Dinosaurs once roamed throughout Dinosaur National Monument. In fact, many of the best museum pieces from around the world have been excavated from in and around the Monument. Currently, 11 species of dinosaurs have been found in Dinosaur’s famous Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry including stegosaurus, diplodocus, and allosaurus. A tour of the park allows visitors to experience what life may have felt like 150 million years ago.
7 Things to Do at Dinosaur National Monument
Sitting in a remote area on the northeast border of Colorado and Utah, and on the edge of the Uinta Basin is Dinosaur National Monument. Natural treasures found here include two significant rivers, multicolored canyons, petroglyphs, and of course, Jurassic Period fossils.
The park provides visitors with the opportunity to touch 1,500+ dinosaur bones in their place of burial—which is a special experience, as this is the only place in the world where this is possible! Spanning over 200,000 acres, there are so many things to do in Dinosaur National Monument that it just may take a lifetime to explore it properly.
Therefore, knowing the 7 best things to do at the Monument will help you spend your time efficiently. Whether you’re interested in dinosaur fossils, hiking through dramatic vistas and landscapes, viewing early Native American rock art, exploring homesteader cabins, or rafting down the Green River, there’s something here for everyone.
The vast amount of dinosaur-related sites and activities is what gives the area and Vernal, the nearby town, the nickname of “Dinosaurland.” However, the Monument is really two individual parks. Utah’s side focuses on dinosaurs while Colorado’s is more wild and remote wilderness.
The hardest part of visiting Dinosaur may be deciding on which prehistoric site, trail, or overlook to explore! Below are the top 7 best things to do in Dinosaur National Monument.
1. Visit the Quarry Exhibit Hall
Located on the Utah side, the Quarry Exhibit Hall is probably the highlight of any visit to the Dinosaur National Monument. The Hall is located on the exact site where dinosaur fossils were first unearthed in 1909.
The main exhibit is the 80-foot long “Wall of Bones.” This impressive display is made up of more than 1,500 fossils, all embedded in the rock formation where the animal died millions of years ago. An overview of the massive display takes place on the upper level and a closer perspective is provided on the lower level—this is where you can actually touch a few of the bones.
2. Walk the Fossil Discovery Trail
Geology buffs will love this short 1.2-mile (one-way) trail from the visitor center to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The highlight of the walk is the Morrison Formation, where fossilized bones of turtles, crocodiles, and 10 dinosaur species have been found.
The walk consists of three significant stops including the Mowry Formation (fish scales), Morrison Formation (dinosaur fossils), and the Stump Formation (clam fossils).
Mowry Formation | Fish Scale
The shale wall may not appear to be very interesting at first. However, about 95 million years ago erupting volcanoes expelled mounds of ash and likely killed much of the sea life.
Over many years, ocean currents scattered the scales throughout the area. Spending a little bit of extra time here searching for a fossil (shiny golden/grayish fish scales) on the rock may be extremely rewarding.
Morrison Formation | Dinosaur Fossils
Much of the Morrison Formation lies in clay and mudstone. However, near the small Morrison Formation informational sign, there’s a sandstone cliff where the trail comes to a T. This section is made up of river-deposited gravel and sand and is about 149 million years old. Dinosaur and clam fossils are embedded in the cliff.
The extraordinary aspect of this cliff, beyond the fossils, is that it follows the identical sandstone layer that’s been excavated in the Quarry Exhibit Hall. This one, however, has not been worked on by scientists. A couple of highlights include eight vertebrae and a large femur.
Stump Formation | Clam Fossils
The Stump Formation exposes evidence that an ocean once covered the ground here about 163 million years ago.
A large variety of fossils including ichthyosaur (comparable to a giant dolphin), ammonites, snails, and belemnites (similar to squid) have been found in the area.
3. Tour the Tilted Rocks Scenic Drive
Many visitors enjoy taking the 10-mile (one-way) scenic drive from the Quarry Visitor Center to Cub Creek, known as the Tour of the Tilted Rocks. Highlights and easy stops along the way include the Swelter Shelter Petroglyphs, Split Mountain Campground & Picnic Area, Green River Scenic Outlook, Turtle Rock, and the Josie Bassett Morris cabin.
