5 Exciting Activities in Vernal that Don’t Involve Dinosaur Fossils

Hiking around Dinosaur National Monument.
Hiking around Dinosaur National Monument. Mark Byzewski
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Whether you are driving to Vernal from Colorado in the east or from Utah in the west, an adventure awaits. Vernal, with a population approaching 10,000 people, lies almost halfway between Salt Lake City and Aspen, and it offers a number of off-the-beaten-path activities for the day or as an overnight.

Driving down the main street of town, the eyes of visitors are filled with wonder as they drive past more than 1,500 dazzling flower planters and baskets, overflowing with pink and purple petunias, that line the sidewalks and hang from the lamp posts. Vernal has become world famous for its civic pride. Vernal is usually known for its dinosaur fossils and its natural gas production, but a hike through Fantasy Canyon or the Dinosaur National Monument is a must. The local mountain biking trails are gaining in popularity and chances for geo-caching are also available for the adventurous traveler. Here are 5 ways to get the most out of your trip to this scenic section of northeastern Utah.

1. Explore the Museums

One main attraction in town is the Uintah Heritage Museum. An art gallery showcases local art and photography. After entering the Museum with free admissions, a large room is filled with artifacts and exhibits demonstrating the life and times of the pioneers, Native Americans, miners, and others who shaped the legacy of the of the area surrounding Vernal and Uintah County. Also in town is the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which also houses a visitor’s center for guests wanting to learn more about activities in the area. The museum is filled with information about the earth’s geologic history with hands-on exhibits and other experiential activities.

2. Hiking

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A hidden gem and a truly must-see adventure is Fantasy Canyon that lies 20 miles outside of town. There you’ll find Utah’s famous red rock canyons with the layers of rock sediments that tell their own stories. Watch for signs to Fantasy Canyon and drive down a four-mile dirt road to the parking lot and the surprise that will greet you.

Many of the rock formations have taken on somewhat recognizable characteristics. A map shows how to find them through the trail system. Metal posts in the soil mark the rock formations and help visitors locate landmarks like Flying Witch, Yawning Lady, Diving Otter, and Screaming Man. The formations are massive, towering nearly ten feet high with unbelievable curves, spires, nooks and crannies all created by nature.

Another relatively easy hike and a stunning representation of Utah’s iconic sandstone formations is Moonshine Arch. It is eight miles outside of town and a mile or so hike from the parking lot to the massive 40 foot tall arch that is 85 feet wide with views of the Steinaker Reservoir in the distance. Nearby caverns provide a shaded setting for a picnic lunch. And even if dinosaurs don’t interest you, the hiking trails at Dinosaur National Monument are worth exploring, as they feature some excellent views of the rugged, desert landscape.

3. Mountain Biking

Mountain bikers will find the trails in Vernal well-maintained, but without the crowds found in Moab and Fruita. Vernal offers more than 100 miles of trails, many of which are maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, including 40 miles of trails at McCoy Flats. Make sure and plan enough time to ride the Red Fleet Complex, the Lapoint Trail System, and if an aspen trail along dry fork creek sounds more your style, try out the Dry Fork Flume Trail. Stop in Altitude Cycle on Main Street for information about mountain biking trails or how to find McCoy Flats, about ten miles west of Vernal.

4. State Parks

Besides Utah’s five national parks, the state also boasts nearly 50 state parks with three of them in Vernal. The first is the Utah Field House Museum mentioned above. The other two, Red Fleetand Steinaker state parks, have a wide variety of options for outdoor fun. At Red Fleet, you can boat or fish on the Red Fleet Reservoir as well as hike among the dinosaur tracks that date back more than 200 million years. Canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards are available for rent, and a campground is available for those who want to spend the night. At Steinaker State Park is also centered around a reservoir, which gets its water via a canal from a diversion dam on Ashley Creek, several miles to the west. The reservoir is the source for irrigation water for the Ashley Valley, but more important for visitors, it offers the opportunity for fishing, wakeboarding, water skiing, canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. You’ll also find a sandy beach and swim dock for those who want to take a dip in warmer weather.

5. Dining and Lodging

The Vernal Brewing Company serves a pub menu and two series of craft beers, including six choices in the Destination Series and three more in the Adventure Series. The Adventure Series cans have a topographical map with the GPS coordinates for the specific adventure on the side of the can. The Vernal Brewing Company is definitely tapping into Vernal’s spirit of adventure. Another locally owned, family-style restaurant is Antica Forma, offering homemade pizza, pasta, and variety of salad choices. With the possibility of an overnight stay, Vernal offers quality accommodations right in town and in walking distance to nearby restaurants and attractions, including SpringHill Suites by Marriott Vernal, the Microtel Inn and Suites, Holiday Inn and Suites, and Comfort Inn and Suites.

Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.

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