Dinosaur National Monument: The Real Jurassic Park

Vernal, Utah is the gateway to dinosaur country, specifically Dinosaur National Monument. Vernal itself isn't all that big, though there are a lot of hotels. There are also a lot of 7-Elevens. I'm staying in a VBRO rented property that is really nice with the exception of the inexplicable lack of mugs in the kitchen. I've been forced to make tea in lowball or Old Fashioned drink glasses. Whatever works.

"Dinah". Built in the 1950s to stand outside a now defunct motel. 

Vernal also has a lot of giant plastic/fake dinosaurs. And one woolly mammoth who regularly needs his hair replaced. Driving around here is kind of fun because of this. Though, trying to get a good picture of "Dinah" the big pink dinosaur on the east side of town proved interesting. It's not easy. I ended up doing a u-turn in the Juvenile Justice Services parking lot and got a great look at a California Quail sitting on a "Stay Right" sign as I drove by. And I did finally get a good shot of Dinah.

California Quail

I would visit the National Monument over the course of two days. This post covers both these days. 

First I paid a visit to the Utah Field House of Natural History. This is a really nice little museum, located in downtown Vernal, that gives you a great overview of all the geological wonders to be found in the area. You can travel through time, through extinct inland seas, sand dunes, and lacustrine environments and view the fossilized skeletons of the denizens of those lost worlds. Say hello to the Allosaurus skeleton and the woolly mammoth (who regularly loses its hair). Wonder at the protorohippus skeleton (the earliest antecedent of the modern horse) that was sealed in shale with dead fish around 45 million years ago. Look up and up again at the titanothere skull and dream of dragons and Daenerys Targaryen only to remember that a titanothere, when alive and fully fleshed, looked like a giant furry rhinoceros.

Birding in Vernal is complicated by the sudden arrival of Pterosaurs. There's an entire garden of such reproductions outside the Field Museum. Take a stroll through. It's fun.

Then I headed east. Dinosaur National Monument straddles the borders of Utah and Colorado. It's an amazing place and, since a lot of people have never heard of it, you can easily avoid the crowds you find at other better known parks in this area of the world. Just remember the dinosaur bones are on the Utah side, entrance through Jensen. Amazing views and hiking opportunities and access to outlaw country (of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and The Hole in the Wall Gang) are found in Colorado (or by really rough 4x4 only roads from Utah). More on that in a minute.

Driving toward the Utah entrance to the monument.

Black-tailed hare. I think.... On the second day I spent in the monument I encountered this hare and three mule deer right near the entrance.

A visit to Dinosaur National Monument is a visit through deep geologic time. Here the Morrison Formation is laid open to the world and spilling out dinosaur remains in great quantities. Here Allosaurus stalked fern eating Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, and the 34 ton Apatosaurus. Perhaps even ate the odd Stegosaurus or two. This is the Late Jurassic (147 to 155 million years ago). And it is here, through information imparted by dinosaur fossils and the fossils of clams, ferns, snails, insects, frogs, turtles, crocodiles, and small mammals, that we can walk the trails, float down the river, or drive the sometimes rough roads, and in our minds bring this ancient world back to life.

The Green River, along with the Yampa river have helped created the amazing canyons that typify Dinosaur National Monument.

But it is not just the Jurassic that you can visit in this area. You can take a stroll through 23 different geologic formations dating all the way back to the Cambrian, where 570 million years ago there was an explosion of sea life that led the way for both dinosaurs, humans, and every other living thing.

Human history in this area goes back at least 12,000 years. There are easily seen petroglyphs and rock paintings that date to 1000 years ago on many of the park's trails.

Start your trip at the Quarry Visitor's Center. Take the shuttle up to the quarry and marvel at the huge cliff of bone in front of you. So many dead dinosaurs stuck in what was a river bend so far back in time. Then hike back to the Visitor's Center via the Fossil Discovery Trail (1.2 miles). The trail first takes you back in time to 163 million years ago when this area was a large inland sea. Look closely at the rocks at the end of the spur trail. Those rather rough looking slabs are made of fossilized clams. Next is a visit to the Morrison Formation from around 150 million years ago. Now we are walking through an environment that is semi-arid, warm, and snaked through with year-round streams providing very necessary habitat for ferns, gingkos, and conifers that fed the huge sauropod dinosaurs that roamed here. Roamed here like you are roaming. You are walking where they walked. You are so much smaller than they. Then the next spur trail takes you to the Mowry Shale. Now we are walking through a giant lake and between 98 and 93 million years ago volcanic eruptions deposited huge amounts of ash that killed all the fish here, but preserved them in some places in astonishing resolution.  Look closely at the shale fragments near the end of the trail. You will find fossilized fish scales locked within them.

Are you ready for the next leg of the trip?

Drive out the Cub Creek Road. Here there are more geologic wonders. The rock layers are all vertically tilted. When the Rocky Mountains and the Uinta Mountains were first uplifting 50 million years ago, diastrophic forces literally folded the rock in this area.

Keep driving. Go all the way up to Josie's Cabin, where Josephine Bassett Morris homesteaded until the early 1960's. She was a legend. She was an accused cattle rustler and an alleged associate of Butch Cassidy. She only left after, at the age of 89, she fell from her horse and broke her hip. She would never return to her property that had provided nearly everything she needed since she'd first arrived there in 1914.

