David and I were not sure if we wanted to go to Dinosaur National Monument as we made our way west. We asked friends and family what they thought and we got mixed reviews. Some thought that we would like it only if we were very interested in dinosaurs and others strongly encouraged us to visit it. We figured that the only way to know for sure was to go there. Even before we arrived to the national monument, we were taken by the landscape. The high desert gave way to banded mountains and tilted rock formations of limestone, sandstone, and quartzite. Some of the mountains even resembled the plates on a dinosaur’s back. We are so glad that we came this way because it is an amazing area and with an extraordinary monument.
Dinosaur National Monument covers 210,000 acres and 90% of the park is managed as wilderness. The park straddles the border between Utah and Colorado and it has several access points. There are, however, two main areas that most people visit and each has its own Visitor Center. The Quarry Fossil Beds Visitor Center is near Jensen, UT and the Canyon Visitor Center is outside of Dinosaur, CO. (We will have two separate posts on the most visited parts of the park: one for the UT section and one for the Colorado section.) Dearlodge Park farther to the west and Gates of Lodore to the north are a long way from either Visitor Center. While there are some primitive campgrounds and hiking trails in each of these locations, these entry points are used primarily as launch points for river trips down the Yampa River and the Green River.
We stayed near the Quarry Fossil Beds Visitor Center. The road into the park takes you beside the Green River which winds its way through this unique terrain. Once inside the national monument, we settled into the Green River Campground. The other campground here is Split Mountain campground and it is a group campground. Both campgrounds are located right on the Green River. There are many groups of rafters that take out at Split Mountain after their river adventures.
The Fremont people were the earliest inhabitants to live along the Green River. The pictographs and petroglyphs provide archaeological evidence that confirms their presence here prior to the 14th century. In various locations throughout the national monument, there are images that they carved into the rock canyon walls. The petroglyphs and pictographs, as we have seen at other sites, appear to have been ceremonial or religious in nature. Near the Quarry Visitor Center, there are some that you can walk up to see at the Swelter Shelter site and there are others on the road to Echo Park.
John Wesley Powell was the first American geologist to make a river trip through the Green River Canyon. Along the way, he named many of the prominent places and geographical features. He had several mishaps on his first journey through this area and one particularly bad rapids area he dubbed Disaster Falls.
Not long after Powell’s exploration, settlers began to occupy land along the Green River. One of the oldest ranches that is still in operation was established in the late 1880s when Aaron Daniels started cattle ranching near what is now Dinosaur National Monument. The family continued ranching there until 1941 when they sold the land to Douglas Crew. To this day, the ranch remains in operation and can be seen from the park. On our way to the national monument, we ran across some cattle ranchers who were moving their herd alongside the main highway. Cattle ranching is still a part of this area’s cultural heritage and identity.
One of the main reasons that most people come to visit this national monument is to see the dinosaur quarry exhibit. In 1909, Earl Douglass, an American paleontologist who was working for the Carnegie Museum, discovered some dinosaur bones. In August of 1909, he first discovered eight tailbones of a sauropod. After that discovery, they began the excavation of many dinosaur fossils. This burial ground of fossilized dinosaur remains proved to be an extraordinary find. Several tons of fossils were shipped to museums and universities from 1909-1924. They have collected fossils for over 400 dinosaurs from this quarry site.
The dinosaur bones embedded in the rock quarry are part of the Morrison Foundation that dates back to the Jurassic Period. About 150 million years ago an ancient river flowed across this area and it attracted many dinosaurs. There was drought and many perished along the river banks. These remains were washed downstream during floods, collected in one place, and buried in the sandy bottom of the river bed. Some dinosaurs were intact while others were not. Over time these buried remains became fossilized and preserved in this quarry area.
The discovery of the quarry prompted President Woodrow Wilson to set aside 80 acres as a national monument to protect the artifacts here. In 1938, the national monument was expanded to include all the land that is currently within its boundaries. In 2001, Dinosaur National Monument became a National Historic Landmark.
Today there are 800 paleontological sites in the park. At one of the sites, they found a fossilized skeleton of a Camarasaurus and it is the most complete long-necked dinosaur ever discovered. In 1990, they dug up an Allosaurus jimmadsani from a ravine. It took them three years to extract it. It is clear that the archaeological and paleontological work is on going.
One of Earl Douglass’ goals was to have an exhibit of the fossil beds that the public could view. As a result, they worked to excavate a section of the quarry for that purpose. In 1958, the first Quarry Exhibit Hall opened to the public.
The Quarry Exhibit Hall’s main feature is a rock wall with about 1,500 dinosaur bones that you can view. In addition, there are informative displays, cast skeletons of dinosaurs, and actual dinosaur skulls that were chipped from the rock quarry here. To see a dinosaur skull is rare since very few intact skulls have been found world-wide. The ones here are the best preserved ever discovered.
The most exciting thing about this exhibit is that you can not only look at the rock wall but you can step right up to it and touch the bones. It is amazing to think that you can actually feel part of a dinosaur!
To visit the Quarry Exhibit, you can either take the shuttle up to the Exhibit Hall or walk up a trail. The shuttle runs every 15 minutes between the Visitor Center and the Exhibit building.
Dinosaur excitement extends beyond the confines of the national monument to the entire region. From the name of the town of Dinosaur, CO to the names of businesses in the nearby city of Vernal, UT, everyone seems to have dinosaur mania.
David and I did not know what to expect from our visit to Dinosaur National Monument. What we found there were world famous fossils, colorful mountains, and scenic river views. We are glad that we did not miss this unique part of the country.