Popular wildlife spotted along the scenic drive include many species of birds, prairie dogs, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. The last two miles leading to the cabin are unpaved but fairly well maintained.
In the winter months, the last four miles may be difficult to traverse. Also, be sure to pick a Tilted Rocks Scenic Drive brochure from the visitor center. The leaflet clearly identifies the 15 stops along the way and provides a bit of information for each one. Allow about two to three hours for the Tilted Rocks scenic drive.
4. Take a Whitewater Rafting Trip
The rivers located in Dinosaur National Monument, the Yampa, and the Green, are the chief tributaries of the Colorado River. Together, these rivers provide an exciting opportunity for rafters to sightsee and enjoy whitewater adventure.
Both rivers feature class III and IV rapids. However, the Green River includes classics like Triplet Falls, Hell’s Half Mile, and Disaster Falls. Dinosaur River Expeditions offers both single and multi-day trips.
5. Travel Down Harpers Corner Scenic Drive
If you’re looking to explore the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument then the Harpers Corner scenic drive is a good place to start. The 31-mile (one-way) route begins at the Canyon Visitor Center and ends at Harpers Corner. This remote viewpoint that overlooks the confluence where the Yampa and Green Rivers meet. Allow about three to four hours for the scenic Harpers Corner Drive.
Carved by the substantial currents of the two commanding rivers, much of the scenic drive overlooks dramatic gorges. Other highlights include the Plug Hat Trail 1/2-mile loop trail and the 2-mile roundtrip Harpers Corner Trail.
A nice ‘add-on’ to the Harpers Corner scenic drive is the 12-mile detour to Echo Park overlook. It’s here where the two rivers join. A short one-mile trail provides walkers with views into the Yampa, Lodore, and Whirlpool canyons.
Also, Whispering Cave and Pool Creek Petroglyphs are located about one mile from the Echo Park campground. The road to Echo Park is difficult to traverse in wet conditions. As a result, only high clearance vehicles with 4×4 should drive there, even in good conditions.
6. Enter the Gates of Lodore
The Gates of Lodore is located in the northernmost areas of the Monument, in one of the most remote sections of the park. Most visitors to the Gates of Lodore come to go whitewater rafting—embarking on trips headed south down the Green River.
The Gates of Lodore is the dramatic entrance to the Canyon of Lodore, a deep gorge with spectacularly steep cliffs that are essentially inaccessible by land. As a result, visitors may only enjoy the stunning views from the water. Some of the most popular rapids are Triplet Falls, Hell’s Half Mile, and Disaster Falls.
Visitors that decide not looking to go rafting may also relax by or in the river, hike a short trail to enjoy views of the beginning of the narrows, or camp along the water’s edge. The Gates of Lodore are more than an hour’s drive from the Utah side of the Monument.
Where’d We Stay? We enjoyed our stay at The Microtel by Wyndham Vernal/Naples.
7. View the Dark Sky
Dinosaur National Monument is designated as an International Dark Sky Association Park. Meaning, the skies above the Monument are of exceptional quality, full of natural darkness. Moreover, the association awards this designation to areas where locals agree to protect the night skies for present and future generations.
With some of the darkest skies in the US, viewing the stars in the Monument is a special experience. Moreover, the Milky Way galaxy is visible here with astonishing clarity. Many guests of the Monument find the star-gazing just as (or more) amazing than the fossils.
The Monument holds a night sky programs at the Split Mountain Campground and the Vodore Gates. Bring some binoculars or a telescope to enhance the experience!
Dinosaur National Monument is an intriguing destination for enjoying the great outdoors and virtually traveling through time. This area of the country is the perfect place to explore for a weekend or during a long vacation. Furthermore, the uniqueness of the area creates a sense of adventure and exploration, without needing to deal with large crowds or cramped cities. As a result, a trip here is sure to be a memorable one.