Chances are you’ve heard of Dinosaur National Monument but have never been there. Or, if you’re a Colorado native, you visited it as a kid but haven’t been back since. Dinosaur National Monument is only about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, through Steamboat Springs via one route and Rangely and Rifle on another, making it an easy—not to mention awe-inspiring—weekend getaway or stopover on a tour of northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah (think Moab and Arches National Park).
Dino monument has “dinosaur” in its name for a reason, but there is plenty to do after you discover its fossils—from hiking, river rafting, and camping to learning about the Fremont people, who lived in this area about 1,000 years ago, and homesteaders. It’s considered a cold or semi-arid desert, so December through February are the coldest months to visit. But, as Coloradans know so well, the weather can be quite pleasant in those months, depending on the year, your tolerance level, and whether or not you plan to camp during your stay. Here, what you need to know to make the trek to the original Jurassic Park.
So, You Want to See Some Bones?
Most of Dinosaur National Monument sits in Moffat County, Colorado, but you have to go to the Utah side to see the fossils. The nearest sizable town on the Utahn side is Vernal (population: 10,291), while the nearest town to the Colorado side is Dinosaur, Colorado (population: 312), which boasts diverting dinosaur-named streets but few motels or eateries.
Start your tour of at the Quarry Visitor Center, 19 miles from Vernal. From late May to mid-September, it’s open daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. From mid-September to late May, it’s open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Here, you can ask rangers questions about the monument, buy an inexpensive guide to the Tour of the Tilted Rocks (a scenic drive on nearby Cub Creek Road), visit the gift shop, and then take a shuttle or hike to the Quarry Exhibit Hall (0.25 miles from the visitor center). Kids can also get their national monument stamps and take part in the Junior Ranger program.
The Quarry Exhibit Hall is where you’ll see the majority of the monument’s dinosaur fossils. Many natural history museums display casts of dinosaur fossils, and while Dino National Monument has some casts on display, it also exhibits real dinosaur fossils from the Jurassic Period—about 150 million years old— that you can actually touch (a shiver-inducing experience). These are some of the same dinosaur bones that paleontologist Earl Douglass found in 1909, establishing the dinosaur quarry that later become Dinosaur National Monument. You can also buy an inexpensive guide to the Quarry Exhibit Hall, and it has similar peak-season and off-season hours as the Quarry Visitor Center. In peak season, a shuttle leaves for the Exhibit Hall from the Visitor Center every 15 minutes, and there are special rules for shuttling there in the off-season. Or, you can hike there (or back) on the Fossil Discovery Trail.
The aptly named Fossil Discover Trail cuts through tilted rock layers, exposing a variety of rocks and three separate fossil areas, including one featuring a few large pieces of dinosaur bones just as paleontologist Douglass would have found them. Further on, you’ll see petroglyphs of the Fremont people—one of several places to spot them in the monument. The trail offers an amazing opportunity to see real dinosaur and other prehistoric fossils and petroglyphs in and on rock walls as you hike through a series of steep ridges, but be prepared for desert hiking and slippery-when-wet conditions.
How to Explore Dinosaur National Monument on Foot
Just like the monument was originally established to preserve the quarry but later extended to include more than 210,000 additional acres, you’ll come for the dinosaur fossils and stay for the rivers, canyons, and desert mountains. Additional hiking trails in the area include the Sound of Silence Trail and River Trail, a four-mile trek that follows Green River and provides dramatic views of one of Dinosaur’s most prominent features, Split Mountain. In the morning and at dusk, hikers often spot wildlife along the river. According to the National Park Service (NPS) website, Box Canyon and Hog Canyon, both on the Utah side, are excellent hikes for young kids. These are Dinosaur National Monument’s lower elevation trails.
On the Colorado side, the heart of the Monument’s canyon country, Ruple Point Trail, a 9.5-mile loop, goes through rolling, sagebrush-speckled terrain, and ends with a jaw-dropping view of Split Mountain Canyon and Green River below. At the end of Harpers Corner Road is Harpers Corner Trail, a three-mile trail that also culminates with a view of Green River and the surrounding canyons. Other Colorado-side trails include Mitten Park Trail in the remarkable Echo Park, reachable by raft, or the rough, unpaved Echo Park Road (high-clearance vehicles are strongly recommended) off Harpers Corner Road. These are the higher-elevation trails.
More remote trails include Bull Canyon Trail, Island Park Trail, Gates of Lodore Trail, and Jones Hole Trail. Off-trail hiking is an option for the more adventurous explorer, but make sure to bring a map and compass and know how to use them, and check in with a park ranger before heading out. Most of Dino’s hiking trails aren’t pet friendly, but River Trail on the Utah side and Cold Desert Trail on the Colorado side do allow pets. Make sure to be aware of where your pet can and can’t go because, well, desert conditions, cars, and pets don’t always mix.
Where to Stay While Visiting the Dinos
Weather permitting, camping is one of the best ways to experience Dinosaur National Monument. The area includes six different campgrounds with over 120 sites. Three campgrounds are located on the Utah side of the monument (Green River, Split Mountain, and Rainbow Park with Green River being the closest to the Quarry) and the three are on the Colorado side (Echo Park, Deerlodge Park, and Gates of Lodore). Prices and availability of water vary with the seasons. Check out the NPS website for more information.
Nearby Vernal, Utah, has plenty of lodging options. Mom-and-pop run motels line Main Street, which becomes a highway at either end of town where you’ll also find recognizable hotel chains. You’re not likely to find lodging in Dinosaur, Colorado, so plan on hoteling it in Vernal if you aren’t camping.
If You Do One Thing…
Tour the area by car. Dinosaur National Monument offers two scenic drives. The Tour of Tilted Rocks, a scenic drive along Cub Creek Road, passes through pictograph- and petroglyph-marked cliff walls, Split Mountain, a longstanding ranch, and an old homesteading site with views of rust- and ochre-colored canyons on a 24-mile, roundtrip drive.
You can also view petroglyphs and pictographs at Jones Hole Fish Hatchery, Pool Creek along the Harpers Corner Drive, and a handful of other places at the Monument. Petroglyphs (carvings into rock walls) are more common at the Monument than pictographs (paintings on stone). You’ll recognize human shapes and animal shapes such as sheep and lizards and also notice abstract designs.
The second auto tour, the Harpers Corner Scenic Drive, is a 31-mile, one-way route that takes you from the Canyon Visitor Center to Harpers Corner by Plug Hat Butte and several outstanding lookouts over the Green and Yampa rivers. Steamboat Rock hides the confluence of the two rivers from view at the Echo Park overlook.
No matter when you visit Dinosaur National Monument and how long you stay, there’s always something new to discover at this striking and historic monument.