By: Susan Munroe
Welcome to dinosaur country! Vernal, Utah, is the service town for Dinosaur National Monument and the jumping-off place for countless adventures into northeastern Utah’s most dramatic scenery. Lodore and Yampa river trips are a definite highlight, but if you have a couple of days before or after your river trip, you’ll find plenty of other attractions and activities to stir your senses. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best options for exploration and discovery in and around Vernal. Choose from easy afternoon excursions in town, or drive (or hike, or bike) further afield. There are museums, mountain biking trail networks, scenic drives, archaeological sites, state parks, lakes, fly fishing streams, and more!
Right in town:
A good first stop to get a sense of Vernal’s rich paleontological history is the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. Dinosaur skeletons and other fossils are presented in informative exhibits, along with hands-on stations where visitors can dig for and prepare fossils. The Field House also doubles as the Vernal, Utah, visitor center, where you can get additional info on local attractions, events, lodging, and food.
Just a few blocks to the west along the main street is the free Uintah County Heritage Museum, whose mission is to preserve and promote the heritage of the Uinta Basin Region. The museum has several permanent exhibits showcasing the people and history of the Uinta Basin, as well as art exhibits that change periodically throughout the year.
The Dinaland Golf Course has 18 holes and great views of Split Mountain (where your river trip will end).
For some indoor recreation, check out Dinoland Bowl. Revived in 2021, the bowling alley also has an arcade, pool tables, and a diner serving up burgers, pizza, shakes, and snacks.
On the outskirts:
Steinaker Reservoir and State Park are 7 miles north of Vernal, Utah, on Highway 191. This International Dark Sky Park offers opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing, an archery range, hiking, and off-highway vehicle (OHV) riding. There’s also a campground with full hookups.
Another mile or so north is the turn-off for the Moonshine Arch Trail. Stretch your legs (and let the kids work off their road-trip wiggles) on this easy 1.5-mile one-way hike. Nestled into an expanse of white slick rock, the arch is 40 feet high and 85 feet long, and the surrounding sandstone makes a great playground for scrambling and exploring. Be careful to always walk on trails or roads or rock surfaces to avoid crushing the fragile biological soil crusts.
Red Fleet Reservoir (also north of town on Highway 191) is a spectacular blue gem in the middle of dark red and gold sandstone. This state park also offers camping, fishing, boating, and swimming opportunities. You can also hike to a dinosaur track site (best viewed in the early morning or late afternoon) or ride some or all of the Red Fleet Loop mountain biking single-track trail network.
McCoy Flats, 9 miles south of town on Highway 191, is another great mountain biking trail network. Larger than the Red Fleet trail network (35 miles of trails vs. 7 miles), McCoy Flats also offers a greater variety of trails for bikers of all ability levels.
10 miles north and west of Vernal are the McConkie Ranch (or Dry Fork Canyon) petroglyphs. Carved or “pecked” into the canyon walls are images left by the Fremont cultural group nearly 1,000 years ago. The rock art is on private property, but the ranch owners have created a parking area and set up a shade structure with cold drinks for sale. Please be respectful of the landowners and the rock art; stay on the trails and do not touch the petroglyphs. Oils on our hands cause these sacred images to degrade more quickly.
Within a 1-hour drive of Vernal, Utah:
The Dinosaur National Monument Dinosaur Quarry is the one absolute, must-see attraction near Vernal, Utah. And, great news: when you paid for your Holiday river trip, you also paid the park admission fee! The quarry visitor center (a 40-minute drive northeast of Vernal) features a literal wall of dinosaur fossils, carefully preserved in their rocky resting places. There are excellent interpretive signs to explain what you’re seeing, and park rangers circulate to answer questions as well. Outside the quarry, there are a number of hiking options, including the Sounds of Silence and the Fossil Discovery Trails. These trails are quite exposed and can be very hot in the middle of summer. Carry plenty of water and time your visit for the cooler morning and afternoon hours. Swing by the Holiday River Expeditions warehouse in Vernal to pick up a voucher for the park’s admission fee.
Across the Green River, beyond the quarry visitor center, follow Cub Creek to the east to Josie Morris’ cabin. Born Josie Bassett, Josie is a legendary figure in the history of the upper Green River. Her cabin is situated in a shady cottonwood grove along the creek and is a great place for a picnic. Along the Cub Creek Road, you’ll also pass a remarkable Fremont rock art site featuring several larger-than-life lizards (or maybe they are dinosaurs?).
McKee Springs, along the Rainbow Park Road 20 miles northeast of Vernal, is another spectacular rock art site, featuring the “Shaman and the Sun” panel. Continue on the same road toward the river and get a sneak preview of the terrain through which you’ll soon be floating. The views from the Rainbow Park boat ramp and the Island Park overlook are breathtaking.
Looking for a break from the desert heat? Drive north on Highway 191 up into the Ashley National Forest and enjoy aspen-ringed meadows and lush pine forests. String up a hammock at one of many dispersed camping sites, watch the sunset over the desert landscape far below, or drive all the way to the Flaming Gorge Dam and visitor center. The highway goes right across the crest of the dam, and the views into the canyon downstream are incredible. The Little Hole National Scenic Trail follows the Green River below the dam for 14 miles and allows river access for fishing or swimming.
Within a 2-hour drive of Vernal, Utah:
The Uinta Mountains and the area around Flaming Gorge could easily fill a week of exploring, but one good way to get a taste of the region’s unique character is to take a drive through the Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Area. The 13-mile drive travels through over 800 million years of colorful, mind-boggling geological history.
One of the best day trips out of Vernal is a drive to the Harper’s Corner overlook. This 65-mile one-way drive takes you into Colorado and past Dinosaur’s Canyon Visitor Center (also worth a stop for their excellent book selection and 3-D relief map of the monument). The road to Harper’s Corner winds through sagebrush highlands (watch for elk and deer) and out to what feels like the end of the world. It’s a 1.5-mile one-way hike to the overlook itself. From here, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the colorful heart of Dinosaur National Monument: the Green and Yampa Rivers as they twist and wind through the uplifted rocks of Echo Park, Yampa Canyon, the Mitten Park Fault, and Whirlpool Canyon.
Vernal, Utah, doesn’t get as much publicity as the flashy red rocks of the state’s southern reaches, but northeastern Utah has a wealth of diverse landscapes and recreational opportunities to explore. The attractions listed above are just a selection of all there is to discover. Pick one or two places to bookend your river trip, and keep the rest tucked into your back pocket for the next time!
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than ten years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com