Science / Travel / USA

Dinosaur National Monument: The Real Jurassic Park

I’m sure it’s not top-of-mind for paleontologists, but they owe Hollywood a big hug. For decades, creepy old dinosaur bones were hidden away in musty museum basements, but blockbuster movies like Jurassic Park changed all that.

These days it’s the rare museum that doesn’t have a few crowd-pleasing dinos on display. But if you’re game for something different than the standard, snarling museum skeletons, and are curious what the ancient bones look like in situ, the place to go is Dinosaur National Monument.

Straddling the border between eastern Utah and western Colorado about 40 miles south of the Wyoming border, the park has a dig site at the Utah Visitors’ Center that’s produced so many bones it’s called a quarry!

In 1909 paleontologist Earl Douglas made this remarkable discovery while working for Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum. The quarry has been so prolific, that from its discovery until 1924, it produced 26 complete dinosaur skeletons, as well as juvenile specimens and well-preserved skulls. At most fossil finds this much excavation would have picked it clean, but not at Dinosaur.

In fact, the highlight of a visit to the park is the glassed-in Quarry Exhibit Hall which has a 50 X 30 foot sloping cliff face which has over 1500 bones that are still embedded in the native rock.

It’s an exciting jumble of bones including large ribs, vertebrae, and two complete skulls. The wall can be viewed from two levels, and unlike most museums, on the lower level visitors are to free touch the actual bones.

Dinosaur National Monument is truly an exceptional location for bones, and geologists believe that 150 million years ago this area was part of a riverbed with a large sandbar that caused dead animals washed downstream to collect in one place.

Over the next few million years the bones were covered with thick layers of sediment and fossilized. And the result is one of the best snapshots of Jurassic dinosaurs found anywhere in the world.

Tips for visiting:

  1. The 200,000 acre park extends across the Utah and Colorado border, but the only place to see dinosaur bones is at the Quarry Visitors Center on the Utah side.
  2. The National Monument is 200 miles from Salt Lake City and 250 miles from Denver with no major highway access. Depending on your route in, some of the roads zig-zag through incredibly scenic mountains, which may take a bit more drive-time than expected – so plan accordingly
  3. Once you arrive in the vicinity, the city of Vernal, Utah is 25 miles west of the park and has everything you’ll need. But this is a remote area, and our rule of thumb was to be prepared and fill our gas tank when we could.
  4. Camping is available within the park at the Green River Campground, a few miles from the Utah Visitors Center. It’s a pleasant river-side campground, but this is the high desert and shade is very scarce. So unless you want to work on your tan, arrive early because shady spots go quickly.
  5. If possible arrive in time to take the ranger-lead hike that leaves from the Quarry at 10:00 am daily. The well-informed ranger provides a layman-friendly overview of the fossils as well as the local geology.

Frequently in my wrap-up I say something like: “If you’re in this part of the world, it’s worth a stopover to see this …” But honestly, this is a remote area and it’s unlikely that most of you will be in the area unless you plan to be there. Dinosaur National Monument isn’t one of those places that you just drop by. It takes effort. But a cliff face loaded with dinosaur bones is spectacular, and you’re unlikely to see anything like it elsewhere.

Like most of the other places we visited on our recent trip into the Western US, we came away in awe and grateful that we’d taken the time and energy to search it out. You’ll thank yourself if you do, too.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. Under the heading of “You never know what you’ll find in a Google search,” this video of a T-Rex race was too good to leave out. Thanks NPR.

Photo Credits: 1. HarshLight 5. Linda Gibas

42 thoughts on “Dinosaur National Monument: The Real Jurassic Park

      • The Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum in Alberta is the most impressive I have ever seen. I have spent hours there. It is featured in my Amanda in Alberta book. I also knew some of the folks who made discoveries exhibited there. Who doesn’t love a good dinosaur museum? This one looks like a good one too. Happy travels.

      • Darlene, I have heard of the Tyrrell Museum, and hopefully will be able to visit. The bone-rich Morrison Formation doesn’t recognize national boundaries. 🙂 ~ James

  1. Such an extraordinary place, I find things like this absolutely fascinating. I will definitely add this place to my list. Both Utah and Colorado are high up my list of US states to visit. I apreciate all your tips😄

    • Gilda, I would add northern New Mexico to that list as well. There are so many unique sights to see, and once you take the trouble to get in the area it pays to see as much as possible. You’ll love it. ~ James

  2. James and Terri – A quarry of dinosaur bones – what a wonderful description. I really appreciate your tips for visiting, since we are planning a western US camping trip – I don’t know that I would have thought of visiting this one, and now I am 🙂 -Susan

