(Gold star to anyone who can figure out the random inspiration for the title of this post. Hint: it came from the TV show I was bingeing at the time I sat down to write this.)
If you’ve ever heard of Dinosaur National Monument, you probably specifically heard about the dinosaur quarry… a building that was built around a wall of partially excavated dinosaur bones. I first visited Dinosaur with my family when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and my only memory of that entire trip is this wall of bones. It’s truly one of a kind and it definitely left an impression my dinosaur-loving little kid self.
At the time, due to COVID, we had to purchase timed entry tickets in advance to visit the quarry, although this has since been discontinued. You then arrive at the visitor center about 15 minutes prior to your reservation time and take the free shuttle up to the quarry (or arrive even earlier and hike the Fossil Discovery Trail up instead).
We entered the quarry on the second floor and found ourselves staring at the enormous wall of bones. Camarasaurus is the most common species of dinosaur uncovered here, but there are also bones from Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus, among other lesser-known species. In one spot you’re allowed to actually touch the bones!
Millions of years ago, this area was covered by a river. Paleontologists hypothesize that a lengthy drought about 149 million years ago resulted in a mass die off of dinosaurs. When the rains returned, the river overflowed with water and washed many of the bones downstream while burying others in layers of silt. Thousands of bones from more than 500 animals have been uncovered here. About 1500 of these bones remain in the wall today. Others have been removed and are on display in museums around the country.
Scientists also note that this quarry is not entirely representative of all the life in this area 149 million years ago; larger bones would have been more likely to remain intact and not travel as far, while smaller bones would have likely been swept away and/or heavily damaged. Fewer fossils of these smaller species – such as turtles, clams, insects, and plants – have been found here. Some fossil samples of these species are also on display in the quarry.
We spent about an hour at the quarry and then hiked the 1.2 mile (1.9 km) Fossil Discovery Trail back to the visitor center. It’s all downhill if you hike it in this direction. There are 3 short offshoot trails to some fossils embedded in the rocks. Unlike the wall of bones, these fossils are not excavated and we found them to be exceedingly difficult to spot. (Full disclosure: most of them were so difficult to find that we couldn’t find them at all.)
Also on the Utah side of the monument (it spans Utah and Colorado) is Cub Creek Road, more commonly known as the Tour of Tilted Rocks. Pick up a brochure for $1 just inside the entrance station and follow the numbered stops all the way to the end of the road. A word of advice: parking is scarce at stops #14 and #15, and they’re the most popular ones. Park rangers will block the road when the lots are full. Therefore I recommend starting early and doing the tour in reverse; drive to #14 and #15 first and then work your way back.
Stop #15 is the Josie Bassett Morris homestead. Josie was, quite honestly, a badass. After multiple divorces she decided she was best suited for the single life and established her own homestead here in 1914 where she remained for 50 years. She had close ties with many outlaws, including Butch Cassidy, and was a bootlegger during Prohibition. She was also smart and savvy and performed many tasks that were at the time considered to be a man’s job. Josie was fully self-sufficient, growing her own fruits and vegetables which she irrigated with a system she built, raising poultry, and corralling livestock in two box canyons.
There are short trails back into both canyons, which we really enjoyed. Not only are the towering rock walls pretty spectacular, but the area is also lush and green; truly an oasis in the desert.
Stop #14 is one of many sites in the monument where petroglyphs are on display. Most petroglyphs here at Dinosaur were made about 1000 years ago by the Fremont people. Not much is known about them; they left behind many pieces of their culture in Utah and then simply vanished from the archaeological record. One hypothesis is that they assimilated into another culture.
At stop #14 many petroglyphs, including some enormous lizard drawings, are visible on rock faces up above the road. A short but steep climb leads up to them. Please don’t touch them, as the oils on our hands accelerate the erosion and decay of the drawings.
Other stops along the Tour of Tilted Rocks include viewpoints, bits of geology and history, and more petroglyphs. An assortment of photos is below.
Our final stop (we went a little out of order) was #3: the Desert Voices Trail. This trail departs from Split Mountain Campground, down on the banks of the Green River, and meanders through the desert landscape for just shy of 2 miles (3.2 km). We really enjoyed the colorful scenery and learned a lot from the signs along the way.
And finally, we headed back to our home base at Green River Campground for the night. This is the only non-group campground in the monument that takes reservations. It’s… okay, I guess. It’s a pretty location. But it’s dusty as hell, especially when windy. Despite the fact that our rain fly goes basically down to the ground, we ended up with a layer of fine dirt inside our tent coating absolutely everything. It was a huge mess, and it was so bad our first night that we abandoned ship halfway through and slept in the car instead.
But aside from the dust, it was a decent place to stay.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: The photos and info in this post are from the Utah entrance to Dinosaur National Monument near the towns of Jensen and Vernal. This is the half of the monument with dinosaur bones
- Fees and passes: entry to the monument costs $25/car for a 7 day pass; interagency passes accepted
- Where to stay: there are two campgrounds in this side of the monument: Green River Campground ($18/night) and Split Mountain group campground; both take reservations during the summer. There is also an RV park outside the monument in Jensen and hotels and other lodging in Vernal
- Hiking: most people who visit Dinosaur come to see the quarry, so if you’re looking for solitude I recommend hiking one or more of the short trails. More info on each hike can be found here
- Other: although the elevation at Dinosaur is around 5000 feet (1500 m), this is the desert. It’s hot and dry in the summer and cools off quite abruptly at night. Even at the end of May it was about 85°F (29°C) and sunny during the day… later in the summer temperatures regularly exceed 100°F (38°C) so this is a park best visited in the offseason