The cabin area is idyllic. After investigating the cabin itself, I wandered out into the middle of an iris-filled field. It was an explosion of light purple and green in the middle of orange and white rock. I wandered out one of the trails, by the pond, and was treated to a show by spotted towhees, yellow-rumped warblers, robins, Say's phoebes, cottontail rabbits, a hare, and two ravens that calling and calling and the making knocking sounds and then calling again.

Another interesting thing about the cabin site is in the area where Josie kept her pigs. They found a very rare orchid living there.

Once I was done time traveling in this area, I headed out of the park and drove 30 miles toward Dinosaur, Colorado, where two miles beyond you will find the Colorado entrance to the park. Dinosaur, Colorado has the coolest street names of just about any place on earth. You can stand on the corner of Brontosaurus Blvd. and Allosaurus Ln. But you should know that Dinosaur, Colorado is a relic unto itself and full of abandoned buildings overseen by a giant, seemingly thriving junk yard.

Back into the park I drove out Harper's Corner Road. The scenery is amazing.

Then the world's shortest rain storm happened (I think three rain drops fell) and I decided a nap was needed.

When I awoke, I didn't know what to do with myself. I ended up investigating Steinaker and Red Fleet State Parks. I have more to say about Red Fleet in my next post but this afternoon I managed to have an encounter with a herd of...cows. I saw this medium-sized black animal ambling down the road. I got excited for about a nanosecond thinking it was a bear...until my brain kicked in and I realized it was black Angus calf. Soon its mother and friends joined it in the middle of the road. They were hoofing it down to a huge mud puddle at the entrance of the park where they went for an afternoon drink.

At Steinaker State Park, I had planned to walk the nature trail but its under construction. Then I found something even better: beaches. I went and sat on the beach and watched horned grebes, American avocets, coots, heron, osprey, vultures, seagulls, cliff swallows, and some kind of sandpiper all swim or fly by in the golden evening sun. It was the perfect way to end a day.


Part of the Quarry Wall. If you look to the top right there is a white section. Just below that is the skull of a Camarasaurus. You can follow its impossibly long line of cervical vertebrae back toward the left. There are also ribs and leg bones and more vertebrae all mixed in there.

These leg bones are almost as big as big as a small adult human.

Out on the Fossil Discovery Trail this Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel was doing some house keeping or it was taking a sand bath. See below.

Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel rolling around and kicking sand all over the place. 

The desert was absolutely covered in flowers. This is the biggest bloom they've had in this area in five years. There has been a lot of rain this year.

Sego Lily. They were blooming all over. I walked with a ranger who was photographing all the blooming plants and trying to identify some of them. Most she knew but some hadn't flowered in years and thus she was trying to catalogue them.

Fossilized clams

Trace the outline of the ochre colored bits of this "rock." This is a dinosaur bone. I don't know what species it belongs to though. 

Fossilized fish scales in this bit of shale. 

Possibly a young Rock Wren.


The Green River early in the morning. I'm waiting for the sun to appear.

The Green River.

The Green River is...brown at the moment. Silt from a lot of rain.

The multi-colored Morrison Formation.


I don't know but it has to be part of the pea family. 

Here you can see where the land literally folded when the Rocky Mountains and Uinta Mountains were formed.

A Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel. If you look closely you will see a drop of dew just above its eye.

This hare has seen better days I think. And I'm not sure if its missing an ear or not.

Josie's Cabin. This is the most updated version...from 1935.

Inside Josie's Cabin. Imagine living here for 50 years.

The field of irises beyond the cabin.

Wild Iris

View from Plug Hat Butte, Colorado side of the park.

Lupines in bloom. I saw several species of Lupines in bloom. Some were tiny and dark blue but this was the grandest display of them I found. Colorado side of the park.

Colorado side of the park.


Red Fleet State Park. If you look at both the red rocks on the left and the very slanted red rocks center right, those will feature in my next post. There is a huge dinosaur trackway on that slab of red rock on the center right that goes down into the reservoir. There's a trail that starts well behind those other red rocks on the left that will lead you out to the trackways.

An unexpected animal encounter in Red Fleet State Park.

The calf I mistook for a bear. Ahem.

More cows and calves coming to the mud puddle.

Steineker State Park. Beautiful beaches. Beautiful geology. Beautiful birds. Great place to just rest for a while.



In the air is no water. Yet
I stand on the floor of a dead seabed,
drowning in an ocean of dinosaur bones.

Should I fossilize here,
in this place of long memory, would
these feelings mineralize?
Would my footprints left
in mud and dust stay forever
or be blown away?

The desert is wet with inflorescence. It is
a formidable reminder that time flows
and ideas flower.
To dig is to discover and to discover
is to stride through the flow of time
in a place where tides have long ceased.

What bathic dreams does this dry place have?


At the place where I was staying there was a covered car port. There was a pair of Say's Phoebe parents feeding three very hungry, and almost ready to fledge babies, right above where I had to park. They tolerated me sort of. But they were beautiful to watch.

Bringing lunch.

Protecting the nest.

The very full nest.