October 4, 2015 marked the 100 year anniversary of Dinosaur National Monument.
Though it was founded on October 4, 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson, dinosaur bone beds were first discovered there in 1909 by Earl Douglass.
Originally Dinosaur National Monument only had 80 acres and included area in Northeast Utah to protect “an extraordinary deposit of Dinosaurian and other gigantic reptilian remains of the Jurassic period,” according to the National Park Service.
In 1938 the area was expanded to 210,000 acres to include a lot more of Utah and also quite a bit of Colorado. The area is mostly in Colorado, although the visitor center with most of the dinosaur goodness is in Utah (where all of the visible dinosaur fossils are on display).
According to NPS, “The Canyon Visitor Center, which is open from late spring through early fall, is located just off U.S. Highway 40, two miles east of Dinosaur, CO,” but it is not the main visitor center. The main visitor center is located in Utah and up from the visitor center is the dinosaur quarry which has over 1,500 fossils in a cliff face which is enclosed by the exhibit hall (kind of like a building, except one of the walls is a cliff full of fossils).
You can make the 0.5 mile trip up there either by shuttle in the summer or guided “car caravan” the rest of the year (or you can walk), which is what we did, and recommend doing. The address for the museum is 11625 E 1500 S, Jensen, UT 84035. It’s about a five hour drive from Denver or a three hour drive from Salt Lake City, and you’re going to have to drive to get there because there aren’t really any other major cities nearby. Since it’s up in the mountains the elevation of most of the park is about one mile up.
The park has two rivers running through it: the Green River and the Yampa River, which are both beautiful. If you enjoy camping, there are six campgrounds and about 120 sites (half on the Utah side and half on the Colorado side), located in all corners of the park.
The monument itself is open 24/7, but the visitor center is open from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In 1923, Earl Douglass, the paleontologist who established the dinosaur quarry, suggested that the government “leave the bones and skeletons in relief and house them.” Douglass believed that doing so would create “one of the most astounding and instructive sights imaginable.” It took more than 30 years for his vision to become a reality, but Douglass’ assertion was correct.
The quarry exhibit hall was built in 1957 and is 150 feet long, to match the quarry face. In 2006 the building was deemed unsafe due to damage suffered from being built on soil, which expands while absorbing moisture. In October 2011 it reopened after adding large columns to anchor the building to bedrock much deeper in the ground than the problematic surface clay. It contains the wall of partially excavated fossils, touchbones, and dinosaur replicas, and it also has some nice touchscreens that explains the fossils in the walls.
There was a bit of a controversy when the Colorado River Storage Project planned to put a dam at Echo Park in the Middle of the Monument. The Sierra Club and Wilderness Society led a national campaign to preserve the rivers arguing that since it was a National Monument it should not be allowed. Eventually Congress agreed and they left the rivers in the Monument in tact.
We stayed in the nearby town of Vernal, UT which has a few dinosaur attractions of its own, but nothing compared to the national monument.
- Here’s the driving route that we did with the hike:
From the Canyon visitor center in Colorado up Harper’s Corner Rd about 30 miles (takes about one and a half to two hours one way, depending on how many scenic stops you take)
At the end of the road there is a trail to “Harper’s Corner” (three miles total, out and back, and has an amazing view of the Green River)
- There are also picnic areas all along the road which are a great place to stop.
In the summer you can look around for fossils, and the Harper’s Corner Trail has clam-like shells and crinoids (an ancient relative of starfish), since it was under an ancient sea, and other areas have rock carvings from prehistoric people. You can also go fishing or river rafting/boating. In the winter cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are allowed in some areas as well, although some of the roads close.
- Parking costs $10 (good for a week)
- An annual pass is $20
- And an Interagency pass is $80 (good at most federal parks)