Dinosaur National Monument was created in 1915 to preserve one of the world’s largest concentration of Jurassic-age dinosaur bones found in the area. More than 1,600 fossilized bones in their final resting place were deposited here in an ancient river bed turned to stone. Colorful canyons, carved into spectacular geological formations, also reveal much of the Earth’s history, while exposing this “Jurassic Park.”Dinosaur National Monument comprises 210,000 acres of northwest Colorado and northeast Utah, straddling the border of these two states at the northeast extremity of the Great Basin Desert. About two-thirds of the park is in Colorado. The Monument is situated on a high plateau ranging in elevation from 4,500 to 7,000 feet. In 1938 the canyons of the Yampa and Green Rivers were added to the original 80 acres. These colorful canyons, carved into spectacular geological formations, expose much of the Earth’s history and provide numerous activities for outdoor enthusiasts, including river rafting.
History & Culture
Diversity provided a relatively stable life for the groups of peoples from earlier times who we refer to as Desert Archaic, Paleo-Indian, Fremont and Ute. Elaborate drawings in the form of petroglphs and pictographs are preserved within the park. The canyons proved to be a barrier to movement and settlement and aridity a limiting factor for humans. Abandoned homesteads dating from the early 1900’s dot the landscape. Occasionally settlers, because of geology, soil, water and other factors, were more successful. This can be observed at the Chew, Ruple and Morris homesteads and some of today’s ranches adjacent to the park.
The park was created in 1915 for the unmatched deposit of Jurassic dinosaur bones. The unique natural exhibit of over 1,600 dinosaur bones, in their final resting place, were deposited in an ancient river bed turned to stone. Today, remnants of that deposit form one wall of the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center.
In 1938 the canyons of the Yampa and Green Rivers were added to the original 80 acres. These colorful canyons, carved into spectacular geological formations, expose much of the Earth’s history.
Nature & Science
The Jurassic Morrison Formation is the rock stratum containing the concentration of dinosaur remains in Dinosaur National Monument. This formation appears in numerous places in the western U. S. and contains fossil remains of many creatures. This formation has, therefore, been extensively studied, but nowhere is the abundance and variety of life forms in the fossil record greater than at Dinosaur National Monument. Geologists say that 200 million years ago, the Monument region was a sandbar in a large stream. They believe that season after season, animals were washed downstream by large floods. Their remains accumulated on the sandbar and became buried by sediment and debris, year after year. As additional layers of sediment from later periods buried, compressed and turned the Morrison Formation to rock (lithification), the Laramide orogeny (mountain building) deformed and uplifted the region near the Monument much more than elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau. Rocks to the south became part of the Uinta Mountains anticline. Erosion by the Green and Yampa rivers eventually exposed the dinosaur boneyard in the Monument.
The geological and climatological conditions that have limited previous attempts at development of the region are still present today. The tilted geological formations create a variety of soils which make construction of facilities and roads difficult and their maintenance expensive. The “cold desert” conditions and the barrier of the east-to-west trending Uinta Mountains create significant snowfall in the higher elevations from December through April.
Dinosaur National Monument is a diverse mix of arid ecological communities. Several factors contribute to this diversity. Four biological provinces the Colorado Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin and the Wyoming Basin meet at Dinosaur National Monument. Geological faulting, great changes in elevations, the presence of rivers and the four adjacent provinces enable Dinosaur to contain diverse plant and animal communities. The diversity provides genetic stability for the monument’s biota and a cushion against natural disaster.
Most people assume that the main experience at Dinosaur National Monument is to see the dinosaur bones at the Dinosaur Quarry. This makes sense given the park’s name. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Even though this is a National Monument, it contains 210,000 acres of some of the most rugged and beautiful mountain and canyon country in the West. Short talks are presented at the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center every day during summer months. A variety of longer talks and guided walks are offered each day throughout the park during the summer. These programs, designed to get you into the most interesting parts of the park, are fun and deal with the natural and cultural history of the park. Evening talks are presented at the Green River Campground most nights during summer.
