Travelers visiting Utah usually focus on the state’s major attractions for obvious reasons. And yet, overlapping the Utah/Colorado border there is this hidden, largely unknown gem well worth visiting – DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT!
That’s right, DINOSAURS! Dinosaurs once roamed this area, and their remains are still visible here today. However, this place has much more to offer from the depths of time beyond just dinosaurs! (But yeah, I’d say they’re pretty amazing.)
There are two entrances to Dinosaur National Monument – one in Utah, the other in Colorado. These are two different areas, and the roads do NOT connect within the park. We only visited the Utah side of the monument – the CUB CREEK AREA, and if you want to see the highlight of this place – the Quarry Exhibit Hall where all kinds of dinosaur bones lay embedded in the rock, this is where you want to go!
We didn’t quite know what to expect when we headed towards Dinosaur National Monument as part of our road trip. But once we got there, we were truly blown away!
The monument has a lot to offer, and we were glad to have a few days to explore the area. Our stay was interrupted by a quickly spreading wildfire just a day before our scheduled departure. In the midst of an active evacuation, we didn’t even get to say good bye (we do know that we can clear a campsite with record speed though!).
But I’m sure we’ll be back…one day…
These were the highlights of our first visit. And if they sound like something your family would like to do, make sure to visit too!
⦊ Quarry Exhibit Hall
This is simply an unforgettable way to see (and touch) real dinosaur bones! The Quarry is a building that essentially encloses and protects the wall of exposed bones of dinosaurs that roamed the rivers and plains of this area approximately 149 million years ago. And it’s not just a few random pieces of bones here and there, in case you wonder. There are over 1,500 dinosaur bones to be seen at the Quarry! Here you can gaze upon the remnants of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus along several others and learn about dinosaurs and the history of the monument.
To access the Quarry Exhibit Hall during peak season (late May to mid-September), park at the Visitor Center and either hike up or hop on the (free) shuttle that leaves every 15 minutes. There is also the option of driving up yourself if you arrive early enough (8 – 9:15 AM) which we considered, but the very short shuttle ride was actually fun and added to the experience for our kids.
There are numerous ancient petroglyphs and a few pictographs found here at Dinosaur National Monument that give more depth to this special place. The elaborate artwork was created by Fremont Indians who lived in these canyons about 1,000 years ago. While the purpose and meaning of the symbols and the fate of the Fremont culture remains unclear, no one can stop the imagination from running wild and the mind from going in the time-travel mode. Who made these? And why? What did the person look like? Feel free to sit back and ponder…
Swelter Shelter is located 1 mile from the Visitor Center along the scenic drive (Cub Creek Rd.) You can find the petroglyphs and pictographs about 200 feet from the road.
A larger petroglyph site can be found further east along the same road, about 9 miles from the Visitor Center. Keep to the left when the paved road forks and turns into gravel road. Once there, the main petroglyph rock panel is an easy walk from the parking lot.
There is also a short (0.2 mi) but moderately strenuous trail here that will take you to the rare large lizard figures that are not common at other local sites. We didn’t get to see these because of the blazing wildfire, but this is what you can expect:
More petroglyphs and pictographs can be found scattered around the park and accessed from different roads (remember, these roads do not connected within the park). Look for Deluge Shelter, McKee Springs, or Pool Creek if you want to see them all.
⦊ Hiking Trails
There are several trails here in this part of the monument that are perfectly suitable for families with kids.
If you’re not up for hiking, you can complete the AUTO TOUR instead. The Tour of the Tilted Rocks Scenic Drive follows Cub Creek Road that extends for 10 miles from the Visitor Center to Josie Morris cabin. There are 15 interesting stops along the way, and you can pick up the auto tour brochure at the Visitor Center.
SOUND OF SILENCE TRAIL
Sound of Silence is a 3-mile loop trail, located about 2 miles east of the Visitor Center along Cub Creek Rd. It’s rated moderate to difficult, but it was a mostly easy hike – if it weren’t for the heat! We found the trail pretty easy to follow – make sure you stay on the trail about 2 miles in – going clockwise – instead of taking the spur east to Desert Voices trail unless that’s your plan.
The trail begins in a wash bed. As the surrounding shrubs recede and about a mile later, you’ll be taken into a labyrinth of small narrow canyons. You will then weave your way up and down through the maze of changing rock formations before you reach the top of a ridge.
When you’re finished savoring the stunning panoramic views, you will slowly start making your way back down into the valley where you return to the trailhead.
There is a somewhat steep and slippery decline and incline in a few spots and you will have to cross over a few steep sections of slickrock, but even our 3-year-old managed to complete the hike just fine.
DESERT VOICES TRAIL
This is a 1 1/2-mile loop trail that we didn’t have time for. The trailhead is located at the Split Mountain Boat Ramp (4 miles east of the Visitor Center). There is also a 1/4-mile connecting trail between Desert Voices and Sound of Silence trails if you want to combine the two.
