The best hideout in the West: The Gates of Lodore and Brown's Park
July 31, 1996
Since the late 1830s, Brown's Park has been a welcoming valley in the middle of one of the West's most remote areas. Kit Carson, Butch Cassidy, Tom Horn, Ann Bassett ("Queen of the Rustlers"), John Wesley Powell and a cast of characters, including families and strong women, made footprints in Brown's Park, a major stop along the "Outlaw Trail." Today, Brown's Park has few denizens; it's above a major put-in for raft trips down the Green River, but for those seeking an out-of-the-way refuge, few places in the West deliver the solitude, history and beauty of Brown's Park. Fifty miles from the nearest sign of civilization, it's easy to understand the past and present allure of Brown's Park.
The 13,455-acre Brown's Park National Wildlife Refuge borders the northern boundary of Dinosaur National Monument in far northwestern Colorado. The refuge serves as a nesting area for migratory waterfowl, and approximately 200 species of birds can be found here. Downstream from Flaming Gorge Dam, the refuge maintains two campgrounds, Swinging Bridge and Crook's Creek, the latter being better shaded with huge cottonwoods. Several excellent campsites are situated under the cottonwoods and have fire rings. A few steps away from campsites at Crook's Creek is the wide Green River and a small sign reminding visitors of Powell's 1869 summer expedition. "They may have had an overnight camp near this spot," we are told, one of many reminders of the history that pervades Brown's Park.
The Green River, because of releases from Flaming Gorge, often changes from muddy to clear. A few fishermen we encountered had mixed luck casting into the wide river.
An 11-mile graded gravel road, or "auto tour route," on the north side of the river makes a good mountain bike trail, but across the river on the south side are many more miles of old jeep trails which make excellent, rolling mountain bike terrain. (The main road is marked "For high-clearance vehicles only.") A few of the roads, which lead to marshes along the river, are closed from March 1 to July 31 to protect nesting waterfowl. Soft, sometimes sandy, rocky terrain offers a few challenges but is generally easily navigable by bike. As these old roads meander from the shores of the Green and into the foothills of the Uinta Mountains, the sense of history is powerful. Did Butch Cassidy once gaze from this spot? Did cattle rustlers keep an eye on the valley from the lofty perches on this side of the river? Are a few stolen coins, or buried treasures, nearby?
Straddling the Green River, Brown's Park is shielded on the southwest by the low mountains of the Uintas, which help create a mild climate with less than 10 inches of annual precipitation. While several ominous storms formed around Brown's Park during our visit, favorable winds kept them at bay. Historically, Brown's Park was well-known as a temperate sanctuary in the middle of very harsh territory. It's easy to imagine outlaws grinning broadly because of Brown Park's shelter from both the law and nature.
Comanche, Shoshoni and Ute Native American tribes lived in Brown's Park before European trappers entered the area. A young runaway, Kit Carson, wrote of his visit to Brown's Park in 1838 after a rendezvous in the Wind River Mountains. During the mid- to late 1800s, a curious mix of ranchers, cowboys, outlaws, homesteaders, Utes and Mexicans lived in relative coexistence here. The California gold rush brought many cattlemen to Brown's Park, who relied on the lush green meadows and favorable climate for a wintering range before moving west. Cassidy and his Wild Bunch were regular and welcome visitors to Brown's Park until 1908 when Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to Bolivia. Diana Allen Kouris' "The Romantic and Notorious History of Brown's Park" (Wolverine Gallery, Basin, Wyo., 1988) provides an excellent, well-written history of the area, including its modern history, when federal and state government purchases consumed 97% of Brown's Park, forever changing the valley.
The southern boundary of Brown's Park is the Gates of Lodore, which is in Dinosaur National Monument. According to legend, the canyon entrance received its name from a member of Powell's 1869 expedition down the Green River, who was reminded of Robert Southey's poem, "The Cataract of Lodore." It is here that the Green River enters canyon country. Dinosaur maintains several campsite at the Gates of Lodore, many of which are also shaded by huge cottonwoods. A short nature trail leads one to a spectacular view of the canyon entrance. Many raptors, including hawks and falcons, nest in the canyon walls and cliffs along the river. As the trail traverses upward above the river, the strong smell of sage and pinon pine adds to the beauty of this special place. From the terminus of the trail, hikers can climb down and scramble among the many low rock formations.
Mountain bikers may also take advantage of the several dirt roads which shoot off from the main road which leads from Colo. 318 to the Gates of Lodore campground.
Far from any signs of urban life, this secluded slice of northwest Colorado is not only a little-known haven for rafters, bird watchers and campers, but is a historic sanctuary steeped in legend.