As visitors take in Dinosaur National Monument’s spectacular tilted rocks and maroon-and-gray-layered cliffs, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision spiny stegosauruses and sharp-toothed allosauruses ambling through the rugged landscape.
That is one of the beauties of the sprawling Dinosaur National Monument that straddles the border of Utah and Colorado. It very effectively takes you back eons to the time when mammoth prehistoric animals ruled. Not only do you get to see the area where the dinosaurs roamed, but you also have the opportunity to take in a “wall of bones” and even touch a dinosaur bone that dates back millions of years.
While Jurassic history is the obvious highlight of the national monument, it’s not the only feature worth checking out. On my recent July visit, I was also wowed by the scenic drives, the varied hiking trails, the ancient petroglyphs, and the lovely river scenes.
In fact, with its two distinct regions and countless sweeping vistas, Dinosaur National Monument seemed more like a national park to me than a national monument. Still, with just over 300,000 visitors per year, the 330-square-mile monument felt much less crowded than many of the popular national parks of the U.S. Southwest.
Here are nine fantastic things to do at Dinosaur National Monument.
1. Soak Up History At Quarry And Canyon Visitor Centers
Dinosaur National Monument’s two visitor centers are great places to stop for information, souvenirs, and restroom breaks. As with most national parks and monuments, visitor centers should be the first stop for visitors.
The Quarry Visitor Center is located on the Utah side, not far from the towns of Jensen and Vernal. The Canyon Visitor Center is located on the Colorado side, not far from the town of Dinosaur.
Pro Tip: During the summer months, an open-air shuttle is available to take visitors on a short trip from the Quarry Visitor Center to the Quarry Exhibit Hall and back. Visitors can also drive their vehicles to the Exhibit Hall, but parking can get crowded there during busy times.
2. Touch Dinosaur Bones At Quarry Exhibit Hall
I had seen plenty of photos of the Quarry Exhibit Hall before my trip to Dinosaur National Monument, but its size and scope still took me by surprise. The hall is built into the side of a rock wall that had been partially excavated, revealing a massive cluster of dinosaur bones and fossils still embedded in the rock. It is definitely a sight to see!
The Exhibit Hall conveniently has two levels. One for viewing the quarry wall from above and a lower level for taking a close-up look at the bones. Both levels have interesting interactive displays that tell the history of the dinosaurs and archaeological discoveries through the years.
One of the highlights of the lower level is the exhibit where visitors are invited to touch a dinosaur bone that is still embedded in the rock wall. I loved watching the delighted kids take their turns touching the bones, and I got a thrill as well touching the bones that are said to date back 149 million years.
Pro Tip: 15-minute-long geology talks take place at the Quarry Exhibit Hall each day at 10 a.m. throughout the summer months. The talks meet up at the quarry shuttle stop.
3. Marvel At The Tour Of Tilted Rocks
Cool rock formations are virtually everywhere you look along the 10-mile Tour of Tilted Rocks scenic drive along Cub Creek Road. The paved route makes for an easy and spectacular introduction to the terrain of the Utah side of the Dinosaur National Monument.
Among the high points of the drive are the numerous sweeping views of the Green River, fascinating petroglyph rock art from ancient cultures, and displays of geologic layers such as the ones at Turtle Rock and the Sound of Silence Trailhead.
In order to take in all of the stops along the way, it’s best to plan at least two hours to drive the Tour of Tilted Rocks (more if you plan to do any of the hikes that start from trailheads along the road).
Pro Tip: Handy brochure guides are available for purchase at visitor centers that pinpoint the worthy stops along scenic roads.
4. Take In The Vistas On Harpers Corner Road
On the east side of the monument, just across the border into Colorado, visitors will find the beautiful Harpers Corner Road, a 31-mile (one-way) paved road that passes through sagebrush-covered rolling slopes and wonderful views of the canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers. Unlike the Utah side of the monument, Harpers Corner Road is not for viewing dinosaur bones or fossils.
