This Gorgeous Park Spans 2 States and a Whole Lot of Dino Bones
And you can hike, river-raft, and camp right next to 'em.
Do you like national parks but dislike crowds? Same. Big fan of dinosaurs? Us too! Allow us to tip you off about Dinosaur National Monument, a stunning adventureland at the border of both Utah and Colorado. It sits at a nexus point between perennial favorites like Yellowstone, Arches, Zion, and Rocky Mountain National Park. But perhaps due to the vastness of its desert location—or maybe because it hasn’t earned ”official” national park status—you’ll have the place to yourself to explore its gorgeous landscapes and amazing (pre)history.
Dinosaur National Monument is unique in that, in addition to outdoor treks and big views, you can see one of the densest collections of dinosaur bones and animal fossils in the world. Plus it has petroglyphs, secluded camping, and rafting on a river surrounded by stripey desert mountains on both sides. Here are the best things to do on a very-worthwhile trip through the area.
Have the place to yourself
With its mild weather (temperatures only get truly frigid for a handful of weeks in December), Dinosaur makes for an enjoyable visit just about any time of the year. That being said, if you’re not one for enjoying scorching heat, steer clear of late July or early August, when the park sizzles just shy of 100 degrees.
The park is pretty remote, located almost exactly between Salt Lake City and Denver. While the majority of the park is on the Colorado side of the border—and many make the understandable mistake of visiting via the tiny town of Dinosaur—the most highly anticipated attractions (i.e., the dinosaurs) are actually in Utah near the town of Jenson.
Touch really, really old bones at the Dinosaur Fossil Quarry
Without a doubt, the main draw is the Quarry Visitor Center, where you get to see the dino bones up close and, in some cases, can even touch them. To get there, park at the information center and gift shop, then take the shuttle to the quarry.
Things get impressive fast: This was once a choke point in an ancient river, and as a result, the bodies of hundreds of dinosaurs flowing down said river accumulated and were preserved some 149 million years later. Today, we can view roughly 1,500 bones belonging to late-Jurassic big-shots like Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, and Apatosaurus, as well as fossils from various plants, insects, and small reptiles.
The quarry is comfortably located indoors, and there are knowledgeable rangers on hand to answer any dino-related questions.
Rafting, hiking, and scenic driving in Dinosaur National Monument
While the dino bones are certainly the main attraction, there is plenty more to see and do throughout the park.
Hiking opportunities abound, perhaps the most popular of which is the Harpers Corner Trail, a three-mile out-and-back trek that will bring you to the epic views offered by Harpers Corner itself. If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, the 9.5-mile round trip Ruple Point Trail will bring you to a gorgeous view of Split Mountain Canyon and the Green River.
You could also get through Split Mountain Canyon via one-day and multi-day rafting trips. Starting at the Gates of Lodore Trail, these excursions are offered by private companies and must be scheduled in advance.
For a rafting journey with an exclusive sight on the route, you could traverse the Green River from the north till you reach the Castle Park Archeological District. There, you’ll find ancient indigenous residential ruins built 3,000 years ago and only accessible by surfing the river. There are also several, much more recent residential sites from 19th-century settlers scattered about.
There are also several driving loops through the park that provide spectacular views from the comfort of your vehicle. For the most part these are paved, two-lane highways that can be used by any car, but there are a few rugged roads that are 4x4 only.
Camp in a starry dino graveyard
While there are countless camping options in the region, the park itself has six campgrounds with roughly 120 sites. Prices vary based on the season as well as the availability of water.
The Green River Campground—fittingly located on the lush banks of the Green River—is a popular option, being closest to the Quarry. It’s also near the Split Mountain Boat Ramp, where rafters disembark after trips through the park’s winding, majestic canyons. If you want to stay closer to the rafting launch point, the Gates of Lodore Campground is located near the northern launch sites.
Another popular option is the Echo Park Campground right at the center of the park, where you’ll enjoy stunning views of the iconic Steamboat Rock. It’s also close to the Fremont petroglyphs.
Find human-made fossilized art
Speaking of petroglyphs, there are many. Dating as far back as 1,500 BC, these petroglyphs and pictographs are works from the Fremont, Ute, and Shoshone peoples. Images portray lizards, bighorn sheep, birds, snakes, humanlike figures, as well as an array of abstract designs like circles, spirals, and lines.
You can see these etchings up close and at a distance from five different sites. Some are relatively easy to reach, like the Swelter Shelter near the Quarry Visitor Center, which requires only 200 feet of walking. Others require moderate hiking along relatively short trails, while one is unreachable during wet weather.