Vernal Equinox: A New Season in Vernal, Utah
Discover this growing adventure outpost in this geologically fascinating corner of eastern Utah
Just in case there is still confusion, the oil and coal that power our world are probably not the decayed remnants of dead dinosaurs. They’re much older than that. Dinosaurs and fossil fuels, however, are inextricably part of the Uinta Basin of Eastern Utah. Here in Vernal, both visibly shape the town in lots of ways, from the influx of new development of hotels, stores and restaurants on the tide of the oil boom to the iconic Dinah the Pink Dinosaur that welcomes visitors as they travel through on family vacations.
"I revel in the history of life on earth as I ascend the ramp through geologic time."
Decades ago, University of Utah geology professor William Stokes dubbed Utah “The Bedrock State” for all its raw, unobscured rock. All the best formations for fossil research are on display out here, especially at Dinosaur National Monument, Red Fleet State Park and the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, pictured below.
At the Field House, the sounds of careful excavation drift in from the neighboring room while I master the complex geology in the introductory video. Of course, the excavation is just piped-in audio, but it sets a tone of anticipation.
A projection on the wall reads, "Mammals diversify and flourish." Somewhere in the tens of millions of years before or after the fall of dinosaurs, mammals began to take hold. And somewhere within that gradually expanding order emerged the predecessor to homo sapiens. My attention, though, is held by the Uintathere, a rather lumbering-looking, small-brained, saber-toothed mammal — a massive herbivore with several horns on its head. It dates back 45 million years and I wonder if there's a line to the last of the more familiar megafauna, like the life-size replica of a wooly mammoth gazing in through the window of the museum. Farther along, the massive skeleton of the Uintathere contrasts sharply with a display of skulls of the region's modern mammals, including the tiny specimens of a Uinta ground squirrel and chipmunk.
You could say that I revel in the history of life on earth as I ascend the ramp through geologic time. And I carry that sensation with me on other explorations near Vernal, like the McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, a Utah Historic Site that combines ancient Fremont Culture rock art with a weird and wonderful privately owned “visitor center” up Dry Fork Canyon. It's a short drive from Vernal, but a good one. There are several scenic drives in the area, most notably the Flaming Gorge–Uintas National Scenic Byway, offering many miles of breathtaking views that are excellent both for a day of exploring or for trips that extend for a day or more in the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
The clean, modern building of the Vernal Brewing Company is across the street from the Utah Field House. An indie-hipster blend of music softly fills the dining area. Coconut Records. The Lumineers. The bar dispenses several types of housemade sodas: root beer, raspberry cream, orange cream. The harder stuff comes from the back of house and carries labels like Allosaurus Amber, .50 Caliber IPA and Little Hole Lager, named for the nearby Flaming Gorge-area national scenic trail on the Green River.
The house manager during my visit, Brendyn Houghton, said the brewery opened in 2013 and initially benefited from the oil boom. In recent years, they've focused on building the distribution side of the business and growing the local and tourist traffic the best way: “We make our own sodas, jams, dressings, beer and mixers in-house and have our own garden for a farm-to-table component.”
They also made the pickled hot mix on my excellent Cubano.
One of the other top spots in town, Betty’s Cafe, epitomizes the classic greasy spoon diner. Here, locals fill the cozy restaurant on a Sunday morning. A dozen free day-trip pamphlets line the wall near the front door, serving as an informal visitor center. (The Utah Field House also serves as a formal visitor center, and the helpful staff is very knowledgeable.) Plate-sized pancakes complete with thick slabs of ham pass before me, where I sit at the three-chair counter. Regulars banter with the staff about politics — something a presidential candidate stated has struck a nerve — but they are generally optimistic. Things are changing, but things do change. The town hangs tough.