I have long wanted to visit Dinosaur National Monument.
The Monument, straddling the Colorado-Utah border, should be a National Park. By any conceivable metric, it more than deserves such a designation. At 210,844 acres, it is larger than thirty-one of the sixty-three Parks (larger than Shenandoah, Zion, Redwood, and Arches). Far more importantly, though, it contains three fundamental reasons for existing—any of which would warrant Park status—that make it important to history, science, and conservation. First, the Monument contains a world-important deposit of Jurassic-era dinosaurs: Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Allosaurus. Specimens from major museums across North America came from here. Second, the Monument protects important cultural sites, including many pictographs and petroglyphs made by the Fremont peoples one thousand years ago. And finally, there is the landscape itself. Here, the Green and Yampa Rivers cut through the eastern edge of the Uinta Mountains, creating a dramatic canyon country of more varied hues than the redrock landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands to the south.
When President Woodrow Wilson declared the establishment of Dinosaur National Monument in 1915, he only set aside the eighty acres comprising and surrounding the Dinosaur Quarry just north of Jensen, Utah. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in 1938 expanded the Monument to its present size by protecting the Green and the Yampa in their entire courses through the Uinta Mountains. FDR’s designation was crucial nearly twenty years later as conservationists successfully fought a scheme to dam the rivers at their confluence at Echo Park. This historic win bookended the fight forty years earlier to save Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park from becoming a reservoir. In both debates, the American public was asked to grapple with the question, “What is the point of protecting a landscape as a National Park or Monument if it can be destroyed by dams or resource extraction?” While Yosemite lost, Dinosaur won. And the win at Echo Park would help to protect Grand Canyon National Park in the 1960s from a long-simmering scheme to dam the Colorado River within the National Park.
Perhaps it’s lingering resentment over Echo Park. It could be local resistance in Utah to public lands protection (even as the state campaigns for and receives millions in tourist dollars from visitors to its existing Parks). It could simply be its remoteness. Whatever the reason, Dinosaur has never been upgraded by Congress despite being for decades on short lists of NPS units most likely to become National Parks.
Congress notwithstanding, Sean and I chose to treat Dinosaur as an unofficial 64th Park, both in how we approached it in the trip and in how I am treating it here on the site.
It was about 3:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 1 (2021), when Sean and I punched an approximate GPS location for Dinosaur National Monument into Google Maps and turned left out of Colorado National Monument’s western entrance. It would be a two and a half hour drive to Green River Campground in the portion of Dinosaur across the state line in Utah.
Outside of Fruita, we were briefly on I-70 before exiting and heading north on CO-139. The highway took us over the Book Cliffs at Douglas Pass and through what was easily the most remote and isolated landscape of the trip so far. Low, heavy clouds kept it moody, although it didn’t rain much on our drive.
We continued north through Pintado Canyon and the town of Rangely. Then up County Road 1 and a highly resource extractive area until we reached US-40. Turning west on US-40, we stopped for gas in Dinosaur, Colorado, a tiny hamlet of gas stations, diners, marijuana shops, and no-longer-scientifically-accurate dinosaur sculptures.
Shortly after Dinosaur, Colorado, we reached the Utah state line and stopped to take a photo of the Allosaurus on the welcome sign. Apparently a number of “marksmen” have used the Allosaurus for target practice.
Continuing on, we were now passing the edge of the Uinta Mountains north of us. The Monument was off there in those dramatic hills. The low clouds, mist, moodiness made it all nicely dramatic on our approach.
We crossed the Green River and dropped into the small town of Jensen, Utah. Turning north, we passed highly irrigated farm fields before reaching the entrance to the National Monument, just at the edge of the foothills.
We drove past the Quarry Visitor Center and a number of scenic turnouts as we headed for the campground. Sean turned on the soundtrack to Jurassic Park, which was stupid appropriate for the landscape, mist, and drama of the scene.
We couldn’t help but pull over at the overlook above the campground, the Green River, and Split Mountain to take it all in (music blaring).
Below us, we could see our home for the next three nights, shaded by Fremont Cottonwoods along the river.
As we began to set up camp, the clouds parted a bit, casting the final gleams of sunset on shrouded Split Mountain.
Our gear was still pretty wet from the downpour at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and the mist and cloudiness here at Dinosaur didn’t help. Happily, though, the interior of the tent hadn’t gotten wet, so we pitched our tent and did what we could to dry things with towels.