Hiking, camping and backpacking are popular activities. Concessionaires provide river rafting and bicycle trips. Although there are few formal trails, prior planning with a detailed map is a very rewarding way to get away from the crowd and experience some spectacular country.
Self-Guiding Nature Trails
Desert Voices Nature Trail: This trail is close to the Dinosaur Quarry and is a particularly good trail to visit after viewing the bones and exhibits at the quarry. The trail begins in the Split Mountain area across from or west of the boat ramp. Signs along the trail explain what you can experience as you walk through this arid environment. A special feature of the trail is a series of signs produced specifically for children by children. The trail is about 1 1/2 miles long round trip and is moderately difficult. The best times to walk the trail are in the morning or evening when it is not so hot. The interpretive signs will introduce you to the threats confronting arid environments in the West. We think you will find this trail provokes thought and self-evaluation of your lifestyle.
Sound of Silence Route: The Sounds of Silence route is also close to the Dinosaur Quarry and is about 3 miles long round trip. This is not a “trail” in the traditional sense, but rather a route, which is difficult to follow and is designed to challenge you as a hiker. The purpose of the route is to help you learn to find your way and properly hike in the desert. An added benefit is that you will experience silence like you have probably never experienced it before.
Cold Desert Trail: This trail is located at Monument Headquarters Visitor Center along US 40, 2 miles east of Dinosaur, Colorado. It is a 1/2 mile in length and is an easy walk. Many people find the desert shrub community that stretches out for miles beyond US Highway 40, to be a monotonous and lifeless landscape. That is not the case and this trail tries to prove it. The trail will introduce you to the variety of plants and animals that make the desert shrub community their home. This is a great trail for the family and a good way to prepare you for the drive up the Journey Through Time self-guiding auto tour along the Harpers Corner Road which begins at Headquarters.
Plug Hat Trail: This is another short trail along the Harpers Corner Road. It is 1/4 mile in length and an easy walk. Like the Cold Desert Trail, this trail at Plug Hat is an introducation to the flora and fauna of the pinion pine and juniper forest community. An added bonus is the spectacular views of the surrounding landscape from the trail. There are also additional signs and scenic views across the road at the Plug Hat picnic area. The Plug Hat picnic area also has a short trail that is accessible to those confined to a wheel chair and the pit toilet is also fully accessable.
Harpers Corner Trail: At the end of Harpers Corner Road is this 2 mile long round trip trail that is moderately difficult. If I had to pick a “must hike trail”, this would be it! The trail will take you to the end of a point from which you will have an eagle’s view of dramatic geologic features and a breathtaking view of the canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers. The best times to walk this trail are in the early morning or evening when the light is especially dramatic for artful photographs.
Gates of Lodore Trail: At the end of the campground at Gates of Lodore is a 1 1/2 mile round trip trail that is an easy walk. The trail offers spectacular views of the river gorge and introduces some of the plants and geology of the area. One question will boggle your mind, “Why and how did this river cut through this mountain rather than flow around it” after walking the trail chat with the ranger at Lodore and get recommendations about other sites to visit in Browns Park. There is a lot to see in the north end of the park.
The trails listed in this section are marked and maintained hiking trails that allow you to explore the beauty, solitude, flora and fauna that is Dinosaur National Monument.
Jones Hole Trail and Ely Creek Trail: This may be the prettiest hiking trail in the park. From the Dinosaur Quarry, drive 1 hour along the Brush Creek Road and Diamond Mountain Road to the Jones Hole National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery has parking, restrooms and an information kiosk for your convenience. The Jones Hole Trail is 8 miles long, round trip and will take you from the hatchery down to the Green River. It is a moderately difficult walk if you go the distance; an easy walk if you go a short distance. Half way down the trail is Ely Creek, 4 miles round trip, a good compromise destination.
