Dinosaur National Monument
20 miles E of Vernal, 195 miles E of Salt Lake City
In some ways, this park is two separate experiences: a look at the lost world of dinosaurs on one hand, and a scenic wonderland of colorful rock, deep river canyons, and a forest of Douglas fir on the other.
About 150 million years ago, the region was a warm land of ferns, conifers, grasses, ponds, and rivers. This made it a suitable habitat for dinosaurs, including vegetarians such as diplodocus, apatosaurus, and stegosaurus; and sharp-toothed carnivores, such as allosaurus, that hunted their vegetarian cousins. When these huge creatures died, most of their skeletons decayed and disappeared, but in at least one spot, floodwaters washed dinosaur carcasses into the bottom of a river. Here they were preserved in sand and covered with sediment, creating the largest quarry of Jurassic-period dinosaur bones ever discovered.
But visitors who limit their trip to the Dinosaur Quarry, fascinating as it is, miss quite a bit. Encompassing 325 square miles of stark canyons at the confluence of two rivers, the monument also offers hiking trails, pioneer homesteads, thousand-year-old rock art, spectacular panoramic vistas, wildlife-watching opportunities, and the thrills of white-water rafting.
The Yampa, Green, and smaller rivers are responsible for the area's fertility, creating microclimates that support hanging gardens of mosses and ferns, cottonwoods, and even an occasional Douglas fir -- all just yards from the predominant landscape of sagebrush, cactus, and dwarfed piñon and juniper trees. Wildlife includes species that can survive the harsh extremes of the high desert climate -- bighorn sheep, coyote, rabbits, and snakes -- as well as mule deer, beaver, and porcupine along the riverbanks. Birds that are occasionally spotted include peregrine falcons, sage grouse, and Canada geese.
Getting There/Access Points/Visitor Centers -- Straddling the Utah-Colorado state line, Dinosaur National Monument is accessible via two main roads -- one from each state -- that don't connect inside the monument.
The temporary visitor center is 20 miles east of Vernal. To get here, take U.S. 40 to Jensen and head north on Utah 149 for 7 miles. (The main visitor center at the Dinosaur Quarry closed in 2006 due to structural concerns, but is slated to reopen by 2012.) The visitor center is open daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day from 9am to 6pm, and in winter from 8am to 4:30pm. It is closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Administrative offices and a small visitor center are located about 2 miles east of the town of Dinosaur, Colorado, at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Harpers Corner Drive. This visitor center offers a short slide program; hours are daily 8am to 4:30pm in summer and Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm at other times. The center is closed for federal holidays.
Several other monument entrances exist, all without visitor centers: At the far eastern edge of the monument off U.S. 40, an entry road leads to Deerlodge Park (open in summer only); at the northern tip, off Colo. 318, a road goes to the Gates of Lodore; just inside the Utah border at Jones Hole Fish Hatchery, a road leads into the park via the Jones Hole Road from Vernal; and at the Rainbow Park section, you'll find a park entry road off Island Park Road (impassable when wet) from the monument's western edge.
Information -- Contact Dinosaur National Monument, 4545 E. U.S. 40, Dinosaur, CO 81610-9724 (tel. 435/781-7700 or 970/374-3000; www.nps.gov/dino). In addition, the nonprofit Intermountain Natural History Association, 1291 E. U.S. 40, Vernal, UT 84078 (tel. 800/845-3466; www.inhaweb.com), offers numerous publications, maps, posters, and videos on the park and its geology, wildlife, history, and dinosaurs. Information on area lodging, dining, and recreational facilities can be obtained from the Dinosaurland Travel Board.
Fees, Backcountry Permits, Regulations & Safety -- The entry fee, charged only at the main Utah entrance, is $10 per vehicle or $5 per person for those on foot, on motorcycles, or on bicycles, for up to 1 week. Camping fees are additional (free-$12 a night); backcountry overnight camping permits, although free, are required and available from park rangers.
Regulations forbid damaging or taking anything, particularly fossils and other natural, historical, and archaeological items. Off-road driving is not permitted. Dogs must be leashed at all times. Pets are not allowed in buildings, on trails, more than 100 feet from developed roads, or on river trips.
Rangers warn that the rivers are not safe for swimming or wading; the water is icy cold, and the current is stronger than it appears.
Seasons/Avoiding the Crowds -- Summer is the busiest and hottest time of the year at Dinosaur National Monument, with daytime temperatures often soaring into the upper 90s (30s Celsius). Winters are a lot quieter but can be cold, with fog, snow, and temperatures below zero (-18°C). The best times to visit are spring, although you should be prepared for rain showers, and fall, perhaps the very best time, when the cottonwood trees turn a brilliant gold.
Ranger Programs -- Rangers present a variety of activities in summer, including evening campfire programs; check the schedules posted at either visitor center.
