Dead dinos, oil derricks, dammed rivers and fantastic canyons. Vernal isn’t even trying not to be weird. A dressed-to-impress T. rex welcomes you on the west side of town and big pink Dinah makes eyes at travelers from the east. The Jurassic Park of Utah is filled to the brim with old dino bones and has a museum to prove it, but it’s more than just a fossil town. Vernal also has rural charm and a wild west history — in fact, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used to hang out around these parts. If you’re not spending a quiet evening on flower-lined Main Street, you can take a quick trip to another world at one of these weirdly wonderful locations in the neighborhood.
Local tip: Visit the haunted Vernal Hotel (say hi to Butch and Sunny D!), and plan one more day than you think you’ll need. There’s more to do in Vernal than most people think.
You could take a trip to the Grand Canyon, do mushrooms and watch Honey I Shrunk the Kids, or you could just drive an hour south of Vernal for the same effect. Fantasy Canyon is a tiny little gap filled with snaky sandstone shapes and snaky actual snakes, hiding between oil fields and industrial sites. (Pro tip: If you’re driving there and you feel like you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be, you’re on the right track.) The gothic rock nodules are so delicate it’s hard to believe they’ve survived this long, undisturbed by Boy Scouts and their leaders. In another thousand years this place will be overrun by robot realtors, so get surreal while the getting is good.
North of Vernal on the Wyoming border is a dammed fine combination of red rock and Green River. Flaming Gorge looks like you copied Lake Powell and pasted it into the Uintas — 200,000 acres of stained-glass water and rusty sandstone in the middle of the ponderosa pines of Ashley National Forest. There are great boating and fishing on the reservoir, sure, but don’t get caught with your bike shorts down. There are some fun semi-secret hiking/biking trails if you want to spend some time on land. Head below the dam for fun rafting and blue-ribbon fly fishing as well. Ride the whitewater rapids and/or catch browns, rainbows, and cutthroats, although there is heavy competition from ospreys, herons, and otters. Keep an eye out for the rare native species Geriatric localgrumpus, easily identified by his furrowed brow and mournful call for the good old days. (If encountered, avoid eye contact, distract with Werther’s Originals and move to higher ground.)
It wouldn’t be a trip to Vernal without some serious face time with the earth’s favorite monsters. The Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Exhibit Hall isn’t one of those virtual, citified, every-kid-gets-an-iPad museums. It’s hands-on, immediate, so place-specific you actually walk next to 1,500 bones embedded in a wall where the poor walnut-brained bastards got murdered by a mudslide. Your children can fulfill their childish desire to touch everything, and so can you. Come face-to-face with reconstructed dinos, marvel at all the earth has given and taken away, then head outside for an interpretive walk past more fossils, Native American rock art, and some Reagan-era staff housing. The Quarry Exhibit Hall is just the western tip of the 200,000-acre monument, so you can make like John Wesley Powell and keep on exploring the Green River, Yampa River, and beyond. (Fun fact: Major Powell invented whitewater rafting right here on the Green in 1869. Watch for some fun commemorations and celebrations in Vernal for the 150th anniversary.)
Another red rock reservoir, more stillwater, more dinosaur artifacts. Luckily those aren’t the kind of things that get boring. Start the day off hunting for dino tracks, best seen in the light of early morning or late afternoon. Once you’ve walked a mile in Fred Flintstone’s shoes you’ll be ready to soak your barking Dinos (Get it? That’s the Flintstones’ dog’s name!) in Red Fleet’s cool water. There are some nice no-wake zones, which make it perfect for paddle sports and giant cartoonish floatation devices. Finish the day (or start a new one) with some of Red Fleet’s little-known climbing and rappelling routes. Not a bad spot to spend the night, naturally, so grab a tent or a pterodactyl wing and set up camp.
Spring Hill Suites by Marriott — Big, modern rooms and dozens of options at breakfast.
Microtel Inn & Suites — A nice spot with a pool and hot tub, just a drive or two away from the golf course.
Days Inn — Clean and casual rooms for a comfortable price.
Betty’s — This is where you’ll find the locals. Don’t miss the breakfast.
Vernal Brewing Company — For a burger and an Allosaurus Amber Ale.
Quarry Steakhouse — They’ve got the Green River right there in the tile.