Want to travel back in time? You can go to the ghost town of Bodie (see previous post) and travel back 150 years. Or, you can visit Dinosaur National Monument and travel back 150 million years!
Dinosaur National Monument has a split personality. It has two distinct sections – one in Utah and another in Colorado. Both are worth visiting and can be done in a day. A visit to Dinosaur can be combined with a road trip to Yellowstone, the Colorado Rockies or Utah’s canyon country.
The Utah entrance will lead you to an amazing repository of fossils, with over 1,500 dinosaur fossils embedded in a single cliff face. The Colorado entrance, some 25 miles east, is a gateway to a wonderfully eroded upland overlooking the colorful canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers.
Let’s start with the fossils, which were the reason the monument was created in 1915 and are still its main draw for visitors.
The geology of the region is complex, but the National Park Service does a good job in explaining how the fossils wound up in the Morrison Formation, which is a mix of sandstone and conglomerate formed during the Jurassic period. As dinosaurs expired, their bones were embedded into stone. The primary quarry lets you see the actual bones, which are clearly visible in the cliff face. Paleontologists tell us these fossils are 147 to 150 million years old.
The Utah entrance is 12 miles east of the Mormon farming town of Vernal, which is 170 miles east of Salt Lake City or 315 miles west of Denver via US 40. From the turnoff in the village of Jensen, you drive 7 miles past farms and along the Green River to the visitor center, where you pay the $10 entrance fee. The quarry is in a separate location, and access is tightly controlled. During the busy summer season, visitors ride a shuttle bus to the quarry. During less busy times, they drive their own vehicles in a convoy led by a ranger. Inside the quarry, rangers are available to answer questions and sometimes give brief presentations. The ultramodern quarry building was completed in 2011.
On the day I was there in late October, I was the first one there in the morning and was invited to drive myself to the quarry. I had the ranger all to myself for about 30 minutes until more visitors arrived.
From the visitor center, the Cub Creek Road continues another 12 miles. It’s a great drive, leading past Split Mountain and along the Green River past towering cliffs and nature trails to the Josie Morris Cabin, where a pioneer woman lived alone until she died at age 89. When I took the drive, the cottonwoods along the river were an intense yellow, adding to the already colorful landscape. Watch for deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep along this drive. The last couple of miles are unpaved – don’t drive that portion in an RV.
Now, on to Colorado. The National Park Service goes to great lengths to emphasize that dinosaur bones are found only in Utah. The Colorado section is about scenery. From Jensen, continue east on US 40. Just past the state line, you come to the town of Dinosaur, where the main street is Brontosaurus Avenue. Just east of Dinosaur, the paved Harpers Corner Road leads north into the monument. There’s a visitor center at the junction; it’s open seasonally and was closed when I was there.
Almost immediately, the Harpers Corner Road climbs to a high tableland, with stunning views to the west. It continues 34 miles, deadending at Harpers Corner Viewpoint, which overlooks the highly eroded canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers. Echo Park, at the confluence of the two rivers, is a great side trip with a beautiful campground. The access road is steep, twisting and unpaved. High-clearance vehicles are recommended, but Old Betsy can probably handle it in dry weather. Please keep in mind that the Harpers Corner Road is 34 miles in and 34 miles back the way you came. Allow at least two hours for the round-trip, three if you visit Echo Park.
About half way in on Harper Corner Road, I drove into a black cloud full of lightning flashes. Being a California driver (i.e., not used to anything but nice weather), I turned tail and fled back to US 40.
Unless you’re camping, you’ll want to stay overnight in Vernal, which has a full range of visitor services. I recommend you make advance reservations in summer. Campers will find two campgrounds along the Green River about 3-4 miles east of the visitor center. Split Mountain Campground, the first one you come to, is a popular takeout spot for river runners.
If it fits your itinerary, I highly recommend the drive north on US 191 to Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The views southward are tremendous, and signs indicate which geological formations you’re traversing. After 33 miles, take Utah SR 44 west from US 191 for two great side trips: The Sheep Creek canyon geology drive and the three-mile road to Red Canyon Overlook over Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Awesome! If you stay on SR 44, you’ll cross into Wyoming and eventually hook up with Interstate 80, which leads west to Salt Lake City or east to Cheyenne.