Drivers approaching the Colorado side from the Quarry Visitor Center on the Utah side should expect a nearly 40-minute drive to get to the entrance of the Harpers Corner Road. From there, the national monument suggests allowing at least two hours for the round trip. Highlights along the route include the Plug Hat Butte, Island Park Overlook, and the Echo Park Overlook.
5. Drive Rugged And Scenic Echo Park Road
For adventurous visitors driving high-clearance vehicles, 14-mile Echo Park Road features stunning surroundings in the area where the Yampa River flows into the Green River, which winds around the formation known as Steamboat Rock.
Picnicking and camping are available in the area and the remoteness promises spectacular displays of stars in the night sky.
Echo Park is located 38 miles from the Canyon Visitor Center, the first 25 miles of which are on the paved Harpers Corner Road. The last 13 to 14 miles are over rugged dirt roads that are impassable during wet weather. For those who cannot make the Echo Park drive, a number of great views of the road and canyon are available at overlooks along Harpers Corner Road.
Pro Tip: The expansive Dinosaur National Monument has other remote and rugged scenic drives as well, including the 18-mile unpaved Island Park Road, and the 18-mile unpaved Yampa Bench Road. Both roads are rugged and high-clearance vehicles are strongly recommended.
6. Hike The Trails
Hiking opportunities are numerous and varied throughout the Dinosaur National Monument. The monument’s website lists 14 different trails, ranging from easy to difficult.
Whether you’re looking for solitude in the Tilted Rocks or stunning views of the Plug Hat Butte, you will find it at Dinosaur. Here are three trails, from easy to moderate to difficult, that are worth checking out.
Plug Hat Trail
At just a half-mile in length, the Plug Hat Trail loop offers a wonderful payoff for little effort. The easy route, which is located along the Colorado side of Harpers Corner Road, follows a paved and accessible route to an overlook that features great views of the surrounding valley, as well as of the winding ribbon of the Harpers Corner Road.
Sound Of Silence Trail
Located along the Tour of Tilted Rocks Road on the Utah side, the Sound of Silence Trail is a 3.2-mile loop known for its solitude amidst the monument’s sea of rocks. Rated as moderate to difficult, the trail traverses Dinosaur’s interesting rock layers with views of Split Mountain.
Ruple Point Trail
At 9.5 miles round-trip, the Ruple Point Trail is rated as moderate to difficult, and the trail can be difficult to follow. Among the payoffs of hiking through the mostly rolling terrain filled with sagebrush and juniper are the eventual breathtaking views of Split Mountain Canyon and the Green River 2,500 feet below.
7. Check Out The Prehistoric Human Story
Along with its Jurassic history, Dinosaur National Monument also offers remarkable glimpses into early human cultures through its fascinating petroglyphs. Examples of the rock art left behind by native people are available in numerous spots along the Tilted Rocks route, as well as on several of the hikes.
One of my favorite places to take in the distinctive Fremont design was along the Tilted Rocks Scenic Drive at Cub Creek. A 50-foot walk gets you to a cliff that features a panel of captivating trapezoidal human figures and spiral designs.
8. Raft The Green River
For a cool and exciting way to explore Dinosaur National Monument’s remote canyons, consider taking to the water. Rafting is a popular activity in the monument and groups of life-jacketed explorers regularly set out on the Green and Yampa Rivers.
The options for rafting the rivers include commercial guided trips and self-guided private trips. The national monument’s website includes a number of links to companies offering one-day trips, as well as multi-day trips.
Owing to its isolated location, Dinosaur National Monument is reportedly one of the darkest places remaining in the United States, and that makes for stellar stargazing. In 2019, the monument was certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
“Because there is little light pollution here, you can see the stars of our Milky Way galaxy with startling clarity,” the monument’s website states.
How To Get There
Dinosaur National Monument is fairly remote in eastern Utah/western Colorado. It is a three-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, and a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, Colorado. The closest town for accommodations and dining is Vernal, Utah, located about 20 minutes west.
When To Visit
Spring and Fall offer the mildest temperatures at Dinosaur National Monument with average highs in the mid-70-degree Fahrenheit range in September and the high 60-degree range in May. Summers are hot but pleasant with June and August posting average highs in the 80-degree range and reaching 90 degrees in July.
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