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Max Tracks: Adventuring in Vernal and surrounding area of eastern Utah

Posted at 9:58 PM, Jul 02, 2024

This is the second installment in the series "Max Tracks," where FOX 13 News anchor Max Roth randomly selects a quadrant on a map of Utah, then takes a road trip there to meet the locals and see the sights. To read and watch the first installment, in Kanab, click HERE.


UINTAH COUNTY, Utah — I arrived at my campsite on the Green River, south of Jensen, about an hour before a summer storm dumped a quarter inch of rain in under an hour.

Great timing, right?

Nope. It was my first time using an app that allows private landowners to rent campsites. It took about an hour before I got the gate code for the property.

This is when camping in a trailer has its advantages. I unhooked from the truck, leveled it out, and jumped in. Yes, I was soaked, but it's a whole different ballgame being soaked in a tent.

My initial plan to check out the races on the local speedway seemed dicey, so photographer Eric Brown and I cut our losses and called it a day.

It was a good call because a big Saturday required an early start.

Growing up in Ogden, I spent a lot of time in JB's Restaurant on Harrison Boulevard, which has been closed for years. When I saw the JB's in Vernal, I knew where I was having breakfast.

It was the perfect choice because the men at the table beside us were exactly who I wanted to meet. Berry, Dewey, Chuck and Dennis, were that morning's configuration of the group that gathers at the same spot every day.

Chuck was visiting from his retirement home in Lake Havasu, Arizona. It's a retirement from 25 years in the oil fields of Vernal.

Why come back? What does he miss?

"The mountains," was his first answer. "My kids," was the second. His friends around the table? "I wouldn't go that far," Chuck said.

Dewey and his son Dennis both worked in Vernal's oil industry.

Berry? "I hauled dirt," the affable old-timer told me.

Before taking a "real job" to make money, Dennis said he worked as a river guide, so I asked him about the White River, which I planned to canoe later that day.

"Should be pretty. Be ready for a lot of bugs," he told me, though he hadn't personally floated the White.

The breakfast crew relayed personal experiences that reflect the economic realities of an energy town in the West.

"Oil fields made Vernal," Dewey told me, "Took it out of dark ages, and they're not always the most popular people."

It was a sentiment echoed by Chuck: "It's mostly politics. When they change it will drop and come back up."

After breakfast, we drove south. The rules of Max Tracks limit me to a defined quadrant of the map — a clean rectangle drawn by the cartographers at the United States Geological Survey. In this case, the USGS has Vernal at the north edge of a quadrant that extends across a portion of the Uinta Basin that was largely a blank spot in my personal catalog of Utah's notable places.

We drove south from Naples, where Highway 45 forks from Highway 40. From fields of alfalfa still green and growing, the landscape transitions to high desert grays and yellows. Oil derricks pockmark the rolling terrain, but looking to the horizon, there's the hint of more to see.

The 45 crosses the Green River on a westerly jag from its usual north-to-south route. Further along are monuments to mineral extraction. The smokestacks of the Deseret Powerplant soar higher than anything nearby, and a trench through solid rock extends west from the highway at the American Gilsonite facility. Gilsonite turns out to be a kind of solidified oily rock useful in sealing asphalt.

In the middle of the checkerboard of gravel roads leading to oil and gas operations is a BLM-managed area with an alluring name. Fantasy Canyon.

If you hear the name and picture Herve Villechaize shouting "The plane!" to Ricardo Montalban, you are not alone. But Fantasy Canyon is not an enchanted resort where your dreams can come true for a the right price.

Fantasy Canyon is more like Uintah County's answer to Goblin Valley. Instead of bulbous red-tinged hoodoos, Fantasy Canyon has dripping mud-colored phantasms of rock. Where Goblin Valley's namesake Goblins could have been sculpted with Casper the friendly ghost in mind, Fantasy Canyon's geology looks modeled on Casper's more lithe and slinky antagonists.

It's the kind of place worth seeing, especially if you are with kids. You don't have to hike far to be in the midst of the ghoulie outcroppings.

From Fantasy Canyon, we drove to the White River. I've wanted to get a canoe on the White for years, but I've been afraid of exactly what Dennis mentioned at breakfast: bugs.

For late June, the river ran pretty high without a lot of standing water for mosquitoes. Still, there were plenty that gathered when I stood still at the put-in and the take-out. Luckily, I didn't stand still much at all, because I got a late start on a one-day, 30-mile stretch of river I'd never seen.

A quick note: I do not recommend doing these things alone, but I do love doing these things alone. It's one of those conundrums experienced by introverts the world over.

The White River has carved cliffs from the western slopes of the Colorado Rockies to the Green River. It's a hidden gem. There were a couple of families at the put-in ready for a two-day raft trip, but once I got on the water, I spent seven hours only interrupted by birds, beavers, wild horses, and the occasional fun but not-too-scary rapid.

Getting started in the early afternoon, the sun was setting when I got to the end of the stretch of river. I still had enough light to crawl up the more treacherous hill from the river in my truck.

When I was on the white it was flowing somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 cubic feet per second. That's pretty high, and it meant some of the rapids were more intense than I expected. If you aren't experienced, I'd wait for lower water and go with a friend. Also, thirty miles is a long day in a canoe. If I return, I'll plan to camp overnight.