Our 2021 roadtrip to Colorado (and Utah) was sixteen full days and fifteen nights on the road. For a National Parks trip that was somewhat born of circumstance—buying a car, strategizing a post-lockdown COVID-era trip—this trip would have a huge influence on the year to come, both for Sean’s and my Park trips and for the shape of Bold Bison’s business travel. It has also reoriented us—or me—a bit to thinking about the continent. Our first taste of the Ancestral Puebloan world at Mesa Verde would inspire Sean and me to visit four more Ancestral Puebloan sites in the year to come, culminating in a May 2022 sojourn to Chaco Canyon. I would return to Great Sand Dunes National Park by myself—solidifying my infatuation with the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristos—only a little over two months after this trip. We would return to Denver twice more. And flirting with the Colorado Plateau would lead to a February 2022 trip to Arches National Park (and a planed return to Moab in 2023).
But all that is to come. First, it’s time to wrap up this adventure.
We ended our time in Dinosaur National Monument on the afternoon of Friday, September 3 (2021) and began a holiday weekend journey home to Chicago that was itself an adventure. But first we had one more hike—stroll really—out at the end of Cub Creek Road before breaking camp and heading out.
The Fremont People lived in what is now Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada for roughly the 1,000 years from 300 to 1,300. Unlike their contemporaries and neighbors, the Ancestral Puebloans in the Four Corners region (and later along the Rio Grande), the Fremont did not build permanent architecture like pueblos and cliff dwellings. Their villages were more ephemeral, and much of what we know about them comes from the tools and the art they left behind. The art, in the form of striking pictographs and petroglyphs, is often sublime.
On Friday, September 3 (2021), we knew that, one way or another, we’d have to be leaving Dinosaur National Monument early. But we didn’t want to go without seeing the grand Fremont petroglyphs near the campground.
After our morning visiting the Dinosaur Quarry and early afternoon checking out the paved portion of Cub Creek Road, we spent the remainder of the afternoon of Thursday, September 2 (2021) driving into the center of Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon country, just across the state line in Colorado. Our ultimate destination was the hike out to Harpers Corner, high above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River.
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.
As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.
“Wait, did you quit your job to go to the Grand Canyon?”
I was on a tour bus somewhere in rural North Carolina. Next to me was Steve, the inspiring executive director of a conservation organization in northwestern Illinois. We were in North Carolina for the annual Land Conservation Conference. We’d been on a rainy field trip most of the day and now were on our way back to Raleigh. I had been telling Steve about our upcoming Grand Canyon trip, less than a week after the conference. In thinking through the timeline, Steve realized that I would not be in Chicago for my former employer’s very important event, which he was going to attend. It was the sort of function that a staff member would not dream of missing.
“I won’t necessarily say that I quit my job to go to the Grand Canyon, Steve,” I replied with a grin. “But if you want to spread that rumor, I won’t stop you.”
After lunch on September 15, we weren’t quite finished yet with Zion National Park. That night, we’d be camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but before heading south to our final stop on the Grand Staircase, we had one more Zion adventure complete: East Mesa Trail. The out-and-back trail is a three-mile one-way route to Observation Point across relatively flat country from the eastern Park boundary to the rim. Unlike Yosemite National Park, where the road to Glacier Point offers views from the rim to thousands of people a day, all of the rim views at Zion must be earned by hiking.
We woke in pre-dawn light on Thursday, September 15. Wind whipped our tent. And the decision that we had been increasingly fretting about was made for us by the wind.After the splendid performance the previous evening, we’d returned to our campsite and rekindled our campfire. We’d tried to turn in relatively early since we’d wanted to be up early to make an attempt at Angels Landing before it became crowded (we were aiming to be on the first shuttle into the restricted portion of Zion Canyon). Since we’d both had a faint signal on our phones, we’d read up a bit more on the hike. In particular, Sean had gotten his first real taste of news items about Angels Landing. The news stories of deaths on the route in the previous decade and a half hadn’t comforted either of our nerves. Nor had they helped me sleep.
After dinner in our campsite on September 14, Sean and I wandered over to the Watchman Campground amphitheater for the evening’s ranger program. On the schedule was “Concert in the Park: Plants, Animals, and live music.”
We got to the amphitheater a couple minutes late, and as we were walking up, we heard an earnest young man singing with guitar accompaniment. He was singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with altered lyrics to make the song applicable to Zion National Park. We froze, wondering if this would be a somewhat embarrassing evening. Sean has intense emotional reactions to people doing somewhat embarrassing things onstage…poor standup say. But we decided to give it a go.
It turned out that Ranger Taylor, the performer, was disarmingly earnest and completely charming. More often than not, his adaptations were clever and illuminating (the best were “Rollin’ to the River” about erosion in Zion Canyon and “Free Falling” about Peregrine Falcons, the fastest birds on earth). He conjured up an image of a creative, wholesome young National Park Service ranger spending his first summer in Zion taking everything in and reacting to the experience by writing songs on his trusty guitar.
As the program came to a close, he said, “We’re technically done for the evening, but for those who want to stay just a little longer, let’s sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ together. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?”
After lunch on September 14, we hopped back on the Zion National Park shuttle to explore points in Zion Canyon north of Zion Lodge, namely Weeping Rock and the Temple of Sinawava. It was already 3pm by the time we boarded. Our only full day in Zion was moving swiftly.