The campground was interesting. On a return, I’d definitely try to get a site close to the river. But our area of the campground was fairly abandoned, which was nice. There was, though, a huge ruckus from a for-god’s-sake semi truck cab towing and depositing a gigantic camper in a site near ours. Is it really camping if you need a semi to move about?
We were visited by Rick and Nancy, our charming campground hosts, and their deaf Shih Tzu, Skippy. First rate hosts, they asked what we were most interested in. We said we were definitely going to see the Quarry, but that we were also very interested in petroglyphs. They recommended a few that were lesser known, including some outside the Monument proper. We felt so welcomed by them, and they clearly wanted to make sure we had a good time at the Monument.
Because of wildfire restrictions, campfires were banned at Dinosaur while we were there. So we ate our supper and then read in the tent until it was time to fall asleep.
Next morning, Thursday, September 2 (2021), was chilly and misty in Green River Campground, although the forecast called for the day to clear up in the afternoon.
Before Sean stirred, I climbed out of the tent and caught up on some emails. It was the Thursday before Labor Day Weekend, so it was good to get a few things moved forward before the holiday, especially because it was Patrick’s first official week with Bold Bison.
Although we weren’t in any particular rush, we knew the first order of business for this first full day was to head over to the Dinosaur Quarry to see the dinosaurs. We had scrambled eggs and English muffins to fuel us for the day.
We arrived at the nearby Quarry Visitor Center a little before 10am.
Inside the Visitor Center, it was just a taste of what we’d get to see up at the Quarry. But even this early taste was very exciting. Now we had obviously seen dinosaur bones before…at the American Museum of Natural History, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Field Museum, etc., but what was especially cool about the fossils and bones at Dinosaur National Monument was that they were from here. From just up the hill at one of the largest known deposit of Jurassic-era dinosaur fossils on the planet.
We checked out the exhibits at the Visitor Center while we waited for the shuttle to ride up the hill to the Quarry. While we were in there, we saw a dad and his little boy (maybe four years old) enter. The boy was wearing a dinosaur t-shirt. Sean remarked that it was like wearing the band’s t-shirt to the concert. I said that I could relate to the little man.
The shuttle arrived, and we hopped on for the short ride up to the Quarry.
The tram pulled up outside of the recently renovated Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall, and we disembarked with a handful of other visitors.
The entry ramp used markers to give visitors a relative sense of how far back in time they were traveling.
The Jurassic Era is the middle of the three periods (including the earlier Triassic and later Cretaceous) when dinosaurs lived. The point in the Jurassic Era unearthed at Dinosaur is about 150 million years ago, well more than twice as old as the birth of the Rocky Mountains and the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Era about 66 million years ago. The ten species of dinosaur found at the Quarry reflect the diversity of the end of the Jurassic Period when the huge sauropods lived.
We went inside.
The Quarry Exhibit Hall preserves and displays over 1,500 dinosaur bones comprising ten species and dozens of individuals. The buckling of the rock layer means that what for millions of years had been a horizontal geologic layer was now nearly vertical, perfect for viewing from a long, second-story platform.
The dinosaurs that died here likely succumbed during drought conditions along an ancient riverbed. Subsequent flooding events covered the bones in layers of mud that preserved them until, over eons, they were replaced with minerals that preserved them as fossils.
While some of the skeletons are jumbled, others found here are nearly perfectly articulated.
The completeness and quality of the skeletons at Dinosaur National Monument means that the holotype, the species-representative specimen, for four species—Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Camptosaurus, and Dryosaurus—comes from here. The other six species here are Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Torvosaurus, Barosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus.
Earl Douglass, a paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum on Pittsburgh, discovered dinosaur bones here in 1909. Realizing how extensive a deposit of bones might be at the site, Douglass returned with a team and began an excavation that would be ongoing until 1922. (The site was protected as a National Monument in 1915.)
The remaining wall is just a fraction of the original Quarry. In addition to the Carnegie Museum, dinosaur bones removed from here are in collections across North America, including the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Royal Ontario Museum on Toronto, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Works Progress Administration continued excavations during the Great Depression, including removing all the layers of rock from the wall except the one just above the bones. In the 1950s, active unearthing of the bones resumed, now protected in the shelter of the Quarry Exhibit Hall, which opened to the public in 1958. Active excavation continued until the early 1990s. Excavation of the wall is complete with enough of each bone revealed to be both scientifically useful and engaging to visitors.
