A First-ever Camping Trip on BLM Lands
Approximately 380 days ago, I happily moved to Utah after growing up in the eastern United States. I migrated from the rolling hills of Dolly Parton’s homeland to the rocky mountains and canyons of Butch Cassidy’s hide-outs. With this move came quite a bit of newness: cultures, landscapes, dinosaurs (dead, of course), salt, snow (growing on me), desert heat (big fan), desert plants, and best of all, the outdoor playground of my dreams.
The opportunities Utah provides you/me/us to be wild, to be engulfed in the limitlessness of wilderness, are unending. Marinate a moment on the beauty of the West, the rarity of Utah.
In trying to fully embrace this outdoor playground, I started researching public lands, the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and furthermore, recreating within them. Here, there are miles and miles, ocean-widths, of federally managed lands for us to respectfully explore. I don’t take for granted what a gift this is. Though for me and my new-to-Utah-ness, it felt like a daunting gift.
Eventually, the time was right. My husband, Andrew and I decided to seize the opportunity of being diligent in our research of recreating on public lands (what, when, where and how), pack up the car and play where the deer and the dinosaurs roam(ed) in Vernal, Utah. Our first-ever camping trip on BLM lands awaits, sprinkled with some recreating, as well as enjoying local businesses in the Vernal-area as much as possible along the way.
After arriving in Vernal from our Salt Lake City trek (a 3 hour drive), first-thing-first, the foods! We could have purchased our groceries in Salt Lake, but recently I’ve learned the value of supporting the communities you visit. We decided to purchase our groceries in town to give some extra love to Vernal. Every little bit helps, especially in 2020.
With groceries in tow, Andrew and I drove down Vernal’s Main Street, soaking up the charm and admiring the town’s ability to preserve it. History. Essence. Structure. All of it. Just as our hungriness evolved into hangriness, we sat down for lunch at the Dinosaur Brew Haus. This place, perfect for a vibing Friday night hangout, means business about its burgers. The juicy burgers made me a jolly Sara.
More than satisfied, and more than ready to figure out this public land phenomenon, we rushed to pick up bike rentals from a local shop, Grail Cycle and Skate. This was one of those moments where you plan to just walk in, swipe a card and walk out with your rental in hand, but we found a little more. One of the owners, Josh, gave us fruitful conversation, tips for the trail, some common ground and a tune up for our bike. We left pumped for our late afternoon ride, as well as excited to brand our water bottles with our free stickers Josh gifted us to represent the shop.
We made one final, important stop to the BLM’s Vernal Field Office (VFO) before heading to our campsite, which was conveniently closeby. In the few months prior to our trip, I spoke over the phone with Amber Koski, assistant field office manager, a few times about being newbies in recreating on public lands, asked for tips and recommendations on where to camp and so on. Her suggestions were gems. You can read many of her suggestions, as well as additional tips, in How-to Camp on BLM Land.
At VFO, post-introduction, the team was excited for our trip and happy we decided to stop by for more information. Rene Arce, chief of recreation and heritage resources, overflowed with helpful advice, such as fire restrictions, BLM land management terminology and explanations, georeferenced mapping applications (such as Avenza) that scans QR codes printed on many of the office’s maps and opens a map that can be used offline, a reinforcement of the great need for water in the desert and some of his favorite local restaurants to try along our way. He also shook up our “day two” itinerary in the best of ways; we would now be camping in a different location for our second night.
Onward. To the campsite! At this point, I am exploding with curiosity. I’ve looked at this location a thousand times on Google Earth, done my exhaustive amount of research and here we are. Doing it.
We arrived at McCoy Flats Trailhead, a trail system created and managed by BLM. Our plan was to camp just off the road (yes, the road!) near the trailhead and bike one or two of the trails. As we drove a little past the trailhead in search of a pre-existing fire ring and previously camped location (matted grasses and well-trafficked dirt from former travelers is usually obvious), we found the spot. If possible, we wanted to limit our impact on our surroundings and camp where someone else had too. Success. In addition to the solitude, the being-in-the-middle-of-nowhere thing and the surrounding rolling hills and mesas, one of the best parts was the free part. Twenty-ish minutes later, our tent was up and we were on our bikes ready to recreate.
The McCoy Flats Trailhead offers 35 miles of interconnecting loops for riders of all skill levels. We’re unashamedly beginners, rode the “easy” trails and loved it. We completed the linked trails, Combo (two miles) and Milk and Cookies Loop (5.8 miles). After the ride, the sun was no longer welcome by our famished selves, but there’s a sheltered, shaded area with picnic tables at the trailhead that beckoned a post-ride sit and follow-up. As soon as our stomachs quietly thundered for some local eats, we agreed we were happy to oblige.
Our dinner was served in town at Plaza Mexicana. At least 98% of the people we chatted with earlier in the day recommended this place for eats. We would’ve been crazy not to try it. Do we regret it? Nope. The colorful and uniquely decorated plaza won our hearts with massive servings and got a silent, “We’ll be back” from our satisfied selves as we walked out the door.
After a short drive back to our place of peace, our campsite, we made a small campfire for s’mores and warmth, cozied up, and read our books, while savoring the tail-end of golden hour. Oh, did I mention there wasn’t another person in sight? Yeah, I’m more-than-liking this kind of camping. The sun sets, and next, Zzzzz.
