The whimsical “Dinah the Pink Dinosaur” sign on Vernal, Utah’s main attraction lets visitors know this is dinosaur land in no uncertain terms.
There’s no question that the small city near the Utah/Colorado border lives up to that claim. Vernal is not just the gateway to the Dinosaur National Monument, but also the home of the Utah Field House of National History State Park Museum’s excellent Jurassic displays.
Adding to its destination appeal, Vernal sits in the center of spectacular rock formations, the beautiful Green River, and two Utah State Park lakes — all of which make it a great location for hiking, rafting, and fishing.
Located in the far eastern reaches of Utah, Vernal is somewhat isolated, requiring a drive of about three hours from Salt Lake City, and a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver. The scenery is ruggedly beautiful, and the one-of-a-kind experience definitely makes Vernal worth the trip.
Things To Do In Vernal
While the fascinating dinosaur story is reason enough to visit, it is far from the only draw. On my recent road trip to Vernal, I was happy to also find a ranch with ancient rock art, a cool downtown area, and a thriving dining-and-craft-beer scene.
Here are 12 fascinating things to do in Vernal, Utah.
1. Explore Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument‘s Quarry Visitor Center on the monument’s Utah side is less than a 30-minute drive from Vernal, and it is the perfect place to start your exploration. If you’re planning to take in Vernal’s main attractions in one weekend, I suggest getting an early-morning start and devoting your first day to Dinosaur National Monument.
After visiting the Quarry Visitor Center, another must-stop is the Quarry Exhibit Hall, located a quarter-mile from the visitor center and accessible either by car or on a convenient open-area shuttle. The exhibit hall features 1,500 dinosaur bones of various species and allows visitors to touch a 149-million-year-old dinosaur bone.
For a close-up look at the breadth and majesty of the monument, the Tour of Tilted Rocks scenic drive is another not-to-be-missed experience. Worthy stops include Turtle Rock, the petroglyphs on Cub Creek Road, and the Sounds of Silence Trail.
From there, you should still have time for an afternoon drive to the Colorado side of the monument, where the Harpers Corner Road scenic drive features overlooks at Plug Hat Butte, Island Park, and the Echo Park that offer sweeping views into the gorgeous terrain.
2. Visit The Utah Field House Of Natural History State Park Museum
For decades, scientists from around the world have been visiting the Vernal area for dinosaur digs, collecting prehistoric findings along the way. The Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum opened in 1948 to showcase a selection of those findings.
The Field House gives visitors a virtual tour of Earth’s ancient history through its extensive collection of dinosaur bones, fossil lab, outdoor garden with 14 life-size models, and interactive exhibits that allow visitors to wander back in time.
The Field House is located right in the middle of Vernal and is a convenient stop on an exploration of the charming downtown area.
3. Kayak At Red Fleet State Park
Located just 12 miles north of Vernal, the Red Fleet State Park offers a wonderful opportunity for getting onto the water on a hot day, as well as for following the tracks of dinosaurs.
When I visited in early July, the red-rock-bordered reservoir was dotted with kayakers, paddle-boarders, and small boats, with the lake’s coves and slick-rock shores serving as perfect picnic spots.
Along with its water sports, the state park also boasts the Red Fleet State Park Dinosaur Trackway, which leads hikers to dinosaur tracks that are more than 2 million years old. The 3-mile round-trip hike is rated as moderate-to-strenuous. More information is available in this PDF.
Pro Tip: Although Red Fleet State Park was open when I visited in July 2022, a notice on the park’s website cautions that the park would be closed throughout much of 2022 to allow for construction and renovation work. The park is expected to be fully back open in 2023.
4. Take In Ancient Rock Art At McConkie Ranch
For a peek into the ancient cultures that once occupied the area, a visit to the McConkie Ranch is a great day trip from Vernal. The ranch is located about 10 miles to the north in the Dry Fork Canyon.
The ranch is privately owned, but visitors are welcome to view the petroglyphs. Signs and maps are available at a booth in the parking lot, and a small donation is suggested.
From the parking lot, visitors follow a short (about one-mile round-trip) to the somewhat steep and rocky trail to a ridgeline that features a series of petroglyph panels in the style of the Fremont People who lived in the region from 700 to 1300 AD.