FOSSIL DISCOVERY TRAIL
I imagine this trail is popular among families with kids. Fossil Discovery trail is a 1-mile hike, easy to follow. It’s accessible either from the Quarry Exhibit Hall (returning back to the Visitor Center via this trail), or from the Visitor Center (making your way up to the Quarry and riding the shuttle back down). If you start at the Quarry like we did, just follow the guardrail on the right side of the road where the shuttle drops you off to locate the trailhead. This is an easy trail although somewhat slippery in several places, and shade is non-existent for the most part.
You may actually learn a thing or two on this trail as it takes you through various geologic formations and three fossil areas.
Here you’ll have another opportunity to touch the exposed dinosaur bones and some smaller fossil fragments on a rock wall – have fun exploring!
BOX CANYON / HOG CANYON
Please see Josie Morris Cabin below. ⇩
⦊ Josie Morris Cabin
This cabin is the last stop on the scenic drive, and the road ends here.
Who was Josie Morris?
Josie Bassett Morris was a colorful female character of the Wild West. And, well, her cabin happens to stand right here in this spot. Don’t miss it!
Josie’s family came to nearby Browns Park from Arkansas in 1877 when she was a small child. Much like her mother and her older sister, Josie became strong-willed and independent. Her father, on the other hand, had taught her how to be generous. Browns Park, where the family had set up their ranch, was actually part of the outlaw trail, known as heaven to those moving stolen goods. Josie’s father did business with many of the outlaws, and they were always welcome on the ranch. Over time, cowboys and outlaws became common companions of the sisters, and both became romantically involved with some members of the Wild Bunch gang.
Josie ended up living on the family ranch for decades. In 1914 when she was almost 40 years old, she decided to establish a homestead here in Cub Creek. After sending her last husband off with a frying pan, she eventually built a new cabin with the help of her son. It was 1924, and that’s the cabin that still stands. It’s where she lived frugally and happily in solitude, fully supporting herself with her animals, vegetable garden, and a fruit orchard. Josie Morris passed away in 1964 at the age of 90 after suffering complications of a broken hip.
What was Josie known for?
Breaking stereotypes, she was a female legend of the West in her own way.
She had married 5 times and divorced 4 husbands when divorce was virtually unheard of. (She was accused of poisoning the one husband she didn’t divorce…we’ll never know.) Later in her life, Josie switched to wearing pants for practical reasons and only wore skirts to certain special occasions. When she had to cut her long hair to free herself after getting tangled up in a thorny bush, she decided to keep it that way. Admittedly, this was just as uncommon and frowned upon in those days as women wearing pants.
During the Prohibition years, she brewed and sold bootleg whiskey in order to help her son and his family. During the worldwide Great Depression, she supplied food to those in need. Sustaining not only herself but many others, she was tried and acquitted for cattle rustling and deer poaching during times of hardship. Josie Morris was kind, generous, and loved by others.
In reality, Josie may have been the last remaining associate of the Wild Bunch gang and the last known source of information about the outlaws. By several witness accounts as well as her own words, Butch Cassidy supposedly visited her at this cabin in 1930, decades after he was rumored to have died in Bolivia.
It’s a very modest structure with dirt floors and a lot of charm.
If you’re up for hiking, you can visit the canyons that once served as natural corrals for Josie’s cattle. Or just walk around the adjacent pond where frogs are plentiful (heaven for small kids!).
BOX CANYON is a partly shaded short trail (0.5 mi) that starts just above the parking area.
HOG CANYON is a slightly longer trail (1.5 mi) that you can join just past the former chicken coop.
You probably already know that many Utah remote areas are keeping their spots at the top of the famous stargazing list. But did you know that Dinosaur National Monument is also a prime spot to watch starlit skies despite of not being widely talked about? Whether you’re a stargazing beginner or a long-time veteran of the night time skies, you’ll be captivated by the spectacular canopy of stars and the clear views of the Milky Way galaxy that extends up above in its silvery glory.
Do you want to watch the magic unfold and witness this mind-expanding experience at your convenience? Camp out here!
⦊ Camping at Dinosaur’s Green River Campground
This is a pretty basic campground, so don’t expect any showers or hookups. Picnic tables, fire rings, water, and flush toilets are available though. Many of the sites are quite spacious, private, and some have direct access to the river.
Our kids enjoyed watching the always hungry chipmunks snooping around (watch your belongings!), but the highlight (if shock factor counts) was a snake catching and eating a mouse right in front of our eyes. I know…
Did you know?
Dinosaur National Monument invites all 4th grade students to visit for free as part of the Every Kid in a Park program. Students can go to www.everykidinapark.gov to complete an activity and obtain a free annual entry pass to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including national parks