You’ve likely heard that old refrain “go west” on occasion. Many a searcher, explorer, and adventurer in this great state has hitched the family wagon to that star. But it’s horse pucky. Do the total opposite. Grab your gang, grab your gear, shove them/it in the car … and head east. You’re about to embark on a journey from Heber Valley to Flaming Gorge, feasting on a smorgasbord of fantabulous pit stops along the way.
As you caravan with your crew from the valley of Heber to the gorge of flames, you’ll experience a road trip worth its weight in goldfish snacks. Memories will be made. Bonds will be strengthened. Gas station restrooms will be visited. Enlightenment will be achieved.
Think Griswald family vacation with less idiocy. Or Thelma and Louise with fewer people driving off cliffs. You know, all that hair-in-the-wind action and sunkissed-smile serenity you expect when you head out on a highway. Buckle up, buttercup — and don’t leave Aunt Edna on the roof.
Heber Valley has the potential to leave you lost. Not due to difficulty of direction, mind you, but because there’s just so damn much to do. Here are a few highlights that’ll help you get out there, do great things, and forge ahead to your next destination.
Make your first stop Homestead Crater — a geothermal spring tucked within a 55-foot-tall limestone formation shaped like a monolithic beehive. Here you can swim, snorkel, paddleboard, scuba dive, or Marco Polo in toasty, mineral-soaked water that seeps up from deep below the Earth’s surface.
Fun Fact: Homestead Crater is a consistent 90–96 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. It’s the only naturally warm scuba destination in the continental states. The crater has been in the works for over 10,000 years, which means you’ll be sitting in a real-life hot tub time machine.
While you’re in the area, take a drive through Midway, which edged out Moab to win “Best Small City” in Utah in a 2017 KSL.com poll. The city’s Swiss Days event draws thousands of folks every fall, but you can explore the area unencumbered if you’re there during any other week of the year. Plenty of tasty eating options abound if you’re feeling peckish.
Fancy a ride in an old-fashioned locomotive? Jump aboard the historic Heber Valley Railroad and see what road trips were like before newfangled automobiles came along in the 1900s. You can toot-toot your way along the track in a variety of excursions that last from 90 minutes to half a day.
If you’re ready to tie one on (a fishing fly, mind you), pull off River Road north of Heber for fast access to the “middle” stretch of the Provo River. Here the Provo is in its prime — bubbling, and babbling and brimming with virility. It’s the perfect place to stretch your legs and wander a while in your waders. Brown and rainbow trout occupy these waters to the tune of 3,000 to 4,000 per mile, so if you leave empty-handed, you’re basically terrible at fishing.
Would you rather drop your line from atop the water as opposed to in it? Hit the road and head to Strawberry Reservoir. Though it’s open to all types of boating recreation, Strawberry’s cool temps tend to favor fishers. The reservoir has a long-standing reputation as Utah’s premier fishery. This is where a couple of lucky ducks set the state records for largest trout and kokanee salmon catches.
The Strawberry Visitors Center sits off Highway 40 as you approach the reservoir, so stop by and ask where the action is when you get there. Visitor center employees won’t bite, but they can tell you where the fish will. If you prefer your water a bit warmer, skip Strawberry and keep moving east on the 40. In less than an hour, you’ll arrive at Starvation Reservoir. Sure, it sounds desolate, but its name has no bearing on its breadth of activities. Sandy beaches abound here and the state campgrounds offer both rustic and amenity-rich options (hot showers, praise [your deity of choice]).
Afternoons at Starvation can be windy, so ski the glassy water in the morning and throw the kids out on the tubes later in the day. Take your play to the next level by renting a set of inflatables or a trampoline to toss in the water. Club Rec offers rentals and concessions on-site during the summer season and will hook you up with all the goodies.
Now that you’ve enjoyed the good kind of Starvation, it’s time to tarry where dinosaurs once experienced the bad kind. Before you get up close with dem dino bones, you’ll want to rest a bit to recharge your batteries. Enter Vernal.
Known appropriately as Dinosaurland, Vernal is your last stop before you make your way into Dinosaur National Monument. It’s also the gateway to hundreds of miles of area trailways. If you’re so inclined, you can hike, mountain bike, rock climb, and ATV your way through the region. And if you’re worried about crowds? You won’t find them ‘round these parts.