The Jones Hole Trail follows the clear, spring-fed waters of Jones Hole Creek. In the summer when it is warm, you can wade in the creek, but do so with care. The rocks are covered with algae and are slick and sharp. Brown and rainbow trout make their home in the creek, feeding on the abundant supply of aquatic insects that graze upon the algae clinging to the rocks. I’ve seen muscrat in the creek, attracted to the abundat aquatic vegetation and mink hunting for trout. after the sun sets Yuma myotis and silver-haired bats snatch aquatic insects that have hatched and are flitting about looking for mates. Keep an eye out for mammal tracks left the night before in the mud by striped skunk, racoon, ringtail and mountain lion. The life in Jones Hole is an intricate web of interdependence between plants and animals.
As you begin your hike, the trail enters the riparian woods. Riparian is a name applied to the community of plants and animals that make their home in the creek’s flood plain. It is a community characterized by high soil moisture (due to its proximity to the creek), higher humidity under the tree canopy and occasional disturbance by flash floods. Boxelder trees form an enclosed and cool canopy over the trail in the riparian zone. Music from the creek and from the many birds in the canopy will serenade you as you walk. Riparian communities are one of the rarer, but most productive wildlife habitats in this arid landscape.
In a number of places the trail rises out of the flood plain onto the open and warmer benches in the canyon bottom. The canyon benches are above the creek and therefore, have drier soils. This more arid environment supports bunch grasses, mountain mahogany and squawbush shrubs and juniper trees; good habitat for mule deer and bighorn sheep. If you keep your eyes open you may see them.
The open benches will give you the opportunity to notice the rocks that form the canyon walls. Take a close look at the rocks on one side of the canyon and then look at the other side. Do the rocks look different They should, you see, the Island Park Fault runs along the base of the canyon wall on your left (east wall). The left wall was pushed up more than 1,000 feet in relationship to the right wall (west wall), long, long, ago. The rock forming the canyon’s left wall is the Madison Limestone, a Mississippian Age rock (330-360 million years old), that is a sea deposit containing coral and brachiopod (clam) fossils.
The right wall of the canyon is composed of two formations. The lower rock is the Morgan Formation, a Pennsylvanian Age rock (320 million years old) and the upper cream-colored rock is the Weber Sandstone, an upper Pennsylvanian Age rock (300 million years old). The Morgan Formation was deposited in an ocean and contains coral, brachiopod, crinoid and bryzoan fossils. The Weber Sandstone was a sand dune deposit. The Island Park Fault fractured the rock along the fault zone weakening the rock, which aided Jones Hole Creek in cutting this canyon. The variety of rock found in close proximity to one another here at Jones Hole and throughout Dinosaur National Monument, weather into different types of soil, to which plants are adapted. This increases the biological diversity of Jones Hole and the monument.
A little beyond the bridge is an archeological site, Deluge Shelter. Wayside signs explain some of what we know about the prehistoric Indians that have lived beside the creek for over 7,000 years. When you first see the Indian rock art, resist the urge to touch it. Touching rock art abrades its surface and leaves behind oils from your fingers which accelerate the erosion of these 1,000 year old works of art.
When you reach the junction with the Island Park Trail at Ely Creek, approximately 1.8 miles from the hatchery, you have several choices. You can continue hiking the remaining 2.2 miles to the Green River, or you can walk up the Island Park Trail about 1/4 mile to Ely Creek waterfall. This is a wonderful spot, shaded by Douglas fir and birch trees, with background music of cascading, splashing water. This is a great spot to cool off and take a break.
From the waterfall you can continue up the Island Park Trail another 1/3 mile to the fork in the trail. The left fork continues on for 7 1/2 miles, up and out of Jones Hole to the historic Ruple Ranch in Island Park. The right fork takes you another 2-3 miles up into the box canyons of the Labyrinths. The “trail” eventually peters out as you penetrate country far less traveled. In the Labyrinths you are on your own; keep tabs on the landscape as you go so you know how to get back.
As you continue down the Jones Hole Trail a short distance you will cross Ely Creek and come to the Ely Creek Campsite. This is the only designated backcountry campsite in the monument. A free backcountry permit is required to stay overnight at one of the two campsites. You must reserve one of these sites at the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center. No fires are permitted. Camping is not permitted elsewhere in Jones Hole Canyon or the Labryinths.
