of Robert Service. Yukon trails, Sam McGee, and Blasphemous Bill all stirred around in my head. In some ways I was a world away. Having escaped from several days of century mark heat on the Wasatch Front and numerous wild fires, I was enjoying comfortable mid 80’s in eastern Utah. I was not surrounded by ice but by rock. Like ice, if one spends enough time around rock you begin to see the differences. One side of my brain was crunching words like Paleozoic, Cretaceous, Precambrian, metamorphic, sedimentary, and the thought there has to be some Baxter Shale around here somewhere. Anticlines were everywhere. This place has experienced some serious compression I thought to myself. Observations from one of my friends helped me to dust off the less used part of my brain. He had names for the rocks also, pancake, Swiss cheese, and upside down rainbow. I liked this way of classifying and labeled a rock elephant butt rock. The differences in the rock were greater than the differences in our classification methods. It was like the geology lab had experienced an earth quake and 2.5 billion years of specimens were dumped in a heap for us to explore.

The artist, geologist, adventurer, and tourist all have different and valid ways of seeing the rock but in a playground like this there is only one way to experience the rock; like a child. We speculated on cause, force, and time as we paddled about the great formations. Our combined wisdom of just under ¼ of a century was not a match for the rocks of ages that surrounded us. We moved on, sometimes regretting we didn’t have a geology guide but mostly glad that the enjoyment we received from the display in front of us was not destroyed by “the man that knew” to borrow a verse from a Robert Service. A kayak trip needs the unknown like the night sky needs stars. I can’t imagine the feelings and emotions that John Wesley Powell felt when he saw this place for the first time and named it Flaming Gorge.

We had launched less than an hour before from Lucerne responding to a “do those skinny things ever tip over” question from a bystander with an “all the time” reply. We generally try to be goodwill ambassadors for kayaking but in this case the effort was not worth it. We left the bystander and some wandering Pronghorn antelope behind and after about a 2 mile crossing we entered Horseshoe Canyon. We paddled the entire length of this spectacular canyon but only saw about half as much of it as Powell did. The lower half has been submerged by the damn and we could only see about 30 feet down into the green tinted water. The reservoir is popular with fisherman and wake boarders but this canyon is wake-less allowing for a serene experience. It was the middle of the week after a holiday weekend and we did not encounter any fossil fueled vessels in the canyon.

We continued down one side of Kingfisher Island. We did not see any signs of the bird Powell had named the island for but Osprey were abundant, nesting on the cliffs and crags above. On a prior trip my friends had found a secret place in this canyon. They had been hugging the cliff to stay out of the wind when they found a slot canyon formed by a flake. I felt like an 8 year old that had gained their trust as they shared their secret with me. At about 100’ long and just wide enough for a kayak it made a great little adventure. Three of us worked our way through it by pushing and pulling on the rock on either side and then went back for a second time. Finally the fourth paddler had to risk scratching his shiny new green kayak and joined in the fun. Possibly the greatest and most difficult accomplishment of adulthood is to regain the child.

We entered a bay with yet a new rock formation. Strata that had once laid horizontal on the ground had been pushed vertical. The spires looked like the feathers on the rear of a goose that was eating from the mud below the water. We had moved from elephant to goose and I wondered if a porcupine was next. This would be our home for the night after a leisurely 10 mile paddle. We camped in a designated campground called Hideout Campground. When the confused campground host asked where our boat was we pointed to the kayaks pulled up alongside the dock. Sea kayaks are not a common site in Utah, our little group of 4 made up about 1/3 the active sea kayaking population of the state. Curious power boaters ask about our kayaks and how far we had paddled as we unloaded. They were amazed we could fit everything we needed in those skinny boats. I guess luxury is relative; we have always enjoyed the bounties cargo space compared to a backpack. They seemed to admire what we were doing but at the same time they were glad the throttle was within easy reach. Standing out like children wearing their older siblings hand-me-downs we erected the poorest houses in the neighborhood and took full advantage of the running water and flush toilets.

The afternoon was spent fishing and photographing the less significant pieces of a location that give it a sense of place. The mountain mahogany seed with a sharp point and delicate swirled tail littered the ground. The tail is a very high tech device that expands and contracts with temperature change. It acts like a drill drilling the sharp seed into the ground. Lichens added color to the rock. Not even noticeable when looking at the rugged cliffs these colorful islands of life clinging to an inhospitable world were probably some of the original pioneers in the area. Even the desert has more pieces than a jigsaw puzzle, each with its unique niche.

We went out for an evening paddle and explored another side of Kingfisher Island and Sheep Creek. We added Mule deer and a Great blue heron to our list of larger fauna that we had seen on the trip. As we paddled we ran into a friend in a power boat. He was spending a few days on the reservoir with a scout group. No doubt his adventure would be greater than ours. We pondered the question what 14 year olds would do on a boat without sticks to poke things with, rocks to throw at things, and something to climb. We didn’t have an answer and were glad that we were not the ones that would find out.

Most of the shoreline was comprised of cliff or rubble. When we did find a user friendly landing we were normally greeted by invasive species. The damn is not the only change created by Anglos. Utah has a history of invaders. More recent ones include Tamarisk, Canada thistle, Cheat Grass, and Mormons. Two of the four have a beautiful purple head. The purple blooms added color to a mostly red and brown scene. When the locals in the area ate venison instead of beefsteak, bunched blue grass dominated the area.

As we worked our way downstream one evening we were reminded that the shoreline was not the only thing that can be inhospitable. A powerboat in a side canyon was sacrificing a piece of meat on a grill. The air was so still that we chocked as we paddled through the smoke that settled on the water like a fog. A distant storm made us stop and ponder the logic of continuing our exploration. The lightning and thunder came closer and within a few minutes gale force winds hit us. Fortunately the wind was going across the channel and not up it. We made our way across difficult but not impossible waves to the leeward side. The wind dropped of the cliffs above pounding down within a boats length of the shore. We found a small sheltered cove and tightened our PFD’s, mounted our headlights, and checked our decks while waiting for a break. The lightning grew closer making us uneasy and finally we got the break we needed. We paddled out into the channel, confused wind hit us from all sides. The lightning and thunder seemed to move away as a tailwind intensified giving us large swelling waives to ride back to camp. Every trip should have some adventure, although short our dose of adventure was intense. We arrived at our camp in the Goosenecks with something to ponder. We were camped at what used to be a campground. Over the years the dock disappeared, and then the tables, and the outhouse. All that remained were some overgrown trails, a few nails in trees, and a hole where the throne once stood. We had assumed that the Forest Service had removed them. Now we wondered if it was the wind.

We found ourselves wandering on our paddle back to the marina trying to add time and miles to our trip. We explored the third side of Kingfisher Island and found a group of Mountain sheep eating the thistle. The gently sloping grassland was the most level terrain we had experienced. While taking a swim we added a very large carp to our list of mega-fauna spotted on the trip. Being the weekend, Horseshoe Canyon had a flotilla of all shapes and sizes of powerboats. It was different passing these wake-less speed boats. We passed each other with equal curiosity and greetings similar to what you experience on a hiking trail. We were all moving but no one was in a hurry. It was a real contrast to the more common yells, screeches, and other sounds that emit from people that are feeling the rush and power that fossil fuels can add to a water craft. As we drove home I wondered how Robert Service would have described our trip. Cliffs probably would have been higher, winds stronger, rocks more red, and it still would not compare to experiencing it. Although it was only a few short days, we had experienced it.

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Content Copyright Primary: Scott Baxter 2008

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