Rides & Destinations: Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway
By Joe Berk
What: The Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway, running from Vernal, Utah, to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
How to Get There: From the south, grab US 191 anywhere in Utah or Arizona and go north. From the north, grab US 191 anywhere in Montana or Wyoming and head south. You get the idea.
Best Kept Secret: Watch for a sign on the right halfway between Vernal and Flaming Gorge near Red Fleet State Park. A twisty narrow road leads to a 2-1/2-mile hike that takes you to actual dinosaur footprints frozen in stone.
Avoid: The winter months. The weather and the elevation can be tough!
Dinosaurs. Thunder lizards. Fossils. Prehistoric creatures that disappeared millions of years ago. If you want to retrace their steps and ride where they wandered, it doesn’t get any better than Utah’s Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway.
Most folks have heard of Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway (a 512-mile loop through Colorado and Utah on I-70, US 40, US 191, Utah SR 128, and Colorado SR 139 and SR 64), but our ride is more focused. It’s a northern tangent along US 191 called the Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway and it runs between two great destinations: Historic Vernal, Utah, and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. US 191 runs all the way from Mexico to Canada and I’ve ridden nearly all of it. It’s a glorious road, and the stretch from Vernal to Flaming Gorge is the best part.
Located just south of the Uinta Mountains, Vernal is one of the few places in Utah not originally settled by Mormons. Brigham Young sent scouts to the region in 1861, but they felt the area didn’t have anything to offer other than cactus, snakes, lizards, scorpions and not-particularly- friendly Native Americans. Around that same time, President Lincoln established the Uintah Indian Reservation and Capt. Pardon Dodds (the U.S. government’s Indian agent) became the first white settler. A harsh 1879 winter and Colorado’s too-close-for-comfort Meeker Massacre discouraged further settlement, but when the Army built a nearby outpost, more settlers followed. Even today, though, the area feels like it is on the edge of civilization.
Vernal’s economy is based on mining and tourism, and the tourism is based on fishing, camping, a proud western heritage, the area’s natural beauty and dinosaurs. Dinosaur National Monument is just 20 minutes to the east, and it has the world’s largest deposits of Jurassic dinosaur fossils. Back in Vernal, the Utah House of Natural History has life-sized dinosaur replicas. Dinosaur-themed tchotchkes are for sale nearly everywhere. It’s funky, but it’s cool.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area anchors the other end of this great ride. I first visited Flaming Gorge on an earlier Three Flags Rally and I fell in love with the area. Flaming Gorge’s lower edge begins 33 miles north of Vernal, and its 90-mile-long lake stretches deeply north into Wyoming. Aptly named Flaming Gorge (designated as such by U.S. Army adventure rider and explorer John Wesley Powell) is bordered by brilliant red canyon walls. Formed by three dams, the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and its dramatic scenery make for a great destination. The U.S. government added the stretch from Vernal to Flaming Gorge as the Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway in June 1998. It’s also called the Drive Through the Ages Geological Tour, and for good reason: It’s where dinosaurs lived and our continent became what it is today.
US 191 climbs and winds into the Uinta Mountains through dramatic geological changes. You’ll ride through stark rock formations and alpine forests at elevations approaching 10,000 feet, and if that’s not interesting enough, there are a series of signs describing the prehistoric creatures that roamed through this area. US 191 runs directly into Flaming Gorge. You can bear right to stay on US 191, go over a dramatic bridge, see one of the dams, and visit the museum at the lake’s southern edge, or you can bear left on SR 44 to stay on the Scenic Byway. Both roads lead directly into Wyoming (US 191 on the eastern side of the reservoir, and SR 44 on the western side), and they’re equally beautiful, perfect for grand motorcycle touring.
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