With tons of stuff to do, but no desire to do it, and screaming inside to get the heck out of town, I suggested to my husband to run up to Flaming Gorge last weekend. This is one of those weekends where people would ask you “Why Flaming Gorge?!”. There were many a reasons for us.
First off, we have tried all summer to go to some national or state park: Zion, Bryce, or even Escalante, with no luck! Everything is booked many months in advance. That’s what you get when you live in a resort state, for the most part: no room at the inn year round – in the summer because of the folks hiking, biking, fishing and boating, in the winter for those with the snow sports! But, no complaints there – that’s why we love Utah!
I also remembered a funny story one of my co-workers told me about Flaming Gorge. The story is off topic for this blog, but that’s when I heard the name of the recreation area for the first time – when he was telling me that story. Now, it might be just me, but who in the world would not want to visit a place called “Flaming Gorge”?!
So, bouncing around all these ideas about “let’s go to a wild park” and “all parks are booked”, I came across these parts on my iPhone map, and thought to myself: why the heck not?!
Having tried to stay in resort towns all summer and having failed, I knew I was not going to look for a place to stay right in the middle of the park. So, I looked on the map to see what is the closest town that would have some type of lodging to Flaming Gorge. I found Vernal.
I remember last year, reading a story in the local paper that started with “this Vernal mother … ” – and at that time I thought “Vernal” must be some sort of a cult or a religion. I found out soon afterwards that Vernal was a town in Utah. Small town that is – of around 9000 people. And now, I was going to happen through it, too.
So, away we went. If you peeps around the Utah Valley would like to venture on this trip, please know that between said valley and Vernal, there is nothing. Virtually nothing, other than brush and cows! Our truck had a couple of fits, where it stopped for no reason, in the middle of the night, and it was one of the scariest things I have gone through. No human abode. No lights. No cell signal. Nothing but the lonely two lane road, and a broken car! If you guess you might have the same trouble, travel during the day (it seems there is more traffic then), and bring lots of water with you, and maybe blankets, depending on what season it is.
There is no feeling of happily letting go when driving up to Vernal. There is more of a feeling of getting buried, I think. Sure, it’s quiet and solitary – but so is a tomb! Scary, however, too. We arrived at the hotel (Holiday Inn and Suites, which was pretty new or maybe just redone, and pretty cozy) around 9 PM on a Friday. Stressed out from our car problems, we were desperately looking for a joint to drown our fears in. My phone map (again, to the rescue) pulled up a Wingers close by– a chain, sure, but we knew it would have snacks and a beer, and we could practically walk back to the hotel, in case our truck would decide again to quit. We got there just in time, because they close at 10 PM. Yes, on a Friday night. We were one of the three couples in the place. They were sweeping the floors and when they took our order, they asked for dessert, too.
We were going to get used to this “small town” tune: there are very few options for dinner, and even fewer for a nice dinner. A place that sells entrees for $17 is deemed the highest price in town and everything closes at 10 PM every weekend night. It closes earlier on weekdays. When we asked for directions to any of the places to eat, we were told with a smile: “everything is on Main street. Just drive up and down, you’ll see it”. Pretty simple.
The Flaming Gorge Recreation Area is about 30 miles North of Vernal. We spend the day on Saturday up there. The area was amazing, like any other natural park in Utah! I am serious: when God was in a great sculpting mood, and decided to mix and match all types of soil, vegetation, fauna, flora, and colors of skies and waters, He must have made Utah that day! The area has a beautiful, large reservoir lake (about 90 miles long), in the middle of this high desert canyon. The roads take you around the lake, and along the Green River banks. The lake is formed by the Flaming Gorge Dam, which stops the Green River inside these canyons. The water is crystal clear, and the shores are tall and rocky. People are camping, fishing, boating, hiking all around it. At the Dam visitors’ office, they will warn you to be prepared to meet bears if you venture out on the trails! I would be afraid to camp in a tent around there – it feels (again!) very remote, and very, very savage. That’s part of the charm and the attraction, I am sure.
While driving around the scenic byways of the park, we took a side road to Antelope Flats – as the name shows it, a flat area that slopes gently into the lake. People were taking a dip there, and the water, was again, so crystal clear and clean. Across from this vantage point, the Flaming Gorge Canyon is standing majestic, tall and unmoved, for centuries. The water snakes around it, as if it would not want to disturb the colossus, offering its depths for its redness beauty to reflect into it, generously. The sky was eye-hurtful blue that day – not a cloud even. There was nothing but the sound of our breaths and the clip-clop sound of the people swimming next to us, in silence.
