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Labor Day at Flaming Gorge

The gorge in all its grandiosity.
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Other things to do

• Guided tours of the hydroelectric plant and dam are offered daily, letting you elevator down inside the dam. Also visit the adjacent Visitor Center for history exhibits of the area.

• Bear Canyon Trail is an easy three-mile round-trip for hiking and mountain biking, taking off just past the Cedar Springs campsite.

• If you have a speed boat, visit the eastern side of Kingfisher Island, where a giant rope swing launches adrenaline-seekers into the lake.

• Float the A section of the Green just below the dam, either on your own (if you have Class II skills) or with an outfitter. A hiking trail parallels the river the entire way, making it a great hiking option as well.

If you go

Campsites: The two closest campsites to Steamboat are Cedar Springs (24 sites) and Mustang Ridge (69 sites), both with access to boat ramps. Costs are $25 per night, with group sites running $140 per night.

Rentals: Boat rentals can be found at Cedar Springs marina (cedarspringsmarin...), starting at $160 for pontoon boats and $260 for speed boats (3 hours).

Information: flaminggorgecount..., reserveamerica.com

“This is flaming gorgeous!”

The one-liner comes from my daughter, Casey, as we motor our pontoon boat 13 miles up Utah’s Flaming Gorge reservoir to Carter Creek. Out of the wind rippling the main lake, the side canyon snakes through a Christmas scene of red cliffs flanked by pinyon pine. We shut off our engine a few bends back where the creek plunges in like Santa’s beard. To the side, other visitors are cannonballing off a 25-foot cliff into the water.

Other things to do

• Guided tours of the hydroelectric plant and dam are offered daily, letting you elevator down inside the dam. Also visit the adjacent Visitor Center for history exhibits of the area.



• Bear Canyon Trail is an easy three-mile round-trip for hiking and mountain biking, taking off just past the Cedar Springs campsite.

• If you have a speed boat, visit the eastern side of Kingfisher Island, where a giant rope swing launches adrenaline-seekers into the lake.



• Float the A section of the Green just below the dam, either on your own (if you have Class II skills) or with an outfitter. A hiking trail parallels the river the entire way, making it a great hiking option as well.

The canyon’s two unofficial campsites are occupied, one under an overhang and another by the cascading creek. No matter. We’re here on a day jaunt from our camp at Mustang Ridge, happy to be exploring one of Steamboat’s best kept weekend secrets. We unload our sea kayak and paddleboard and paddle and swim away the afternoon, using our boat as a reggae-blaring base camp for beverages and lunch.

We’ve come here — my family of four, as well as another family of five — on an impromptu Labor Day weekend because, well, after two decades of living in Steamboat, we’ve never been here, to Steamboat’s mountain version of Lake Powell. All that changed when Casey’s soccer team bowed out of Denver’s President’s Cup early, leaving Labor Day free for the first time in years. So camping it was.

Which is one of the best things about Flaming Gorge: it’s close enough that you can rally on a moment’s notice.

While you can drive here via Vernal, the quickest way is to turn right onto Colorado Highway 318 right after Maybell and stay on it an hour and a half through Brown’s Park (note: take your potty break beforehand). This is where Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch hunkered down and for good reason: It’s barren, remote and perfect for outlaws; they could escape jurisdiction by border-hopping between Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

Eventually you’ll take a left on U.S. Highway 191 and catch your first glimpse of the sparkling lake at Antelope Flats. From there, it’s on to your campsite at either Mustang Ridge or Cedar Springs, which stare at one another across a bay. Cedar Ridge is closer to the marina and its quaint floating bar and restaurant, while Mustang has better access to the water.

We were happy with Mustang, especially when we discovered a short hike leading to cliff jumps and a beach called Sunny Cove, where we stashed our paddlecraft to use throughout the weekend. Other campers at Cedar Springs, we’d learn, would even drive over to Sunny Cove for the day.

Arriving in the early afternoon, we called my friend Gary (yes, there’s cell service), who has the scene dialed. Most summer weekends, he camps wherever he wants along shore with his family in their houseboat and speed boat.

“Look across the bay,” he said. “That’s us in our own private cove.”

Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at our camp to take the kids tubing and cliff jumping.

In the morning, I sea kayaked 20 minutes over to their camp, while the rest of our clan drove. Today was pontoon boat day, a 25-footer that fit all of us and our toys. While Gary paralleled us up the gorge buzzing the kids around on tubes, we explored the reservoir’s hidden bays and coves on our way up to Carter Creek.

Like catching the last chair up Storm Peak, we returned the boat five minutes before its 6 p.m. deadline, before visiting three other Steamboat families camped at a group site at Cedar Springs. They’ve been coming here every Labor Day for years, and it shows. Teens are devouring potluck fajitas, grown-ups are tossing horse shoes and youngsters are whipping around the campground on bikes.

Back at our own camp, Paul and I head out under the stars for a late night sea kayak and paddleboard by Braille. It’s calm and serene, with the dam lights across the bay joining the reflection of the twinkling stars.

The Flaming Gorge Dam, of course, is why we’re even camping here. Completed in 1964, it’s named for a now-buried canyon discovered by John Wesley Powell on his first descent of the Green River in 1869. Towering 502 feet tall and 1,285 feet long, it backs up water 91 miles into Wyoming, submerging four gorges of the Green.

It’s one of six dams in the Colorado River Storage Project, a mid-1900s plan created by the Bureau of Reclamation to store and distribute upper Colorado River Basin water. Any sentimental feelings I might have about its buried canyons are washed away in knowing it was built as a compromise for the Echo Park Dam not being built 50 miles downstream in Dinosaur National Monument.

The next morning, we get a taste of what was lost. After updating our fly collection at Johnny Spillane’s fly shop, Trout Creek Flies, in Dutch John, we put our raft in below the dam to float the seven-mile A stretch of the Green. While the reservoir is one of Utah’s greatest fisheries, the cold, emerald-green water released from the dam’s 131-foot-thick base has transformed 28 miles of the Green into one of the best trout fishing floats in the country.

The night before at Cedar Springs, my friend Todd had given me his hand-tied secret weapon — a cranefly larva nymph — to dangle six feet off a hopper. That, I did, double checking my knot so as not to lose the gift.

Guiding eight of us in a paddle raft while trying to cast didn’t leave me with much of a gift for fishing, but it did for Paul, who quickly put Todd’s creation to work by landing a 17-inch rainbow. The kids were just as interested in the river’s beaches, canyon, rapids and swimming holes as they were our fishing exploits.

All too soon, we reached the take-out at Little Hole, which marks the put-in for the B section. There, we grudgingly packed up and headed home after a weekend as packed as our car, arriving just in time to make the kids’ school lunches.

While our freshly skunked dog reminded me how I fared fishing, it didn’t get me down. We had rafted, fished, motor-boated, tubed, sea kayaked, paddleboarded, camped, biked and more, all on an impromptu weekend visiting one of Steamboat’s unsung jewels.

Just as she did with her flaming-gorgeous comment on the boat, Casey summed it up as I tucked her in: “We should do that every year!”

Play well but lose, sweetheart, and maybe we can.


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