Riding the Dry Fork Flume Trail in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area outside of Vernal, Utah, photo by Yann Ropars.
For more than a century, Vernal in Uintah County has been an epicenter of geology and paleontology. Pass through town and you’ll find roadside dinosaur statues that pay homage to the area’s beloved Jurassic Period homeboys. But while its prehistoric past has been fossilized in time, a growing network of mountain bike trails—20 years in the making—has quickly become embedded in the minds of fat-tire fanatics.
Originally inspired by cattle (not dinosaur) paths, Vernal’s trails were built to work with the contours of the high desert foothills and funnel through slalom-like drainages. Even as more trails were mapped, they remained little-known, overshadowed by the lure of Southern Utah hotspots. But once a few mountain-bike magazines featured Vernal as Utah’s up-and-coming singletrack mecca, “it was done,” says Troy Lupcho, owner of Altitude Cycles. “Vernal became a destination.” (altitudecycle.com, 435-781-2595)
Well, relatively speaking. Lupcho, who’s been instrumental in building the local trails over the past two decades, doesn’t believe the Uintah Basin will ever become a lure like Moab or Fruita, Colo., where two-wheeled adventure has changed the face of the local economy and gentrified it with brew pubs, gear shops and après digs. “That’s not what the people in Vernal want,” he said. “This community will never allow it.”
So far, Lupcho is right. Vernal’s economy is rooted in the gas and oil industry, preserved in a rural lifestyle that makes outdoor adventure seem like an afterthought. “You kind of take a step back in time here,” said Lupcho. A healthy influx of blue-collar businessmen, employed in the energy industry, drive up mid-week rates, and most of Main Street goes dark on Sundays. But recreational visitors don’t come here to indulge in modern amenities. “If you’re self-contained, you can’t find a better place to camp and ride,” said Lupcho.
Still, it’s hard to talk about Vernal without comparing it to the vast, high desert turf of nearby Fruita, Colo., an observation that’s not lost on Lupcho. “It’s a lot like 18 Road,” he said referring to the popular Colorado trail system. “We’ve got that wide, open, undulating singletrack that you can see for miles.” And whatever your experience, “Vernal offers such a unique blend of trails for everyone.”
With nearly a 10-month bike season spanning March through December, Vernal dries out well before a typical Wasatch winter comes to an end. So when the summer itch creeps up, head to Vernal and explore the 100-plus miles of trail in these four distinct hubs. If you’d rather leave the navigation to someone else, Dinosaur River Expeditions offers guided day trips throughout the summer (dinosaurriverexpeditions.com, 800-345-RAFT).
A typical landmark shows Vernal hasn't forgotten its roots, photo by J. Stephen Conn.
Explore Vernal’s most popular trails and you’ll find yourself in McCoy Flats, an open BLM range just off of Highway 40. It’s the site of Vernal’s first established trail, Squat Drop, and an area that’s shared among target shooters, equestrians and RVers. But with nine non-motorized trails, cyclists can loop together more than 60 miles of fast desert dirt that squiggle and snake their way through swollen hills. As McCoy Flats is public domain, camping is free and plentiful, giving you the freedom to establish basecamp out in the boonies or along any trail’s edge.
Located just past the Red Fleet State Park, the Red Fleet trail system is surrounded by sandstone amphitheaters buffed smooth by prehistoric glacier melt and ridgelines dense with stringy junipers and sagebrush. Rock piles and limited sight distances add technical thrills to the small handful of well-worn trails, including a half-mile stretch of manmade features for advanced freeride flavor. With the support of bike-happy BLM land managers, expect the quantity of trails to increase over the next few years.
From alpine terrain to the high-desert sandstone of the Handsome Cabin Boy Trail, in the Red Fleet area, Vernal offers a full range of two-wheeled challenges; photo by Yann Ropars.
Technically, there are only two trails in the Lapoint system recognized by land officials, but like the Red Fleet system, the area is ripe with fat tire potential. With forgiving soil and serpentine turns—like those found on the aptly named Corkscrew trail—the modest singletrack in Lapoint is optimal for beginner cruisers, yet it begs skilled riders to whip through fast straightaways and snappy corners.
While Flaming Gorge often snags the attention of fishermen and boaters, the 43-mile drive from Vernal rewards fat tire pursuits with a combination of roly poly doubletrack and panoramic singletrack. Nearly a dozen trails wiggle along the Flaming Gorge plateau, with technical obstacles appearing in the form of loose rock and equestrian traffic. A low-consequence rim trail hugs the south side of Red Canyon for a scenic, out-and-back tour that’s arguably better on bike than boat.