Seeing the Sights
Those with only a short amount of time should make their first stop the Dinosaur Quarry -- if it's open. Structural instability forced the Park Service to open a temporary visitor center in 2006, with only limited fossil displays. The old building is slated to reopen by 2012. Regardless, this is the only place in the monument where you can see dinosaur bones. This area is believed to be one of the world's most concentrated and accessible deposits of the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, and clams. The quarry -- which looks like a long slab of frozen pudding with bones sticking out of it -- is enclosed in the old visitor center, so it's off-limits for now, but the temporary visitor center offers some fossils to look at along with interpretive displays. There's one section of bones that you can actually reach out and touch, and models show what paleontologists believe these dinosaurs looked like when they still had their skin.
After spending about an hour in the quarry area, drive the Tour of the Tilted Rocks, which takes an hour or two. Then, if time remains, or if you're heading east into Colorado anyway, take another few hours to drive the scenic Harpers Corner Drive.
Exploring by Car
Drives in both the Utah and Colorado sections of the park allow motorists to see spectacular scenery in relative solitude. Brochures for each of the following drives are available at the visitor centers.
From the quarry area on the Utah side of the park, the Tour of the Tilted Rocks along Cub Creek Road is a 24-mile round-trip drive that's suitable for most passenger cars. This route takes you to 1,000-year-old rock art left by the Fremont people, a pioneer homestead, and views of nearby mountains and the Green River. Watch for prairie dogs both alongside and on the road. Although mostly paved, the last 2 miles of the road are dirt and narrow, and may be dusty or muddy. Allow 1 to 2 hours.
For the best scenic views, drive to Colorado and take the Harpers Corner Drive. This paved, 62-mile round-trip has several overlooks offering panoramic views into the gorges carved by the Yampa and Green rivers, a look at the derby-shaped Plug Hat Butte, and close-ups of a variety of other colorful rock formations. The drive also provides access to the easy .25-mile round-trip Plug Hat Nature Trail and the moderately difficult 2-mile round-trip Harpers Corner Trail. Allow about 2 hours for the drive, more if you plan to do some hiking.
Boating -- To many people, the best way to see this beautiful, rugged country is from the river, where you can admire the scenery while crashing through thrilling white water and floating over smooth, silent stretches. About a dozen outfitters are authorized to run the Yampa and Green rivers through the monument, offering trips ranging from 1 to 5 days, usually from mid-May to mid-September. Among companies providing river trips are Hatch River Expeditions (tel. 800/342-8243 or 435/789-4316; www.donhatchrivertrips.com) and Dinosaur River Expeditions (tel. 800/345-7238 or 435/781-0717; www.dinoadv.com). Prices start at about $80 for a 1-day trip. A complete list of authorized river-running companies is available from monument headquarters.
Fishing -- The catch is mostly catfish in the Green and Yampa rivers, although there are also some trout. Several endangered species of fish -- including the razorback sucker and humpback chub -- must be returned unharmed to the water if caught. Either a Utah or Colorado fishing license (or both) is required, depending on where you plan to fish.
Hiking -- Because most visitors spend their time at the quarry and along the scenic drives, hikers willing to exert a little effort can discover spectacular and dramatic views of the colorful canyons while enjoying an isolated and quiet wilderness experience. The best times for hiking are spring and fall, but even then, hikers should carry at least a gallon of water per person, per day.
In addition to several developed trails, experienced backcountry hikers with the appropriate maps can explore miles of unspoiled canyons and rock benches. Ask rangers about the numerous possibilities.
In the Utah section of the park, you can search out extreme solitude along the Sound of Silence Trail, a moderate-to-difficult 3-mile hike that leaves Cub Creek Road about 2 miles east of the Dinosaur Quarry. This trail is designed to help you learn how to find your own way in the desert, and is not always easy to follow.
The Desert Voices Nature Trail, a self-guided nature trail near the quarry, offers sweeping panoramic views and a section with signs created by kids for kids. This 1.5-mile (round-trip) hike is moderately difficult.
Visitors to the Colorado side of the park enjoy the Cold Desert Trail, which begins at the headquarters' visitor center. This easy .5-mile round-trip trail offers a good introduction to the natural history of this arid environment.
Panoramic vistas await visitors on the Plug Hat Nature Trail, an easy .25-mile round-trip hike that introduces you to the interactions between plants and animals in the piñon juniper forest. It's located along the Harpers Corner Scenic Drive.
The very popular Harpers Corner Trail begins at the end of the Harpers Corner Scenic Drive. This 2-mile round-trip hike is moderately difficult but highly recommended for a magnificent view of the deep river canyons.
The Green River Campground, 5 miles east of the Dinosaur Quarry within park boundaries, has 80 RV and tent sites, modern restrooms, drinking water, tables, and fireplaces, but no showers or RV hookups. Park rangers often give campfire talks. Cost is $12 per night; it's open mid-April into October and reservations are not available.
Several smaller campgrounds with limited facilities are also available in the monument, with fees ranging from nothing to $8; check with the visitor centers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.