Mountains, forests, canyonlands, and high desert—a variety only the West can supply—are all parts of this tour. Yet there’s a bonus too: an opportunity to glimpse relics of the distant past. Dinosaur fossils, footprints left by ancient reptiles, and billion-year-old rocks are among the reminders of a time long, long ago.
Barely 8,800 people live in Vernal, but in this corner of Utah, that makes for a metropolis. At first the town was little more than a homestead or two, but today it has become a commercial center and the gateway to outlying countryside.
Travelers to Vernal can visit the age of dinosaurs, both at the Utah Field House of Natural History and at nearby Dinosaur National Monument. The Field House delights with its full-scale replicas of ancient animals in action poses in re-created environments. At the national monument, a vast tract of more than 200,000 acres spreading across the Utah-Colorado border, many fossils of prehistoric animals are embedded in sandstone cliffs. Painstakingly unearthed by scientists, the fossil bones are the remains of giants that roamed the earth about 145 million years ago.
2. Ashley National Forest
Designed to disrupt the landscape as little as possible, Rte. 191 rises and falls with the terrain on its climb into and through Ashley National Forest. Pines and aspens grow along the highway, but frequent breaks in the woodland afford views of far-off meadows. The grassy realms extend toward the Uinta Mountains, a series of rounded peaks that define the northern horizon.
What distinguishes this drive from other mountain routes, though, are the numerous roadside kiosks and interpretive signs that dot the byway all the way from Vernal to Manila. Visitors can learn about the area’s past and present as they pass near petrified forests, primeval rocks, and ancient fossils. Habitats of some of the area’s modern-day denizens—beavers, otters, elk, and songbirds —are also explained.
3. Flaming Gorge Dam
It took six years of hard work and nearly a million cubic yards of concrete to trap the combined flow of the Green River and the many smaller waterways that pour into Flaming Gorge. The dam, completed in 1964, rises to a height of 502 feet and contains the waters of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, an emerald expanse between colorful cliffs of quartzite (sandstone that has turned into solid quartz). To view the dam and the dramatic southern end of the gorge, continue on Rte. 191 for seven miles past its junction with Rte. 44.
4. Red Canyon
Backtrack to Rte. 44 and join the traffic heading northwest to Manila. Traveling through stands of ponderosa pines and aspens, you’ll soon come to a well-marked forest road that leads north to Red Canyon Overlook. The area has a visitor center and several hiking trails and overlooks. One, perched on the edge of the canyon’s rim, offers a bird’s-eye view of the reservoir, shimmering far below, and the imposing cliffs that shoot up along the opposite shore.