Find geological riches, abundant wildlife, and exceptional eats along this National Scenic Byway in the state’s northeast corner.
Spotting a soaring pterodactyl wouldn’t feel surprising as you drive the Flaming Gorge–Uintas National Scenic Byway (US-191 and SR-44), which is punctuated by signs noting the billion years of geologic history embedded in the layers of surrounding rock: home to fossilized squid, graveyard of the dinosaurs, petrified forests, and sand dunes. But it’s today’s abundant wildlife here, around Flaming Gorge Reservoir and in the raw red cliffs cutting into the water’s depths, that will keep your camera clicking. Commit to every scenic overlook: You will be standing in the same spots from which mountain men, outlaws, and American Indians scouted the landscape. byways.org/explore/byways/2008/ .
Area code is 435 except as noted.
- Utah Field House of Natural History This ideal starting point provides an overview of the region’s geologic and paleontological riches, and it’s also a dino fan’s dream: The area has provided the most diverse collection of dinosaur remnants in the world. Check out the 17 life-size creatures in the Dinosaur Garden and decipher Fremont Indian rock art in the anthropology hall. 496 E. Main St., Vernal, 789-3799, stateparks.utah.gov/parks/field-house .
- Quarry Steakhouse and Brew Pub Before leaving town, grab some grub at this popular restaurant with a real hometown feel. Try the pepper steak salad or fish and chips, plus a cold microbrew on tap. Wi-fi available. 29 S. Vernal Ave., Vernal, 789-2337.
- Aspen Nature Trail Right at the county line summit (more than 8,000 feet), stretch your legs on this 30-minute walk guided by interpretive signage. Starting about 24 miles north of Vernal off US-191, it will lead you through aspen groves, amid wildflower meadows, and perhaps even past beaver ponds. For a refreshing detour, grab your fishing pole and try your luck at the well-stocked trout pond at Moose Pond Trailhead, about eight miles north of the junction of US-191 and SR-44 on SR-44. 789-1181.
- Cedar Springs Marina Back at the junction of US-191 and SR-44, take US-191 toward Dutch John, then veer left toward this marina tucked into a cove. It’s a great place to listen to the anglers tell tales as they compare their catches to the life-size illustration of a world-record brown trout—33 pounds, 10 ounces—reeled in here in 1977. Known for premier fishing, the reservoir’s cold, clear waters are ideal for cutthroat, rainbow, lake, and brown trout as well as kokanee salmon. 889-3795, cedarspringsmarina.com .
- Flaming Gorge Dam Visitor Center Take a short tour and try to fathom the more than 1 million cubic yards of rock and sand brawn that separate this 91-mile-long reservoir from the historic Green River. In 1869 Major John Wesley Powell and his posse of wooden boats survived the Class III and IV rapids that spill out into Flaming Gorge, aptly named by Powell for its rouged, fortresslike cliffs. Just beyond the dam, turn down the Spillway Trail to access the Green River, where you can check out the river’s beach, raft or hike to the Little Hole Trailhead, and get a panoramic riverside view of the 455-foot-high dam. 885-3135, www.fs.fed.us/r4/ashley/recreation/flaming_gorge/index.shtml .
- Red Canyon Visitor Center Return to SR-44 and turn right into the Red Canyon area just past mile marker 3. Watch out for signs of vertigo as you gaze through the glass wall of this small museum. Outside, the Canyon Rim Trail begins with numerous overlooks from which to view the shimmering canyon 1,700 feet below and the north rim 4,000 feet across the chasm. Marked by blue diamonds, the trail follows the southern rim for a mile. Don’t mind the bighorn sheep mocking your trepidation by leaping among the rocks on the dizzying cliffside. 889-3713.
- Red Canyon Lodge With campers just down the road, this restaurant’s classic American and fine-dining menu makes you feel you’re playing hooky from the Coleman stove. Sit outside by the lake with the hummingbirds and start off with a smoked trout bruschetta, then move on to one of the signature wild game dishes such as elk tenderloin. “This place took the city boy right out of me,” admits chef Kris Brubaker, who used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. 2450 W. Red Canyon Lodge, Dutch John, 889-3759, redcanyonlodge.com/dining.html .
- Sheep Creek Geological Loop and Interpretive Trail Veer left off SR 44 toward Manila and take this 12.5-mile, narrow but paved loop that slips through yet more chapters of geology along the Uinta Fault, full of rock spires and red rock fins. Near the exit of the loop, a short 3/4-mile walking trail with interpretive signage meanders along Sheep Creek, which swarms with crimson Kokanee salmon each fall. www.fs.fed.us/r4/ashley/recreation/scenicbyway.shtml .
Photography by Tom Till, courtesy Utah Office of Tourism
This article was first published in June 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.