    • Susan, Dinosaur NM has been on our list for years and years. As I said, it isn’t one of those places one just drops by, but we’re happy to have finally made it. And camping in the park enables you to get an early start to beat the tourists and heat. Also, unlike most of the other places we camped on our trip, this campground got a big woohoo from us because it had water and flush toilets. 🙂 ~ James

  3. For someone who has never felt the particular draw of dinosology, you’ve certainly cranked up my level of interest. Now, to find a way to get to that part of the world… Oh, and what a wacky T-rex race shot. You guys take the cake, on all things wild AND wonderful! 😉

    • Amit, isn’t that video hilarious? As for dinosaur bones in SE Asia, they’re there, but Dino bones are very difficult to find under the best of circumstances. And one of the problems in Indonesia is there’s so much vegetation it’s almost impossible. ~ James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Travel certainly gets in the blood after a while and expands your worldview. And Dinosaur National Monument was a good example. ~ James

  4. Even if it’s off the beaten path, this sounds like a great place to visit, take pictures, and wonder what life was like a few million years ago. And thanks for adding the little video at the end. If I had suited up, I would have plopped over right outta the chute!

    • Rusha, Dinosaur NM is certainly out there, but for devotees it’s worth the effort. For me it was a re-connect to my university days of scrambling around rock outcrops looking for surprises. It was also a tangible reminder of earth’s long, long history and what a minuscule blip in time we humans are: humbling is the word. ~ James

  5. We love places like that. I’ll bet it’s “out of the way” location keeps it from getting overrun with visitors. I just checked out the campground, wow, $18 a night is fantastic. *sigh* Another place to add to my ever growing list!
    PS The video is hilarious!

    • Laura, this is a desert campground so there’s not lots of vegetation, but what it lacks in greenery it makes up for with scenery. It’s right by the river and has beautiful mountains on two sides. If you decide to go to Dinosaur give me a holler. We drove in from the south on the Colorado side on a fabulously scenic mountain road, that while beautiful, was one of the most twisty, turny roads I’ve driven in a while. Waldo might not like it. : ) ~ James

    • Lexi, Dinosaur had been on my list for years, and every time I’d start planning, the time and distance required would put the visit on the back burner again. And even being in the area, it still too energy to get there, but like many of these places out west it was worth it. The National Parks is the American West are truly a treasure. ~ James

  6. Dinosaurs have never really held much fascination for me, but this is different. As I was reading I was trying to figure out why this area would be so prolific. Glad you included the reference to the river washing up the bones at a sandbar. This makes so much sense.

    Thanks for taking us along on this journey. You’re right … this would have to be a deliberate decision to go there. The fact that this remarkable museum is there is quite amazing.

    • Joanne, finding dinosaur bones is a rarity, and finding them concentrated like this is almost unheard of. Earl Douglas, the paleontologist who made the discovery, realized this and from the beginning he hoped to keep the site open for the public. I, and all the dinosaur nerds who have visited the site over the decades owe him a big debt of gratitude. And given the prices that skeletons fetch these days we’re lucky that the National Park Service keeps it open. I’m glad it piqued your interest. ~ James

  7. Thanks for the write-up and exciting photos of this National Monument! I’d heard about it, but never visited. As a matter of fact, I did spot it on my map when exploring a bit of southern Utah this last spring and realized it was too far out of the way. If we ever return to that area (meaning Utah and Colorado), I happily do a bit more effort to “swing by”, based on your enthusiasm! 🙂

    • Liesbet, as I said (and I wasn’t joking), this isn’t a place you just drop by. Obviously, you know the area so you understand. But if you’re in the area visit the park. It’s unlikely you’ll see anything like it again. And BTW, we drove in from the the south on the Colorado side and the drive over the mountains was incredibly scenic. Hope you can make it. ~ James

  8. For some odd reason I have seen that video before. I’m not sure if that falls under great minds think alike? The rock face of dinosaur bones sounds beyond fascinating, albeit arduous to get to. Have you head of the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta? Its about 90 minutes from Calgary and another world class area for dinosaur fossils. Should you get up our way put that one on your list.

    • Sue, fellow Canadian Darlene mentioned the Tyrrell Museum as well. From the photos online, it looks to be huge compared to Dinosaur NM in Utah. I’ve only read good things about it, and it would be great to see it: a good suggestion for the list. ~James

  9. ‘But a cliff face loaded with dinosaur bones is spectacular, and you’re unlikely to see anything like it elsewhere.’ Thanks for taking us there in your blog!

    • Bertie, welcome to the Gallivance dinosaur buffet. We had a major meal of dino delights on our trip out west and it was great fun. These were “must post” moments. I’m glad you enjoyed it. ~James

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s