With so many other national parks and recreation areas overshadowing it, northeastern Utah is easily overlooked, especially when compared to Southern Utah. But with many of the same features minus the crowds, little-known Vernal is like Moab before it became overrun with tourists. From remarkable hiking, surreal canyons, and amazing arches, to prehistoric digs, whitewater rafting, and legalized cliff jumping, there’s so much to like about this so-called “Dinosaurland.”
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Quarry Exhibit Hall
Once upon a time, a man named Earl Douglas discovered dinosaur fossils on the side of a mountain just outside of Vernal—a lot of fossils. They excavated 10 complete, full-size fossils and shipped them to renowned museums around the country. The more the excavators dug, the more they discovered. Today, you can still see thousands of partial and near-complete dinosaur fossils in that same mountainside, with an impressive exhibit hall built around the opposing sides to preserve this incredible dig. It’s truly something out of Jurassic Park, only real and 150 million years old. So come for the fossils, but stay for everything else.
While Dinosaur National Monument is split between Utah and Colorado, the former is home to the popular quarry and is arguably more accessible. Outside of the highly-rated exhibit hall, there are a few nearby trails close to the visitor’s center. But to get the most from Dinosaur National Monument, you really need to fan out across both states to find the best trails and scenery. On the Colorado side, Harpers Corner Trail and The Scenic Drive are top picks. As for the Utah side, these are the more inspiring.
Epic Hiking, No Crowds
If you want big hiking and solitude, greater Vernal is an excellent place to get both. And many, if not all, of the same geological wonders Southern Utah is known for can also be found here. For example, the 2-mile roundtrip Moonshine Arch is a keeper, especially at sunset. It’s confusingly marked, however, so consult several online maps before attempting it. On top of that, there are two other hikes you need to circle: the scenic, 7-mile (out-and-back) Jones Hole Trail, which follows the namesake creek under a shaded canopy all the way into the refreshing Green River. And the 2.5-mile Dinosaur Trackway in Red Fleet State Park, which was easily the most fun trail. Which brings us to…
Although there are several state parks in the area, Red Fleet State Park was the most inviting. While there’s a marina, swimming area, and small cliff jumping ledges near the main entrance, the real star of the show is the aforementioned Dinosaur Trackway Trail, which finishes at the lake with a slanting cliff that ranges in height from a few inches to over 20 feet. Nothing feels more invigorating than leaping from the ledge, swimming, and sunbathing to your heart’s content. Easily one of the most memorable adventures in the area. Better yet, this part of the park is free to visitors (unlike the main entrance).
It’s incredible this place hasn’t gone viral yet. You’ll find hardly anyone in the parking lot, except for maybe a lone photographer. The reason: Fantasy Canyon lives up to its name and is easily the most photogenic canyon in the area—like a gray Bryce Canyon or a mysterious backdrop from Star Wars. Thanks to a captivating sunset and equally colorful clouds, you can hike the short half-mile loop and linger for well over an hour. If heading back to Vernal, be sure to drive west through scenic Ouray en route to Highway 88. Either way, it’s truly a remarkable place that’s sure to become a tending place someday.
Located about an hour north of Vernal, Flaming Gorge is the greatest canyon reservoir you’ve never heard of. Similar to Utah’s Lake Powell—although much less crowded—the reservoir stretches into two states and is a boater’s paradise—thanks to the calm waters and high-reaching red cliffs that flank you on both sides. If not boating, you can hike the Red Canyon Rim Overlook and take in the 360-degree views. Even the drive up (or back) is a beautiful 8,000-feet elevation change, from the deserts of Vernal into the Douglas Fir-filed high country of the gorge.
Green River Rafting
Flaming Gorge gets its water from the aptly-named Green River, which America dammed in 1964 for both water and recreation use. At the bottom of the dam, you can book either a day or multi-day rafting trip down the green river. Starting below the dam, breaking for lunch on a shady riverbed, and finishing in Vernal is a popular day-trip itinerary. Unlike other western rivers, the Green is fun but family-friendly—not too intense, but still fun enough to get wet without ever getting bored.
Vernal is delightful. The main street is lined by giant, hanging baskets of purple and white pansies on both sides (every 12 feet or so). This has an endearing, country-home effect that’s sure to make you feel welcome. Although this street is busy with recreationists, it’s not overrun or impossible to find parking, as is the case in some Southern Utah towns. There are several well-rated parks, including Cobble Rock Park right in downtown, which is complete with three high-powered splash pads—the perfect way to finish after a hot day of hiking. On top of that…
For such a small town, Vernal has no business serving this much good food. For example, Grandma Dots serves one of the best Reuben sandwiches around, along with a full array of comfort foods and indulgent ice cream. Country Grub serves homemade fries worth writing home about, in addition to delicious burgers and shakes. And the Sloppy Pig (BBQ), Plaza Mexicana (Mexican), and Glazed & Grilled (donuts) are also standouts.
INSIDER TIPStash a dozen Glazed & Grilled donuts and ice-cold milk in your car to enjoy after hiking Jones Hole Trail—it’s a sweet reward for finishing the hike.
Utahns are known for being nice, but people from Vernal are even nicer. That was especially true of the hotel staff. At the Holiday Inn Express & Suites for around $100 a night, you will be floored by the service. Although there are several well-rated hotels in the area, this was the perfect launchpad with a free breakfast buffet, spacious rooms, and newly-renovated property. But the service didn’t stop at our hotel. Wherever you go, whether at restaurants, around town, or in nearby nature, you’ll encounter welcoming and helpful locals—even during a pandemic.