With a sunrise wake up call, we packed up camp and mozied back into town for some more recommended local eats at Betty’s Cafe. My husband and I are small-town, born and raised kind of people and so Betty’s was the perfect start to our morning. One “Howdy there!,” exchange of small talk, a cowboy hat, a few regular customers with no need to remind the server of their order, plus fresh, strong coffee, plate-sized pancakes, bacon, eggs, biscuits and jam are just a few highlights from our meal. The only thing I didn’t like about Betty’s is I don’t get to eat there every Saturday morning, practically speaking.
Our scenic drive out of town headed toward Red Fleet State Park was slow, but the good kind of slow. As I read various signs along the road explaining what prehistoric creatures walked, stomped or swam across this landscape, I thought “OK. You got me, Vernal. This is a special place.” At Red Fleet, a less-populated, just as beautiful and smaller version of Lake Powell, we rented a kayak for two right on-site and set off in the reservoir.
About an hour passed on the water and our arms were ready for a rest; we pulled our kayak onto the bank of a large, red rock, known as the reservoir’s Dinosaur Trackway. If you don’t have access to a kayak (or a boat of some kind), you can also reach this location via hike. (Read: "Following the Dinosaur Tracks of Red Fleet State Park"). On the rock, there was a sign educating us of the legitimate dinosaur fossils all around us. Oh my gosh-aurus?! Andrew was oddly calm about the tracks; that’s his nature about most things, but I think it’s safe to say, I fangirled over some fossil feet. As I placed my hand atop where a dinosaur once stood, breathed and ruled, I paused. This moment, forever unforgotten.
Following our discovery, I had many questions about the tracks, dinosaur’s existence and extinction, theories and so on to ask Andrew back in the kayak. As a history buff, teacher and great explainer of all things, he overflowed with knowledge. The conversations continued to the car and down the road headed to McConkie Ranch.
Our curiosity of the past didn’t end with the dinosaurs, but continued on with peering into the painted stories of the native peoples of Utah. The McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs (also known as Dry Fork Canyon Petroglyphs), were an easter egg on our trip. These petroglyphs are located on private land, but are open to the public. The accessible and well preserved panels cover 200 feet of cliff face and my husband and I delighted in the mystery of their interpretation. This was my first time seeing ancient panels. Another moment, forever unforgotten.
Camping on BLM land, take-two, awaits in Jensen. To get there, we headed twenty minutes east of Vernal, on US-40, crossed the bridge (covering the Green River), and took the first left onto Escalante Ranch Road. This road led into acres of isolated BLM land. Andrew and I drove about 3 miles in before we found our spot overlooking the Green River corridor and looking up into Split Mountain and beyond. (Watch: "Guided Rafting Through the Gates of Lodore"). Beauty, incomparable. We saw one guy nearby and respectfully set up camp two-ish miles away. We figured that was far enough (ha). The joy of open space was on display — the complete solitude of public lands.
After a day full of new perspectives and learnings, I had one timeless lesson to reflect on: When camping, make sure your fire is completely extinguished. As we prepared for bed, we poured water over the logs and kicked dirt over the embers. Shortly after, we noticed the wind caused the fire to re-light. When camping, make sure you stay aware, practice Forever Mighty principles and take fire safety seriously as part of doing your part to protect these beautiful places and keep all inhabitants and visitors safe.
For our final hurrah, we visited Fantasy Canyon. Managed by BLM, this unique and incredibly isolated 10 acre long canyon consists of fantastical, delicate erosional features. The land managers encourage travelers to interact with the canyon’s composition (sandstone, siltstone and shale) as though walking through nature’s china shop, so, very carefully. As we studied the unique aspects of the canyon, we let our minds imagine what shapes and scenes played out before us, from a witch’s head with her warty long nose, to a dog with its tongue out, panting for water. Our actions resembled a childhood game of looking for shapes in the clouds. It never feels wrong to feel like a kid again.
Eventually the desert heat took its toll on us, so we gently said goodbye to the canyon of fantasies and decided to take the long way back to Salt Lake and cut through Ouray National Wildlife Refuge. If you look at a map, you’ll realize this trajectory of ours wasn’t the most efficient in regards of time, but we were in no hurry, and seeing any landscape twice was no mistake.
As we passed back through Vernal, we grabbed lunch at Vernal Brewing Company. This craft beer brewery and gastropub, serves up comfort food and local favorites. As I engulfed my quite-comforting burger at our outdoor garden-side table, I learned that the healthy greens growing next to me were the brewery’s own organic garden, where it grows vegetables for its kitchen and hops for the brewery. If you’re a fun-fact kind of person, all of the brewery’s spent grain, the barley left over after brewing, is used to feed local livestock. Neat place, eh?
After lunch and our long and scenic detour, we turned into the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, which lies along the Green River in the Uinta Basin. The refuge was established as a sanctuary for migratory birds, but now displays a beautiful variety of habitats and wildlife thriving under its management. As we drove the road-side tour, I decided that if I was a bird, I’d migrate here.
At no surprise, the drive back to Salt Lake was filled with ponder. Andrew and I tried something new — something daunting –– and gained the confidence we needed to try it again. There is no shame in beginning. And today, and everyday, I urge thee to recreate and celebrate the art of doing something new.
Try camping on BLM lands, check!
Note: Because of the timing of this trip (July 2020) we decided to eat at more local restaurants than usual on a camping trip to support the Vernal community. As part of our world’s COVID-19 story, we’ve learned to come together, give when able and to lean into the motto, “A little goes a long way.”
Come as you are. Leave it as it is.
Plan to explore Utah responsibly