5. Hike The Moonshine Arch Trail
While Vernal is known more for dinosaurs than arches, the area does feature the beautiful Moonshine Arch, located about five miles northwest of Vernal amidst the Weber sandstone formation at the base of Red Mountain.
The Bureau of Land Management website describes Moonshine Arch as 85 feet in length and 40 feet high. Getting there requires a drive of about a mile and a half on dirt roads after leaving the paved Highway 191.
The trail to the arch traverses a sandy and rocky route of just under two miles roundtrip. The hike is rated as easy-to-moderate and offers no shade.
6. Go Fishing At The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
For one of the best fishing opportunities in the area, anglers might want to drive about an hour and a half north of Vernal to the Flaming Gorge — a National Recreation Area that features more than 200,000 acres of land and water.
The Visit Utah website notes that the gorge’s deep channels are carved into rugged landscapes, creating unique scenarios for anglers. “Flaming Gorge might be the West’s most spectacular reservoir,” says the website. “It certainly is one of the best fisheries around, with Blue-Ribbon-designated angling on both the reservoir and the Green River for several miles beyond the dam.”
7. Bonus: Admire A Rainbow Over The Desert
This one is a bonus, because of course you can’t plan for a rainbow. However, if you’re lucky enough to visit Vernal during the summer rainy season, you might just happen upon the colorful results of a rainstorm.
As I approached Vernal from the southwest during my early July road trip, I was delighted to be welcomed by a huge rainbow that spread across the entire sky. After driving a mile or two down a sideroad off of Highway 191, I spent a half-hour soaking up the sight of the rainbow over the rugged high-desert terrain. It was one of those wonderfully serendipitous travel moments.
Restaurants In Vernal
8. Swain’s Steakhouse
When I asked at my hotel about local-favorite restaurants, I got a couple of great recommendations, including Swain’s Steakhouse (also known as Swain Brothers). I spent a lovely evening on the patio at the downtown restaurant enjoying a fajita salad topped with grilled chicken, peppers, onions, and tortilla chips. My salad came with delicious fresh rolls and butter that was enough food for two. Swain’s is also known for its steaks, burgers, and prime rib.
9. Vernal Brewing Company
Another recommendation was the Vernal Brewing Co., a local favorite known for its regional-themed brews like the Allosaurus Amber Ale and the She’s a Peach Wheat Ale, as well as its extensive gastropub menu choices such as cheese steak fries, steak and frites, and the decadent brunch-inspired donut burger featuring a local donut, a house-made sausage patty, egg, cheese, bacon, and cheese fries.
10. Antica Forma Pizzeria
For authentic pizza featuring Neapolitan dough made with double-zero flour and then baked in a woodfire oven, check out the Antica Forma Pizzeria. The menu includes a range of classic pizza choices such as Margherita and soppressata (made with Italian sausage), along with a large selection of traditional appetizers and salads.
Where To Stay In Vernal
11. SpringHill And TownPlace Suites By Marriott
Located side-by-side in Vernal are the SpringHill Suites and TownPlace Suites by Marriott hotels that offer a convenient location along Highway 40, as well as proximity to downtown Vernal and a host of fast-food restaurants. I stayed at the TownPlace Suites, and it was the perfect spot for exploring all that Vernal has to offer.
12. Holiday Inn Express
Another excellent chain hotel option is available at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Vernal – Dinosaurland. The hotel is located along Highway 40 and is within walking distance of a range of restaurants and fast-food options.
13. Steinaker State Park
For visitors looking for a campsite in a convenient and beautiful setting, Steinaker State Park is hard to beat. Located about seven miles north of Vernal, the park offers a range of campsites that are available first-come-first-serve before April 15, and by reservation from mid-May through mid-September. Steinaker also features an 825-acre reservoir that allows swimming on its sandy beach, boating, water skiing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and fishing.
When To Visit Vernal
The best seasons to visit Vernal are late spring through early fall when temperatures tend to be warm with mostly sunny skies. Average highs in April are in the 60-degree Fahrenheit range, and May is in the 70s while June, July, and August average in the 80s. September has average highs in the 70s, and October averages in the 60s. Winters are chilly in Vernal, with December, January, and February posting average highs in the 30s.