Walking in the Footsteps of Dinosaurs

This morning I left Vernal, Utah very early. As I drove out of town two mule deer jumped across Route 191 right in front of my car. They come out of the most unlikely places. I expect them in rural areas but not in the middle of town next to the 7-Eleven.

My first destination was Red Fleet State Park and my first mission of the day was to walk, quite literally, in the tracks of dinosaurs.

As you drive this part of 191, between Vernal and Flaming Gorge, you get an education in the geology of this area as you pass signs marking what formation you are passing through, its geological age, and what fossils might be found within it.

To get to the Red Fleet Dinosaur Track Site, you want the northern entrance to the park. Then drive about 2.3 miles to the trail head. It's almost a 3 mile round trip hike to see the dinosaur track site. And it is not easy going. Go early or late as the tracks are best seen in the early morning or late afternoon light. Bring a lot of water and wear a hat. Also note, if the reservoir is high, many of the tracks will be underwater. You can pick up a trail guide at the Field Museum in Vernal.

Example of the trail conditions and view hiking out to the dinosaur tracks.

Red Fleet State Park gets its name from from the 220 year old Late Triassic Chinle Formation that, canted slightly sideways as it is, looks like a series of ships sailing off to the northwest. Here ancient rivers dominated the landscape. The "turrets" of the ships are yellowish Nugget Sandstone, the remains of Jurassic age sand dunes formed between 180 and 210 million years ago. Small lakes in the dunes provided oases for dinosaurs and this is where their tracks were preserved 200 million years ago.

As I started off at the trail head it was quiet, so very quiet. Not even a bird was singing. It was just me, the sage brush, and the junipers, surrounded by red stone cliffs giving way to ochre colors in the distance, under a blueing sky.

Because the layers of sandstone are tilted nearly vertical in places and have weathered unevenly, your ankles are going to take a beating on parts of the trail. I used my monopod for balance. In other places you will find yourself slogging through sand.

Claret Cup Cactus

Flowers bloomed everywhere along the trail. And as I walked through this quiet world I finally heard the occasional bird song and the mad dash of a rabbit through the underbrush.

When you get to the track site you are going to be standing on a slab of sandstone that tips at a 45 degree angle. It seems likely a slip will land you right in the reservoir. But that worry goes away as you explore and find the tracks. Some are smaller then your hand. Some more than a foot long. All were made by theropod dinosaurs. The largest tracks were probably be made by Eubrontes, a dinosaur resembling Dilophosaurus. These dinosaurs grew up to 20 feet long and weighed in at up to 1000 pounds.

A note about dinosaur tracks: a single print is a track, two or more prints made by a single dinosaur is a trackway, and multiple tracksways from different individual dinosaurs is a track site. Here you will see over 200 individual tracks with several trackways made by individual dinosaurs.

Dinosaur footprint. Side view. It's toes are oriented to the left. It's about the size of person's foot.

Looking down at a print. This one has been well worn by people touching it.

There are several tracks here but the very large one in the middle is bigger is bigger than a human foot.

I spent a good amount of time trying to find as many tracks as I could and following the one trackway that was not currently underwater. As I did so, hundreds of cliff swallows swarmed out of the rocks below me and did acrobatics out over the water. Least flycatchers too flitted about.

A lot of the trail consists of walking over bare rock. Here the rock layers are tilted on their sides showing off layers of deposition/time quite clearly.

What is this odd conglomeration of stuff, including large mammal bones? Its a pack-rate midden. It's huge!

Larkspur flowering in the desert.

 Rabbit tracks. It hopped down the trail after I'd passed by the first time. In some places its tracks overlaid mine. Will they be preserved in time like the dinosaur tracks I wonder?

Rabbit in the middle of pack rack midden areas up high on the cliffs.

As I hiked back to the trail head I noticed pack rat middens in the cliffs. One spectacular midden was filled with bones of much larger animals. As I drove out of the park more mule deer crossed the road in front of me and briefly stopped to graze far off in the distance.

Then I continued to drive north into Ashley State Forest and toward the Flaming Gorge Recreation Area along the Flaming Gorge-Uinta National Scenic Byway. This route takes you up past 9000 feet in elevation through the Uintas Mountians. Suddenly I found myself in aspen and conifer forest, where yellow-bellied marmots romped in the deep grass along the side of the road. I saw a golden eagle sitting like a sentry upon the broken top of a tree.

The nature trail through the aspens.

Somewhere around where the elevation drops to 8000 feet, off of Route 191, is a nature trail that takes you through the aspen trees to a beaver pond. This was a pleasant, though oxygen deprived, walk. Here again, I saw more mule deer traveling incognito through the underbrush. Mountain bluebirds brought the sky down to earth flying through the aspens. Flickers knocked loudly on the sides of trees, marking their territories with sound.

Red Canyon, Flaming Gorge Recreation Area

I stopped at the Red Canyon Overlook to take a look at the amazing gorge the Green River has dug through time here on the southern edge of the Flaming Gorge area.

Something I've never seen before: a spruce in bloom.

 Then I took a little detour around the Sheep Creek Scenic Backway that is a harrowing and amazing drive through some of the most impressive geological formations I've ever seen. Here the Uinta Fault, which runs for more that 100 miles along the north edge of the Uintas, is visible high above you in the twisted rock formations that surround you. And here is where I failed to catch one glimpse of the big horn sheep that give this place its name. I searched but there was road construction going on near where they are usually seen and thus were probably well away from where most humans could find them.

Entering geological greatness.

Looking right down into the maw of the Uinta Fault. Use the yellow "sharp turn" street sign for scale. If you can find it.

The Sheep Creek Scenic Byway being scenic down at the depths of it, near the end.

From there I drove north to Manila, Utah. It's a tiny town on the border of Utah and Wyoming. I continued north. Just as you enter Wyoming you'll find Henry's Fork Wildlife Viewing Area on the northern edge of the Flaming Gorge area. Among the coots, geese, and many ducks, there was a flotilla of White Pelicans! Along with big horn sheep, the other thing I most wanted to photograph on this trip was White Pelicans. Alas, the sheep were alluding me and these particular pelicans were too far away for good photos. And I hadn't seen any pronghorn yet either.

Henry's Fork Wildlife Viewing Area.

I soon would. As I drove north toward Green River, Wyoming I saw many pronghorn grazing on the side of the road. Unfortunately, a fine and beautiful buck had just been hit by a passing truck. It lay dead on the side of the road, alone, in a huge valley surrounded by cattle.

The Green River near Green River, Wyoming

The closer I got to Green River, the landscape again dried out, sagebrush took over the landscape, and buttes dominated the distant horizon once again.

Next: The Wild Horses of the Wyoming Checkerboard