When people consider the eastern Utah hamlet of Vernal, energy extraction boom-and-bust and Green River rafting launchpad are often what come to mind. But after riding there for just one weekend last fall, I’m a believer that there is indeed a desert cycling playground beyond Springdale, Moab, or Fruita. Best of all, Vernal’s MTB season begins and ends about a month before and after the trails are dry in the Wasatch, and it’s only a 145-mile drive due east of Park City along Highway 40.
Local MTB enthusiasts began developing singletrack from cow paths bisecting McCoy Flats (10 miles west of Vernal via Highway 40) almost two decades ago. There are now more than 60 miles of family-friendly intermediate trails here, including Jackalope, a long but not-too-steep descent ranked as Vernal’s No. 1 mountain biking trail by mtbproject.com. For more advanced dirt, head to the Red Fleet Trail Complex (12 miles northeast of town along Highway 191) and pedal Jass-Chrome Molly or J-Boy, both offering sweeping views of the Red Fleet Reservoir and plenty of technical slickrock and singletrack sections. Maps can be found at blm.gov or at Altitude Cycle (580 E. Main St, 435.781.2595).
Carbo-load with a wood-fired pizza, fresh salads, and a homemade dessert (including scones) at Antica Forma (251 E. Main St, 435.374.4138,). I am particularly fond of the pie made with pistachio pesto, spicy Italian sausage, and creamy house-made mozzarella. Rigor Mortis Red Ale and the Allosaurus Amber Ale are among the nine craft brews on tap at the Vernal Brewing Company (55 S. 500 East, 435.781.2337) where a highlight of the comfort food–focused menu is the mac & cheese, made with a four-cheese blend and candied bacon. For a taste of local produce and culture, check out the Ashley Valley Farmer’s Market, held at the Old Dinosaur Gardens (225 E. Main St) on Saturdays, July through September, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Hardcore bikers camp in the hot, shadeless Bureau of Land Management acerage near McCoy Flats. Other choices include the BLM’s developed campgrounds: Book Cliffs, Browns Park and Jarvie Ranch, Green River, and Pelican Lake (blm.gov). The spots are tight but also close to swimming, fishing, boating, and, of course, the trails at Red Fleet State Park. Completed last year, the Vernal area’s newest hotel is the Microtel (1041 S. 1500 East, Naples, 435.781.8141). The swankiest lodging property in town is the Marriott Springhill Suites (1205 W. Hwy 40, 435.781.9000).