Sick of recreating and want to get on with the dinosaurs? Travel a dozen-or-so miles east of Vernal and you’ll arrive at the Dinosaur National Monument Visitor Center. Rangers here will give you a lay of the land and point you in the direction of the main attraction — the Quarry Exhibit Hall.
Housing an incredible naturally formed wall containing 1,500 dinosaur bones, the Quarry Exhibit Hall is a must-see for anyone with a pulse. Viewing the bones of these massive creatures feels like visiting a giant monster graveyard. But these monsters were real — once living and breathing as you are now (yup, monsters really do hide under the bed ... rock).
While it’s difficult to compete with the main dino attraction, there are other things to see and do in the area. You can view petroglyphs and pictographs created by the Fremont people hundreds of years ago. Or visit the historic Josie Morris ranch where it’s rumored outlaws such as Butch Cassidy dined on occasion. And the camping, of course, is rock solid along the banks of the Green River.
FLEETS ‘N FLAMES
Though you could spend a fortnight admiring Dinosaur National Monument, it’s time to keep this party moving. Fifteen miles from Vernal amid the sandstone and desert landscape, you’ll find the Lake Powell of the north — Red Fleet State Park.
Red Fleet, which derives its name from three Navajo sandstone outcrops that resemble a fleet of ships, offers a plethora of ways to keep you occupied. Hop on a paddleboard, drop a fishing line or cruise around on the watercraft of your choice (rentals available on-site May to September). You can stay in one of the 29 RV campsites if mobile life is your thing, or even rent a large teepee for your squad to camp in. Your social media feed overfloweth.
Take your travels a bit farther north (40 miles from Vernal) for your final destination — Flaming Gorge. Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the state, Flaming Gorge (and its Green River lifeline) divulge a not-so-well-kept secret: No matter where you travel in Utah, you’re bound to find someplace spectacular.
John Wesley Powell (whose namesake adorns the body of water at the opposite end of the state) aptly christened Flaming Gorge after its red sandstone cliffs. They’re a wonder to behold.
Before you take in the view from water level, you owe it to yourself to see what it looks like from 1,400 feet up.
Perched atop the cliffs that drop down into the gorge, the Red Canyon Visitor Center provides a view of the landscape that reminds you how small you are. Take a walk along the Red Canyon Rim Trail from the visitor center for open-air views and further proof of your relative size in the universe.
Down below, you can partake in all the classic boating action. Fishing for trout and kokanee is a favorite along the 91 miles of lake water, and you’ll see incredible views around every corner.
Play it cool if you see bald eagles, bobcats, or black bears — they’re all local residents.
Make your way to the other side of the dam to see where all the cool kids hang out. You’ll find them in inflatable kayaks and rafts paddling their way to a hell of a good time. The river may be Green, but when it comes to watery pleasure, it’s experienced.
If you’re new to rafting, this stretch is the perfect place to get acquainted. The level 2 rapids are tame enough that they won’t have you holding on for dear life but exciting enough to boast names like Roller Coaster and Mother-in-Law (not as scary as it sounds).
Calmer sections along the way provide time enough to take a quick dip, watch for wildlife or revel at the magnificence of the towering canyon walls. If you’re a first-timer, or unfamiliar with the area, consider hiring a tour guide to lead you along a single- or multi-day trip.
No desire to float on a raft? Fly fishing along the cool waters of the Green can be similarly serene. This blue-ribbon trout fishery is full of browns, cutthroats, rainbows, and the like. The average catch here is 15 inches. That’s no fish story. You’ll find access in three spots: just below the dam, Little Hole, and Browns Park.
WILD, WILD EAST
Who knew this oft-overlooked, eastern section of the state could be so full of action and adventure? You did. Because you read this article. Now hit the road and experience it for yourself. You won’t regret it. And if you do, you did it wrong. Sorry, that’s on you.
Listen, you’ve gone west before. No doubt it was a pleasant experience. But sometimes you gotta fuel that rebellious streak you had back in high school, put your back to the sun, and go where Momma said not to.
Eastward ho, friends.