Flaming Gorge, as seen from Antelope Flats
After that short visit, we came back to the main road, and found another way that took us to the Red Canyon Lodge – that is the only lodging option that I could find, outside of camping, in the park. The lodge has a restaurant, a mini convenience store, a nice wooden patio, and a gift store, along with rooms and cabins to rent. They have a couple of lakes, one for pedal boats, and another one (smaller) for fishing, and horseback riding trails, too. Being in the heart of the park, and having so many things to do around there, while also being so quiet and serene, The Lodge will be a sure hit for weekends when we want to escape – I can just see it.
After having a light lunch of smoked trout bruschetta and cooling off with a beer, we headed to the Red Canyon, another observation point around the lake. I will have to say that I have never seen a view more beautiful, more wild, and more intimidating in my life. Everything about it made my breath stop. You’re up at the top of this canyon, and its cliffs are rocky and loaded with pines, at the same time. They are dropping into the gorge at an almost perfect 90 degree angle. You know that whoever slips on those slopes is headed for their demise. There is no escaping that fall!
As far as natural landscapes go, I kept thinking that I did love Zion and Bryce and even the Arches in Moab, but this topped pretty much everything else. Although its name does not have the buzz the other ones do, it did speak to me. To something very deep in my heart. It’s one of those places I cannot find words to describe right – so I will just post a picture of it. It’s drowned in beauty and awe.
A place in my heart: The Red Canyon and the Flaming Gorge Reservoir
After that visit, where the time seemed to have stopped for a minute, or ten, and after 100+ pictures, as well, we headed back to Vernal for a short afternoon rest, and to figure out where dinner will be.
We surfed and surfed on all of the travel sites in search for suggestions on where to eat in Vernal. The opinions were a 50 – 50 split. Some people hated everything. Some people loved everything. Everyone agreed on one thing though: there are not many options out there. Knowing that they close at 10, and it was close to 8 PM, we had to hurry up and choose something. We chose a couple of things from our searches and let the reception boy break the tie. He suggested The Quarry, which was one of the places on our list, probably the most controversial of all. So, we gave it a try.
It was not the worst place I have ever been to, nor the best. On a scale from 1 to 10, it was probably a 4, for me – right under average! The place has a ton of potential – the floors alone are amazing – they have the Flaming Gorge Reservoir represented in mosaic tiles on the entire floor of the restaurant. But it’s a blank slate, otherwise – no décor on the walls, no music, and the wait staff is disjointed and cannot find each other, it seems. It’s a small place, and the waiters wear head gear to “talk” with each other (about what, I am not sure), but miscommunication seems to be the trademark of the place. Our dinners were simple but took an hour to cook, and mine was, although tasty, almost stone cold when it came out. My husband said that the steak was amazing, though – which was one of the common observations in the reviews we read.
There is one other thing to be said about Vernal. OK, maybe a couple. I am not sure whether it’s its proximity to Colorado or Wyoming or the fact that unlike other Utah towns, it was not settled by Mormon pioneers – but the place does not feel very “Utah” at all. It has its own, very distinctive vibe. Virtually everyone at every table in the restaurant orders alcohol drinks and coffees – something of a novelty, in this State, anywhere, outside Salt Lake City or a resort town. And the number of kids don’t outnumber the adults in any establishment.
There are several churches in town, and not all LDS – which is a surprise, for such a small place, too. I guess what I am saying is – it’s its own city, with its own soul, albeit small and with very few options to entertain. It’s also deemed to be “Dinosaurland”, thanks to its rich and ancient geology and paleontology finds. The locals have done a not so good job to not cheesy-fy that! Huge, colorful plaster statues of dinosaurs greet you around almost every corner. We did not play tourist on those attractions, however.
I think, outside the park area, the highlight of the trip for me was the breakfast on our last day there. I will have to spend just a couple of sentences to talk about Betty’s Café . Everyone in there sits really close to one another – the place is homey and welcoming. The staff is busy, but friendly and very helpful. They have without a doubt the best veggie omelet I have ever eaten in my life. I don’t believe that even Bobby Flay could master that! The veggies are fresh, full of flavor and crunchy and the eggs are not greasy – two things that no one can get right in an omelet. The breakfast fried potatoes are amazing – they are sliced every so thinly and again, they are not overly greasy – they are just very potatoey and unmessed around with!
It’s one of those places where people walk out at one end of the table, and new customers are sitting down at the same (dirty) table on the other end. Everyone seems to know everyone in there, except for the few couples of tourists like us, that just happened in. The place closes at noon on Sundays, so try not to sleep in. If you are like me, and like grabbing the local free racked magazine to get a feel for what it’s like to live in this small town in the middle of nothing but canyons, grab Betty’s 10 pages or so magazine teaching you about how to stay happy. It’s a pretty interesting read, with no typos, at that, which, for a small town mag is rare – trust me!
Betty’s Café is small building, and, like everything else, it’s on Main Street. You can’t possibly miss it!
Another view from The Red Canyon - click on the picture to see the whole album from this trip