Former Evanston, Wyo., resident Alan Roberson enjoys the view near the Red Canyon Visitor Center.
There is a lot of wildlife along the Flaming Gorge Trail.
There are no cars in the parking area when I arrive. There are no signs that anyone has been here in days. Just a lonely trail head at the north end of a lonely strip of graying asphalt at a lonely and under-appreciated overlook. A stained and lacquered sign points the way.
"Canyon Rim Trail Number 001. Red Canyon Visitor Center, at the heart of Flaming Gorge, four-and-a-half miles."
I shoulder my day pack and stand comfortably in the afternoon breeze, enjoying the silent scenery.
The sun is high, and its autumn rays streak down around me, casting harsh shadows on the ground. Its warmth radiates within my bones, and I let myself begin, slowly wandering along the rutted and stony path, leaving my car and my cares on the roadside. Golden grasses brush at my ankles and snag at my thick socks, looking to hitch a ride toward some new home. A vast swath of open meadow and field sweeps out below me toward low-lying ranch lands, and then water beyond. The beginnings of the gorge.
Hoof prints mark the passing in recent weeks of horses, but they must have been few and seldom. Parts of the trail seem nearly overgrown, and then it moves into the shade of a pine forest and opens up. Someone has built rock cairns in seemingly random patterns along the path, though there's little chance of getting lost.
I find signs that a bear has walked this same path within the past week. She's long gone by now, I'm sure, but still I remember to make a bit more noise as I walk, singing a soft song about trees that I made up while hiking in grizzly country in July. Better safe than eaten, I always say.
Soon the forest breaks open, revealing red cliffs off in the distance, and yellow aspen blazing a path across the blue sky. I stop at a large rock outcropping and pull my hastily prepared lunch from my pack and settle in for a lazy break. I can see the upper edges of what must be the gorge, though I'm still a ways off. A few ancient snags tower above the younger pine forests scattering toward the valley floor like dutiful watchmen, shepherds keeping their young and rambunctious flock. The silence pulls at my mind, almost lulling me toward sleep, and I finally force myself to get on the move again.
More meadow, then an old and rotting zigzag fence used by some long-gone rancher, wending its way among the pines. The trail sends off a spur toward the Skull Creek Campground just before descending into the ravine holding a nearly dry creek bed crossed by a newish wooden bridge. A pile of old lumber that I can only assume was once the original bridge lies in a heap just downstream.
I push on and startle a large herd of mule deer grazing in a field, though once they recover they don't seem to be frightened of me. At once elegant and pedestrian creatures, I watch them forage, a final push to gain weight before winter arrives. The next few meals could determine who lives and who doesn't quite make it to spring.
I pass through a gate signed, "Please! Close the gate," and pass another spur trail heading to Green Lake Campground. Distracted by a second herd of deer I nearly miss my first real gorge overlook opportunity. Breaking through the trees on my right is a deep rift in the earth with a cerulean blue floor. It's only a glimpse, but even this brief look is a spectacle that sends me scrambling up the trail yearning for more.
Soon another overlook reveals itself, then another. Then they are everywhere, a beautiful expansive view straight into the heart of the Flaming Gorge, its burnt-red walls falling away endlessly on both sides, with only the water below to hem it in. Walking along the lip of the canyon, it's difficult to keep my eyes on the trail, and I find myself stumbling on the small stones and roots along the way.
The Canyon Rim Campground is overrun with deer as well, and I share the view, though my eyes are greedy. The gorge swallows me up in its beauty, and I try to take my own bite in return, something to take home within. Rounding the slow curve of the canyon I walk into the campground at the Red Canyon Visitor Center and straight up to a friendly bighorn sheep. Here the trail ends and the sun is hanging low on the horizon, painting the canyon walls in a misty autumn glow. I watch as the sheep casually strolls over the rim and down a vertical drop that would spell certain doom to all but the most experienced human climbers.
And now, at the end, I finally find human life. A small group has gathered at the overlook to admire the view, and we can't help but strike up a friendly conversation. The communal experience of our surroundings makes us friends, and we share the moment. One man sits with his feet dangling over the edge, silently contemplating the vast emptiness below.
As the sun begins to set we part ways. I wonder, as I drive my old Toyota back toward town, what the canyon gave to each of them today. Did we each take the same thing home? Or was its gifts unique, tailored to each? Whatever the answer, I wouldn't trade my day's reward for anything.
I've been truly blessed.
(The trail is fairly level and relatively easy 4 Â½ miles (9 miles round trip), though the altitude is high, and the air is thin. Bring plenty of water, an extra jacket, sunscreen and bug repellent, and wear sturdy hiking shoes. Be sure to bring a camera. Please use care around the canyon rim areas as they are dangerous and a fall could be fatal.)
How to get there
Take Highway 6 from Price to Highway 191 (by the Carbon Power Plant) and turn up Indian Canyon. Travel to Duchesne and turn right on Highway 40. Travel to Vernal, turn left on Highway 191 (Vernal Avenue) and proceed north to Highway 44. Park at the overlook approximately one mile past the junction with Highway 191.