When you leave Ely Creek and head toward the Green River you cross the Island Park Fault. The creek continues to cut ever deeper into the Madison Limestone beyond this point. Near the Green River you will walk past a rock outcrop that looks strikingly different from the Madison Limestone. This is the red sandstone of the older Lodore Formation, Cambrian Age rock (510-570 million years old). Trilobites crawled about the ancient Lodore sea floor amongst their neighbors, brachiopods and marine worms in the mud.
The trail ends in the Jones Hole Campground. This campground is for river running parties only. Respect the privacy of river runners in their campsites as you approach the river. Keep your eyes open for bighorn sheep. They often hang out in this area beside the river.
You’ve earned a rest. At the Green River you can loll about, soak your feet, lay in the shade of the boxelder trees and watch the river glide by. When you are rested you can start back to your car, IF you can tear yourself away from this beautiful, tranquil scene. When you walk this trail you enjoy an extra special day.
Mountain Biking is a sport that is slowly growing in popularity at Dinosaur. There are no mountain bike trails in the monument. Bikes can travel on the paved and unpaved roads in the monument, but our roads are narrow and there are no road-shoulder bike paths. Mountain bikes are not allowed on any hiking trails or two-track backcountry roads. The best mountain bike routes in the monument are as follows:
- The Island Park Road is 12 – 17 miles long one way and ends at a primitive campground. It is unpaved, but well maintained and an easy to moderately strenuous ride.
- The Echo Park Road is 13 miles long one way and ends at the Echo Park Campground (camping fee). It is unpaved, rough and steep and a strenuous ride.
- The Yampa Bench Road is 51 miles long in the monument and an additional 20 miles or so to US 40. There are no campgrounds or water along this route. The road is unpaved, rough and steep in several places and is a very strenuous ride. Good planning is necessary to do this trip.
When To Go
The monument is located in a Cold Desert region, characterized by low humidity, hot summer days, with occasional violent afternoon thunder storms; summer evenings are cool because skies are clear and there are no moderating large bodies of water nearby. Most moisture falls as winter snow and winter temperatures are often cold. Elevations vary between 4,500 feet and 9,000 feet. Thus, a hot summer day at the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center can be pleasantly cool at Harpers Corner. People unaccustomed to high elevations should take some time to acclimatize and drink plenty of water. The arid, often hot summer climate means you should always carry and drink water. In the clear air and higher elevations less of the sun’s ultraviolet rays are filtered out. During summer, it is wise to wear some form of head gear and carry sun screen. Because of the arid climate, your skin can dry out. Consider the value of moisturizing lotion. Insects occur, primarily in riparian habitats, during some seasons. Spring and summer afternoons can spawn strong winds and locally violent lightning storms. Stay away from exposed places and high ridges during lightning storms.
Wear clothing appropriate for the season and activity in which you are participating. Suitable footwear for hiking in rough terrain is important. It is even important to have suitable footwear and clothing available when traveling, especially when exploring the more remote areas of the park. Motorists are well advised to carry and know how to use a jack and spare tire. A small shovel, first aid kit, additional water and other emergency supplies are good ideas.
Monument Headquarters Visitor Center is one mile east of Dinosaur, Colorado, just off US 40. This is the center for information on the canyon country of the park. There are no dinosaur bones in this area. The popular Fossil Bone Quarry area of the park is only a 30 minute drive east from Vernal, Utah. Take Rt. 40 (Main Street) east out of Vernal until a well-marked turn left/north from Jensen, UT onto Rt. 149. 7 miles later you reach the park.
Dinosaur National Monument
4545 E. Highway 40
Dinosaur, CO 81610-9724
Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center
Open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years days. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day the Quarry is open from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m..
Headquarters Visitor Center
Open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and is closed on federal holidays during fall, winter and spring months. Open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends during summer. It offers exhibits on what to do, river canyons and human history of the park. A 10-minute orientation slide program and book shop are available as well.