The decision to leave these bones here, revealed where the animals died, is just an exemplary example of a successful scientific and interpretive approach by the National Park Service. It’s cool to see an example of dinosaur bones embedded in a rock slab in a museum. It is a wholly different and superior experience to go out to a remote corner of Utah and see dinosaur bones where they were unearthed.
As cool as it is to clearly spot the plates of a Stegosaurus or be able to all but imagine the whip of the long tail of a Diplodocus, the star of the wall is the neck and skull of a Camarasaurus looking down on visitors from near the top.
We lingered for a long while, gazing at the dinosaurs, before heading down to the lower level for the exhibits.
They even allow visitors to touch a dinosaur bone, still embedded in the rock.
Man, 8th Grade Brandon and Forty-Something Brandon both had a blast at the Dinosaur Quarry.
Stepping out of the Quarry Exhibit Hall, visitors have two options: ride the shuttle back down to the Visitor Center or hike down the 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery Trail. Obviously we opted for the hike.
The trail drops through several layers of geological time on its way down.
Near the top of the trail, the Stump Formation from 161-156 million years ago reveals that this was the site of a shallow sea with fossils of Jurassic Period marine life.
Further down, in the Morrison Formation, a spur trail encourages visitors to look for fossils on a largely unexcavated wall.
There was an obvious dinosaur vertebrae about ten feet above the trail. The arrows drawn by Park Rangers definitely helped in spotting it.
The Quarry area is inactive now. But there are other areas of the Monument where research and excavations are ongoing. These are off-limits to visitors.
We dropped out of the foothills. In the distance both natural and irrigated sections of green showed the presence of the Green River.
Here in the desert varnish of the Nugget Sandstone formation, we saw both our first Petroglyphs and first defacing graffiti of our visit to Dinosaur.
The trail wound past NPS housing, where we spotted a Prairie Dog.
Back at the Quarry Visitor Center, we did some shopping: books, t-shirts, hats, gifts, a magnet, maybe even a plush Camarasaurus.
Ok definitely a plush Camarasaurus.
We snacked on apples in the parking area while we decided where to go next. We had the whole afternoon, so we decided to explore Cap Creek Road (the main/only road in this part of the Monument), which becomes a dirt road not far from the campground. Then we’d take all of the next day to drive out to Harpers Corner and the Colorado portion of the Monument.
The first stop along Cub Creek Road is Swelter Shelter (so named by archaeologists in the 1960s), a site of human use for at least the last 7,000 years.
Stone tools were discovered in the shelter that date back 7,000 years to the Desert Archaic Cultures.
But the truly spectacular things to see in Swelter Shelter are the Fremont petroglyphs and pictographs from about 1,000 years ago.
Here human figures chipped into the desert varnish of the sandstone are combined with ochre colorings to indicate costume.
Headdresses, bandoliers, earrings even.
We continued on, driving past the tumbled rock layers and formations at the edge of the foothills.
We took a spur road to an overlook above where the Green River emerges from Split Mountain (so named because the river splits the ridge in half in a dramatic canyon. Below us was the take out for adventurous visitors who had put in on the Green or Yampa and rafted or paddled through the Monument. It was also the final of the campsites in the Monument reserved for boaters.
We passed our campground and drove down to the river.
Exiting Dinosaur National Monument here, the Green River flows south until its confluence with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park.
We reached the end of the pavement and for us on that Thursday the end of the road. Because of the rains the day before, the unpaved portion of Cub Creek Road was closed. We were disappointed because some of the Monument’s most impressive petroglyphs are along the unpaved portion of the road.
We decided to try again tomorrow. And if it still wasn’t open, we could hike up the road to see the petroglyphs.
For now, it was about 1:30 in the afternoon. We had hours of daylight for adventures in front of us and a couple of options. We could backtrack and do some of the day hikes that start along the paved portion of Cub Creek Road or we could drive over to the Colorado portion of the Monument. It was pretty hot and sunny, so it was probably not the most comfortable time to start some hikes, so we opted to stay in the car and drive out the the other section of the Monument easily accessible by car. We’d save the hikes and such for the next day.
It would prove a momentous decision that would ultimately cut our time at Dinosaur short.