About 145 million years ago, the northern parts of Utah and Colorado were a low-lying plain crossed by several large rivers and many smaller streams. A huge variety of ferns, cycads, clubmosses, and clumps of tall conifers dotted the plain. This was the home to dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus (better known as Brontosaurus), Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and other vegetarians. Allosaurus, the sharp-toothed carnivore, preyed on them all. As these animals. lived and died, most of their skeletons decayed without a trace, but in at least one spot, river floodwaters washed a great number of carcasses and bones onto a sandbar. Layers of sediment were deposited on top of the sandbar, fossilizing and protecting the bones. Then the rocks were uplifted and titled, where wind and weather exposed this long lost graveyard. In 1909, paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered this section of rock, 200 feet long, and layered with hundreds of different prehistoric plant and animal fossils. He and a crew excavated about 350 tons of fossils, including full skeletons, many of dinosaur species previously unknown.
The quarry where Douglass and his team worked has been designated Dinosaur National Monument. More than 2,000 bones are exposed in the quarry walls. In 1957, a year-round visitor center was erected over the quarry to protect the fossilized dinosaur bones and skeletons. Ironically, ever since it was erected, the Visitor’s Center has experienced movement in the foundation of the building since it was built on somewhat unstable clay. In 2006, the structural damage was so great (cracked foundations, warped walls and doors, etc.) that the Visitor’s Center had to be closed down. The good news is, preliminary work for a new Quarry Visitor Center has already begun. New plans have been approved and construction is scheduled to begin as early as Spring 2010, with completion estimated in early summer 2011.
Don’t worry though, you can still see plenty of dinosaur bones! A Temporary Visitor Center has been erected near the Quarry Visitor Center, which contains many fossils and exhibits. Or you can take the Fossil Discovery Hike (approx. 1.5 miles round trip) and see a variety of fossils still embedded in rock. Guided hikes are offered daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and are a great way to understand the history, geology and ecology of the area.
But there’s more to see than just fossils in Dinosaur National Monument. The Tour of the Tilted Rocks is an 11-mile (one-way) auto tour route along Cub Creek Road. It starts near the Temporary Visitor Center and along the way you can visit petroglyph and pictograph panels, fantastic scenery including canyons, strange formations and spectacular views of the Green River, the Josie Bassett Cabin (built in 1913 and preserved) or just stop at one of the hiking trailheads. Most of the trails in the monument are fairly short and favorites include Harpers Corner Trail, the Gates of Lodore Trail and the Red Rock Trail.
Bicycling is another popular activity in the park. Popular rides include Rainbow Park to Island Park with views of the Green River and colorful geologic features, as well as Yampa Bench Road, which take you alongside the Yampa River, with changing views of the river and its canyons.
Long before modern settlers arrived, the Yampa and Green Rivers provided water for survival in a otherwise arid landscape. Petroglyphs and rock art was left behind many peoples, as well as sites where the Fremont Indians lived between 1,200 to 800 years ago. The Ute and Shoshone tribes also called the monument home and many of their descendants are still in the area today. Many of these sites are accessible by short hikes.
Within this arid setting, the rivers and their canyons offer an amazing oasis — cottonwood and boxelder leaves gently rustle in the breeze, while the water murmurs softly to itself. However, The Green River between the Gates of Lodore and Split Mountain is not a tame river — Gates of Lodore contains multiple challenging Class III and Class IV rapids while the Yampa River sports many Class III rapids and one Class IV known as Warm Springs Rapid. There are about 10 commercial river guides who can navigate you through the park, and permits are available for private boating trips within the park.
There are six developed campgrounds at Dinosaur National Monument — three on the Utah side of the monument and three on the Colorado side of the monument. Lodging, dining and shopping opportunities are available in the nearby towns of Dinosaur and Rangely, Colorado, and Vernal, Utah, although it is recommended you call ahead for reservations for lodging.
Dinosaur National Monument
4545 E. Highway 40
Dinosaur, CO 81610-9724
Temporary Visitor Center: 435-781-7700
Canyon Area Visitor Center: 970-374-3000