Driving along Rt. 191 from Jackson Hole to Vernal is a visual Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with cannon. Rt. 191 is one long crescendo from the bucolic grasslands of Wyoming to the flaming rocks of Utah and the Red Canyon finale – and we had no idea. Our day began in Jackson Hole, WY with church and an amazing array of treats from Persephone Bakery. When we left Jackson Hole, WY for our five hour drive to Vernal, UT, we didn’t know that this day would be one of the best from our 10,000 mi roadtrip. We had researched different routes that might take us to national parks, monuments, etc and the closest option we found was Fossil Butte National Monument. However, given the long drive to Vernal (and a little worn out from several days at Yellowstone), decided to just go the simple, shortest route – Route 191 south.
Rt. 191 South from Jackson to Rock Springs, WY was peaceful drive through broad barren rolling lands with more cattle than people. After 3 hours of driving, we reached one of the largest cities in the area, Rock Springs, WY. We had a quick pit-stop and then continued on Rt. 191, briefly following I-80 West, before turning south. Once we cleared the development around Rock Springs, we entered the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
South of Rock Springs, Rt. 191 opened up to an amazing vista of painted rocks, buttes, and canyons. At an overlook, we stopped, and the ground melted away into a vast remote colorful landscape.
Continuing on Rt. 191 toward the Utah border, imagine you are driving along on a thin elevated road down the middle of the Grand Canyon. At first, the road (Rt. 191) seems innocuous enough, pleasant green fields on either side, but the fields don’t seem to go as far as your mind tells you they should. After a while, you discover why – on each side of the road, the green fields are hiding . . .
Cliffs, canyons, and vistas that reveal themselves in hints and whispers until, like the cannon in the 1812 Overture, they burst on your senses with a depth and hue immersed in the Earth.
Over the miles, we followed the road as it descended into the surrounding canyons and valleys, only to discover more canyons and valleys below. Driving down these red rock “stairs” of southern Wyoming, we entered Daggett County, Utah.
The Green River is the soul of Flaming Gorge, cutting through the rugged red rock to craft canyons. Constrained by Flaming Gorge Dam, the river becomes Flaming Gorge reservoir, spreading out and painting over the reds, yellows, and greens of the land, with blue.
Gazing up, down, and around at the road, rocks, and river, we saw the clouds start to move in.
As we approached Flaming Gorge dam, we drove through the remnants of a giant forest fire adding burnt and char to the palette of Flaming Gorge.
The Flaming Gorge dam was built in 1964 to provide power, water storage, and recreational opportunities for the region. We drove directly across the dam on Rt. 191 and stopped at the Visitor Center. While we arrived too late in the day for a tour of the dam, the helpful guide pointed out some of the best places to experience Flaming Gorge. He also directed us to the Red Canyon Visitor Center where we hoped to find Junior Ranger books for the kids, but we only had 30 minutes before it closed.
After nearly all day on Rt. 191 from Jackson, WY, we finally turned west onto Utah HWY 44 toward the Red Canyon Visitor Center. Racing against the clock, we finally saw the sign for the Visitor Center and turned north. Shortly down Red Canyon Overlook Road, we heard one of the children from the back of the van cry out, “Stop! Look over there!”
At first we couldn’t tell, but once we got a little closer, it was clear. A small herd of bighorn sheep was grazing in a field just east of the road. We had seen bighorn sheep just a few days before in Yellowstone, but they were very far away. Here, they didn’t seem to really notice us and everyone had the chance to get out and admire the animals from a safe distance.
Leaving the bighorn sheep, we continued on to the Visitor Center, but it looked like it was closed. Just to be sure, we knocked on the door and thankfully there was still someone there. He had to close the Visitor Center early because someone was sick, but he still made time to find the Junior Ranger books for the kids. He also told us that once the books were complete, we could take it to the Ashley Forest station in Vernal, UT to get our badges. Thanking him for the help, we explored the area around the Visitor Center, learning about Red Canyon and enjoying the stunning panorama.
Adding to the adventure, all around the overlook were deep rocky fissures, like the one shown below. So definitely a good place to keep an eye, and hand, on the little ones!
After a long day of driving, everyone appreciated the opportunity to stretch our legs in such a beautiful place. We quickly realized that there was so much more to see at Flaming Gorge and wished we had more time.
While we were at the overlook, the clouds thickened and thunder began to roar in the distance. Not wanting to risk a repeat of our Grand Canyon experience (stay tuned for that story), we gathered the kids and started back to the minivan.
Leaving Flaming Gorge, the rain finally started to fall and we drove the final 45 minutes to our next stop, Vernal, UT. Along the way, the stunning scenery continued, the children worked on their Junior Ranger books, and, for the first time on our 10,000 mi trip, we saw free range cows as they wandered along the side of the road. In Vernal the next day, the children picked up their Flaming Gorge Junior Ranger badges at the Ashley Forest station and then we set out for the Utah Field House of Natural History and Dinosaur National Monument – but those adventures are for another story.
Our journey along Rt. 191 and through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area was a total surprise. As much as we had planned, researched, and itemized every aspect of our 10,000 mile summer roadtrip adventure, our day on Rt. 191 served as a striking reminder that sometimes the best experiences in life, aren’t the ones you plan.
Photo credits: Full Van Fun