Dinosaur National Monument

As I mentioned previously I was heading towards the remote north western corner of Colorado. My destination was Dinosaur National Monument which is located on the border with Utah. But there was still long way to get there.

I just left interstate 70 and took Hwy 139 heading north. It starts as an unremarkable rural road serving local farming communities. But I soon left it all behind. Signs of human habitation quickly faded away and there was just me, the open road and the wild landscape. Traffic also quickly dwindled and there were times that I didn’t see a single vehicle for quite prolonged periods of time

It was the perfect driving territory and place where one could unleash the V8 engine. The road was winding gently through the rolling hills before reaching more mountainous territory at Douglass Pass, where it got properly twisted. After the pass the road went down again to a gentle and wide river valley. All this with minimal signs of human habitation, just some random gates here and there, most likely leading to waste local ranches. I stopped briefly in a few places to check on some Native rock art left by Fremont and Ute people and now protected by Canyon Pintado National Historic District. It might be a bit of a niche attraction but it was a good reason to break the long drive.

The town of Rangely was the first settlement after I left the I-70, some 70 miles (115 km) earlier. It looked like a typical dusty town up in the west and since I really wanted to find a motel closer to the Dinosaur NM there was no point of even stopping there. I took Colorado Hwy 64 and headed west towards the town of Dinosaur, another 20 miles away.

Despite its exciting name the town of Dinosaur is just a sleepy and dusty collection of buildings, with not much to see or do. I stopped for a quick photo of a sign highlighting the name of the town before taking the US Hwy 40 heading west towards Utah. The Dinosaur National Monument straddles the state boundary but the main access road is from the Utah side. So for my overnight stop I chose the city of Vernal. This “metropolis” of 10 thousand inhabitants was the largest settlement in the area and offered all the amenities I needed (motels, shops, fast food joints etc.)

It is worth mentioning that all those unremarkable settlements are surrounded by spectacular scenery. It is the American west at its scenic best. But the true highlight here wass my destination, the Dinosaur National Monument. Its visitor center is located around 25 minutes from Vernal and it was the place to start the visit.

The main attraction of the monument is the Quarry Exhibit Hall. To get there from the visitor center one needs a short ride on board one of the frequent shuttle buses, or a short hike. Now, what is the Quarry Exhibit Hall? As the name suggests it is bit of a rock face but enclosed inside a building. And this building is there to protect a truly remarkable collection of dinosaur fossils, left in-situ and partially exposed for the public to see. There are more than 1500 individual fossils in the rock face, despite the fact that many finds were removed over the years and sent to various famous museums around the world. The fossils date to around 150 million years ago and were deposited by an ancient stream. For anyone even remotely interested in geology or dinosaurs it is a fantastic place, one of the few around the world where dinosaur fossils are left in-situ. I have spent quite some time there admiring fossils of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and other species. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be specialist or even a geek, there are boards explaining the exhibits.

On the way back to the visitor center instead of the shuttle bus I chose one of the interpretive trails where visitors can see even more fossils as well as more fascinating geology in general.

This is the main attraction of the Dinosaur National Monument and worth spending a good 3-4 hours, but the monument covers a much larger and varied area. In fact from the visitor center I decided to head to some of its more remote parts. To get there it was necessary to get back to the main highway (US40) and drive back to Colorado where there is separate access point, a few miles east of the town of Dinosaur.

From the US Hwy 40 the very scenic 32-mile Harpers Corner road leads to the heart of Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon country. Multiple scenic overlooks offer fantastic vistas to the Green and Yampa river canyons. At the end of the road there is a short (1.5 mile) trail offering even better views. During my visit there was almost nobody there. At the end of the road there was one car which left as soon as I arrived so I had all this magnificent scenery all to myself. Only on my way out I passed another car (still, drive carefully as there is cattle roaming freely around). I guess part of the reason was that it was Wednesday in May, so still outside the main season. On top of that the weather was quite changeable, with ominous clouds threatening downpour. On my way to Harpers Corner there was even a dusting of fresh snow at higher elevations. For me it only added to the spectacular views but many people prefer picture-perfect sunny weather. It really is worth emphasising how scenic this area is. The canyon might not be as large as the Grand Canyon or as deep as the Black Canyon of the Gunnisson but the rock formations are equally, if not more, spectacular.

But in general this is remote park and nowhere near as popular as some of the others. And I like it that way. Nowadays more and more National Park Service managed areas are extremely popular and require advanced bookings to get in (like Arches NP). In that respect Dinosaur NM is refreshingly empty.

It was getting late and it was time to move. My plan was to reach Denver the following day so I wanted to be closer the the main highway. From Dinosaur I followed Colorado highways 64 and then 13 towards the interstate I-70 which is the transport backbone of Colorado. This was another spectacular drive through broad valleys and mountain ranges. This part of Colorado is very remote, scenic, rugged and sparsely populated. Driving across it is experiencing America the way I like it. One can admire the views but at the same time also have time to think. In fact for me driving time is one of the best “thinking times”. These are the moments when one is not constantly distracted by a smartphone, computer or even just reading. And driving in the American west is a very different experience than road trips anywhere in Europe, maybe apart from the northern stretches of Scandinavia. American roads are wide, empty and long, perfect for “cruising”.

Anyway, enough of that. Good things always come to an end. I just reached the I-70 corridor and in a sense was back to civilisation (and traffic) again. Next day Denver awaited.

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