Flaming Gorge sunset rocks, surprise critters, and desert calm: Finding the ultimate renewable resource in Southwest Wyoming

Follow our St. Clair family summer road trip of 4 weeks, 5 states, and 3,851 miles: All posts

Stopping at Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge began out of necessity. Planning our Summer Family Road Trip, we built in a few days in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Country simply because we wanted to break up the 7-hour drive from Bear Lake, Idaho, to Fort Collins, Colorado.

Long drive. Big stretch. Boundless joy.
Long drive. Big stretch. Boundless joy.

That’s the thing about travel. Even simple choices can become meaningful in ways you never expected. What happened instead? We, ahem, GORGED ourselves on the ultimate renewable resource, which we just happened to discover full on in Wyoming.

Animal spotting and monument rock marveling in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

Learned

…Southwest Wyoming is stark and lush at the same time, erosion’s bounty of unornamented beauty…
…If a Flaming Gorge sunset is just right, rock and light will put on an incredible surprise show…
…A roadside attraction can send you time-traveling millions of years into the past…
…Connor is hard to beat at Dragonwood…
…Deer are so stealthy, we didn’t see the one on Aster’s head until we looked through the videos later…

Made

…One serendipitous stop that set an adventure theme for the entire trip…
…Stories and play with 3 sand castle kingdoms…
…Countless tracks through the sagebrush-covered lands of Flaming Gorge…
…A rock and wood ramp so a wayward lizard could climb out of our fire pit…
…Hearts and minds full of the ultimate renewable resource…

NEW family travel video: Unexpected discoveries camping in SE Idaho and SW Wyoming

Junior Ranger mania begins

Dramatic cloudy skies. Vibrant green sagebrush. And the weathered hills. There's no serenity like desert calm.
Dramatic cloudy skies. Vibrant green sagebrush. And the weathered hills. There’s no serenity like desert calm.

Our last day in Idaho began with a chemistry lesson.

“Cesium explodes,” said Connor. “Barium can be toxic. The precious metals are gold, silver, platinum, ruthenium, osmium, rhodium, and palladium.”

Connor had been reading (and re-reading) one of our Usborne books, See Inside Atoms and Molecules. He and Aster would look over the book together, lifting flaps and acting out the lives of atoms and molecules.

Before we knew it, we would see chemistry, and geology, at work too. With Aster drying dishes, Connor handing over gear to be packed, and the camper closed down and hitched, we said good-bye to Idaho, but not entirely in the way we expected.

Sure, we like to plan. In other words, we like to have some sense of where we’re going—but we’re always willing to change course.

Leaving Idaho at the end of June, we briefly wound through close, sagebrush-stubbled white hills in northeastern Utah, on our way to Flaming Gorge in southwest Wyoming. Even with the windows closed as we hauled our camper “tail” eastbound down US-30, the lemony scent of sage drifted through the car. The gentle hills awaited with no steep slopes or crazy switchbacks. It was a relaxing meander of small surprises. We’d emerge from the hills and find ourselves passing rock walls of red and yellow, or crossing a huge plain, sometimes covered in dry grass and sage, or sometimes a wide, verdant field.

Rain gave the car and camper a quick rinse. The fresh scent of new rain filled our lungs and hearts, just like it does back home in Oregon. We glanced to side to side, seeing how many cows were roaming and munching. Wyoming actually came as a surprise. Google Maps welcomed us to Wyoming before we reached the sign, a Wyoming welcome on one side, and Utah on the other.

FOMO for FOBU

Pre-history comes alive! The kids loved the interactive fish holograms Wyoming's Fossil Butte National Monument.
Pre-history comes alive! The kids loved the interactive fish holograms Wyoming’s Fossil Butte National Monument.

Wyoming is a curious state. Granted, we only saw a wee southwest slice of the ninth-largest state in the country (in fact, at 97,105 square miles, Wyoming is only 1,102 square miles bigger than Oregon.)

The Cowboy State that we saw is a mix of industry and nature. Fossil fuel work being done for oil and gas, and renewable power in play, like solar arrays and windmills.

Then we saw a sign: Fossil Butte National Monument (or, because all large entities love acronyms, FOBU).

We hadn’t planned to go there. Hadn’t even noticed it on the map, actually. Originally we’d planned to cut farther south, to I-80, so we hadn’t even looked at what might await off another road. But when our online map put us on US-30, well, it just sounded more fun anyway.

Besides, after about an hour and a half of driving, we all wanted to get out of the car for a few minutes anyway.

As we turned off the highway and approached the road that would take us to the visitor center, we saw that our jaunt to Fossil Butte would do something else: It would send us back in time millions of years, and set our Family Summer Road Trip on a path of Junior Ranger mania.

A million years in nine inches at Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming

Were the skies like this millions of years ago too?
Were the skies like this millions of years ago too?

“Look at the signs!” said Aster.

