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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.