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.
5. Dowd Mountain Overlook
It was explorer-geologist John Wesley Powell, one of the first white men to set eyes on this area, who in the 1870s named this river-carved chasm Flaming Gorge. His thrill of discovery can be relived by sightseers today at the Dowd Mountain Overlook, reached via an unpaved access road (closed in winter). The view takes in a lengthy stretch of the reservoir and the reddish walls of the gorge.
Paths wind through the nearby woods, where you may spot deer, elk, or sage grouse. One trail, though fairly difficult, threads its way to Hideout Canyon, a hill-hidden nook that was so named because Butch Cassidy and other outlaws sought refuge there from pursuing posses.
6. Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Loop
Millions of years ago the earth’s crust shifted here along a giant fault, forming mountains 10,000 feet high and plunging ravines. Most of these highlands have been worn away since that time by the forces of erosion, the towering slopes today are teeming with fossils. Among the ancient creatures frozen in the stones are a variety of now-extinct marine animals. The fossil finds also include other creatures, such as sea urchins, that have remained virtually unchanged through the centuries, as well as the huge footprints of prehistoric reptiles.
The drive follows the same path as Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Loop, some 13 miles in length, which curves through the area. The road has been staked with markers that point out many interesting geological points worth viewing. Be on the lookout for wildlife as well, including—as the creek’s name would suggest—bighorn sheep. Residents of the region, they can often be seen grazing in the large tracts of grass, seemingly unbothered by the automobiles that pass through their territory; look closely. they blend into the surroundings.
7. Ute Mountain Fire Tower
Early forest rangers, concerned about the devastation that fires leave in their wake, used high-platform lookouts to keep an eye out for smoke. Today most of the fire lookouts have gone the way of the dinosaurs, as helicopters and airplanes have been mobilized to keep a wary watch over the vast woodlands.
One of the earliest fire lookouts in Utah—designated a national historic landmark—still stands at Ute Mountain. It can be reached by a short, unpaved road off the Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Loop. The panorama from the tower’s platform includes the Wyoming desert and the forest-clad ridgetops and valleys of the Uinta Mountains.
Once the loop road returns to Rte. 44, consider heading south five miles to Sheep Creek Overlook for a view of the dramatic meeting place of Sheep Creek and Flaming Gorge. Then the drive follows Rte. 44 north to Manila, a small town ringed by crests and peaks.
8. Route 530
After a short stretch along Rte. 43 east, a sign welcomes you to Wyoming. Rte. 530, the final leg of the drive, continues to the north, where the terrain quickly—almost magically—changes from mountains to high desert. Though the land through which you travel may for the most part seem barren, the 45 miles to Green River have an austere beauty all their own: lonely buttes cresting rumpled hills, piles of rocks shaped like giant beehives, and a weather-worn badland called the Devils Playground. Farther along, sand, sagebrush, and cactus accompany you to the town of Green River and its namesake waterway—the celestial knife that slowly carved Flaming Gorge.
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