Irregularly spaced, wide red sign rectangles dotted the right side of the road. We looked more closely: Each sign discussed an aspect of life and evolution on Earth.

“Every nine inches,” said one sign, “represents one million years.”

Now that’s a geology and biology lesson. Complete with a human-scale perspective that put a vast measure of time into a scale we could comprehend.

Inside, the kids marveled at the fossils. Huge palm fronds. A water-loving crocodilian. Flowers, leaves, and seeds, preserved in rock in exquisite detail, down to flower petals and the veins of leaves. Aster giggled as she worked at a holographic display of prehistoric fish.

It was a stark contrast to the weathered, dry hills around us, stubbled with sage, sure, but certainly not palm trees and fish ponds.

“Wyoming used to be underwater,” said Aster. She pointed at a phone headset that gave audio tours of the exhibits.. “So did lots of Utah and Colorado.”

In other words, today’s desert was yesterday’s massive lake.

When the kids understood that, they kicked into full-on Junior Ranger mode. Along with earning their Fossil Butte badges, we also got a family National Parks Passport. Our first stamps? Fossil Butte.

Little did we know, though, that we weren’t just stopping at a cool monument to take a driving break. Fossil Butte set us on a sort of side quest for the rest of the trip, from Colorado to Utah to Idaho and back to Oregon: Fulfill Aster and Connor’s Junior Ranger mania, at every stop we could.

Directions to Fossil Butte National Monument Visitor Center

The sunset red rock surprise of Firehole Canyon Campground, Flaming Gorge, Wyoming

Gorgeous golden sunset light? Check. Joyous girl? Check? But the real question is... can you find the deer?
Gorgeous golden sunset light? Check. Joyous girl? Check? But the real question is… can you find the deer?

We’ve stayed at some amazing campgrounds.

And now we’ve stayed at Firehole Canyon.

The campground is on a low, flat hill, bordered by the green-blue waters of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Sagebrush surrounds the campground, and we became completely besotted with the scent. Evening after evening, we’d wander through the low bushes, rubbing our fingers on the leaves and smelling the slightly lemony oils.

On the far side of the Gorge’s waters, massive hills rise on all sides. But so does something else.

As some hills erode, the hardest, rockiest top bits remain. They become the iconic monument rocks of the American West. 

It turns out our campground didn’t just have a view of monument rocks. It was bloody surrounded by about 10 of them. Some hills looked like they were topped with castles (in fact, one reminded both of us of Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle). On others, spires reached towards the sky like bent fingers.

Directions to Firehole Canyon Campground, Flaming Gorge, Wyoming

Going to the toilet can cost you perfect light

Even under moody skies, the hills and rocks stand tall and gleam.
Even under moody skies, the hills and rocks stand tall and gleam.

After setting up camp, we drove around the park’s boat launch and beaches, including a few unpaved roads that were fun to bump around on, especially since they had more washboard than a folk band. Back at camp, Connor destroyed us at a game of Dragonwood. Though perhaps he had some help. After all, many a time Connor would roll the dice, and Aster would call out, “Spirits of the desert, give my brother his roll!”

The sun had set behind a high ridge. Outside after the game, white-gold evening light glowed on a far slope as we nipped to the toilets—but even a short visit was enough to cost us the light. As we went back to camp, the slopes dimmed and darkened. A light show missed.

We figured we’d try again tomorrow, but as the kids built towers, moats, and castles in their sandbox campsite, we looked up to find a surprise revealed.

Evening light gleamed red on the rock formations across every hilltop. Spires. Castles. All glowed a fiery red. Even the greens of the sage and the brown of the rocks gleamed.

“That’s gorgeous,” said the kids. The light on the rocks said everything else.

Desert calm and sandbox kingdoms

Kingdoms under construction. Rome wasn't built in a day, but Gorgon, Landfall, and Landfen were.
Kingdoms under construction. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Gorgon, Landfall, and Landfen were.

After a day in nearby Rock Springs to catch up on some work and a few business items, we relaxed in the desert. That’s the thing about the desert. There’s a natural calm to it. The quiet. The sense that the hills bring stillness, even though you know every bit of sunlight, rain, and breeze lowers them bit by bit.

Our last full day at Firehole Canyon Campground, we embraced being exactly where we were. Jodie did some watercolor painting, and Anthony did some writing. We took on no adventures beyond our campground—and we didn’t need to go far anyway. Sure, adventure can happen miles and states and continents away. Adventure can also happen right outside your camper door.

The kids constructed elaborate kingdoms from sand, rocks, and twigs, and we played make-believe castle dramas. They invited Anthony to play with them as one of the kingdoms: Gorgon, Landfall, and Landfen. After constructing elaborate castle dramas full of intrigue, diplomacy, and a bit of skirmishing, Jodie took the kids into the sagebrush to search for scat and cacti.

