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. Though the oil fields are down right now, dinosaurs are always up.

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.

Field House manager, Steve Sroka, showing off a dinosaur fossil
Field House manager, Steve Sroka, showing off a dinosaur fossil

At the Field House, the sounds of careful excavation drift in from the neighboring room while I master the the complex geology in the introductory video. Of course, the excavation is just piped-in audio, but it sets a tone of anticipation. I revel in the history of life on earth as I ascend the ramp through geologic time. 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.

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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.

Brendyn Houghton is the house manager. He says the brewery, which opened in 2013 and initially benefited from the oil boom, is currently building the distribution side of the business and growing the local and tourist business 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 — add this great establishment to your list.

Vernal Brewing Company's Cubano sandwich
Vernal Brewing Company's Cubano sandwich

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.

Looking for more things to do in Vernal, Utah and points beyond? Use our trip planner to learn about the area, from campground rates to recommended itineraries and travel tips.

Andrew Dash Gillman

Andrew writes and curates content for the Utah Office of Tourism. He has also written for the Utah Explorer's Guide, Edible Wasatch, Business in Utah, Utah CEO, FilmUtah and RandomHistory.com. When he isn't writing travel articles or wrangling designers he enjoys hiking, road cycling and camping in Utah, creative fiction, cooking, painting, gardening and reading.

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Base Camp Vernal

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument

Northeastern Utah’s dinosaur legacy comes to life at Dinosaur National Monument, where geological and climatic forces have tilted, warped, and eroded the earth’s crust to reveal a treasure trove of fossils. Take your pick of touring the dinosaur quarry, going on driving tours around the park, hiking the nature trails, backpacking, white-water river running, photography, bird-watching, fishing, general sightseeing and biking.

Red Fleet State Park

Red Fleet State Park

McCoy Flats

McCoy Flats