When they returned, Jodie said, “We found a phone!”

Anthony’s eyes got big. People lose phones in the weirdest places, after all. “Iphone or Android?”

Jodie shook her head. “No, no, not a phone. A bone!”

She held up a long piece of bone, gray, white, and pockmarked with weathering. Soon the kids were examining it, wondering what animal it might have come from, and how long it had been on the ground.

The hot afternoon found us in the camper, avoiding the sun, eating watermelon, and playing games. (During this Dragonwood rematch, the spirts of the desert were a little kinder to Anthony than Connor.)

Endless critters

Lizard parking only.
Lizard parking only.

Here’s a surprise family travel tip: The desert can be primo critter-spotting country. Sometimes the kids grabbed a GoPro and snuck around the sagebrush, getting all the critter footage they could. Here’s a list of the wildlife we spotted—or heard—at the campground:

Rabbits!

In the morning, before there was lots of activity around camp, wee cotton-tailed rabbits would be out and about, hopping near the water spigots or foraging around the campsites. Anthony would see them, but the rabbits would then scamper off fast, and not so much as a floppy ear would be seen anymore throughout the day or evening.

Coyotes!

Not seen, though. But at night, while we sat under the stars and just began to see the galaxy peeking through the darkness, the yips and howls of coyotes would lope in from beyond the distant rocks and hills. In the middle of the night, Jodie would hear them again—though, fortunately, still from far away.

Lizards!

So. Many. Lizards. They loved the dark, hot asphalt of the campground’s ring road. We even saw a couple of lizards go into our fire ring. The kids were concerned the lizards wouldn’t be able to get out, so we built up a sort of ramp of rocks and bits of wood. The lizards got out just fine though, much to Aster’s relief.

Gulls!

At both Bear Lake and Flaming Gorge, we kept seeing birds that look like seagulls, even though, of course, we are a long, long way from the sea. At Bear Lake, Aster said they should be called “lakegulls.”

Now she says they should be called “landgulls.”

Deer!

This is not a place we were expecting to see deer, but that’s part of why travel is so full of surprises. We’d sometimes see a doe near some of the empty campsites. Then, one evening, a doe and a fawn crept through the edge of the campground, calm and slow, sniffing through the sagebrush. Funnily enough, Anthony was off throwing away a bag of trash, so only Jodie and the kids saw the deer. It really upset Connor that we didn’t all get to see it together.

Sometimes we even encountered wildlife without knowing it. One evening, we got some video of Aster out in the sagebrush behind our camp site. Later, when we looked at the footage, it turns out a fawn was behind her, but we didn’t even notice it. Best part? In the video, the angle makes it look like there’s a wee deer on Aster’s head.

Yup indeed, you never know what you’re going to spot in the desert.

The summer evening light played on the rocks, lighting up the castles and spires. As the sun set behind a tall slope, we waited to see if our finale night, like our first night, would have a red-rocks light show. It didn’t, but we held onto our gratitude that we saw the show during our first night at camp. Instead, we enjoyed the quiet, as we sat together in camp chairs and watched the golden light begin to pale and fade.

Wyoming’s stark Flaming Gorge desert filled us up with the ultimate renewable resource

Sometimes the place you stay becomes a destination in and of itself.
Sometimes the place you stay becomes a destination in and of itself.

Sage-scented smoke rose into the sky. (As it turned out, this would also be our last campfire of the entire trip.) The stars made their slow way out. Together, we watched the softly glowing river of the galaxy make a shy, gradual appearance.

The kids watched with us. Our last night at a spot, they can stay up later. It’s a great time for stargazing. And snuggles.

“Mama,” said Connor, “I love you. And I love that we’re doing this trip.”

Clad in glow-in-the-dark starry sky blue jammies, Aster came out of the camper and snuggled up with Anthony in a camp chair.

“Starry sky and starry jammies!” said Aster.

Anthony grinned. “It’s like I get to sit with a galaxy!”

In the quiet, calm desert, we let ourselves drink in the cool evening beauty of such a stark yet lovely place. The water wound its S-shaped way through the canyon. The rocks glowed. Animals scurried and bounded.

We chose to come here merely looking for a way to break up the drive between Bear Lake and Fort Collins.

We found something else: The ultimate renewable resource.

It’s not calm, or serenity, or even togetherness. It’s something that reminds you to appreciate those things. And this part of Wyoming abounds in it:

Wonder.

Sunset rocks light show at Flaming Gorge, Wyoming's Firehole Canyon Campground.
Yeah, let’s have that red rock one more time. Anthony’s a sucker for this view.

We looked at a new part of the world with a fresh perspective, and remembered to marvel at it.

When we went to bed, tired yet excited, we held the wonder close, like a child with a teddy bear. Ready to rest. Ready to greet the new day, the drive ahead, the rest of our trip—the rest of our lives—with a steady dose.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.