Travelers visiting Utah usually focus on the state’s major attractions. And yet, overlapping the Utah/Colorado border there is this hidden, largely unknown gem well worth stopping by – DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT.
That’s right, DINOSAURS!
Dinosaurs once roamed this area, and their remains are still visible here today. But that’s not all – this place has way more to offer from the depths of time beyond just dinosaurs! (Though yeah, I’d say dinosaurs are pretty cool.)
There are 2 entrances to Dinosaur National Monument – one in Utah, the other in Colorado. These are two different areas, with roads NOT connecting within the park. This post refers to the main portion – the Utah side of the monument.
We didn’t quite know what to expect when we headed to Dinosaur as part of our road trip, to be honest. But once we arrived, we were blown away with how special this place is!
7 things you MUST do in Dinosaur National Monument (at least once):
#1 TOUR OF THE TILTED ROCKS SCENIC DRIVE
Dinosaur National Monument couldn’t make it any easier for visitors to see all cool corners of the Utah’s side of the monument. When you arrive, pick up a brochure at the visitor center for an AUTO TOUR which is a scenic drive that follows Cub Creek Road with a number of interesting stops along the way.
The Tour of the Tilted Rocks extends for some 10 miles from the visitor center. The last 2 miles aren’t paved but are easily passable in any vehicle except maybe for the wintertime. (This last stretch of Cub Creek Road isn’t maintained in the winter months and may become impassable.)
#2 QUARRY EXHIBIT HALL
The Quarry Exhibit Hall in Dinosaur National Monument is a building that encloses and protects a wall of exposed bones of dinosaurs that roamed the rivers and plains of this area approximately 149 million years ago.
The Quarry was discovered back in 1909 by a paleontologist named Earl Douglass, and it’s an unforgettable way to see (and touch!) real dinosaur bones. I mean, you can obviously only touch certain specific bones here, but still!
In case you wonder, it’s not just a few random pieces of dinosaur bones scattered here and there. There are over 1,500 dinosaur bones to be seen here at the Quarry which has two levels and a bunch of interactive displays and informational boards (plus rangers, too).
To access the Quarry Exhibit Hall during peak season (late May to mid-September), you’ll want to park at the visitor center and either hike up yourself or hop aboard a FREE shuttle that leaves about every 15 minutes. It’s a short ride, and for a second there you’ll feel like entering the actual Jurassic Park!
The rest of the year you can drive up yourself but you may need to wait for a ranger to come and lead a caravan of vehicles up to the Quarry.
#3 DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT PETROGLYPHS
There are some pretty neat petroglyphs to be seen here in Dinosaur National Monument that give even more depth to this special place. This elaborate artwork was created by Fremont Indians who inhabited these canyons about 1,000 years ago.
While the purpose and meaning of the symbols you see here and the fate of the Fremont culture remain unclear, no one can stop the imagination from running wild and the mind from going in the time-travel mode. Who made these? What did the person look like? What was the purpose (and was there one)?
Feel free to sit back and ponder…
— Swelter Shelter petroglyphs
Swelter Shelter is located about 1 mile from the visitor center along Cub Creek Road. You can find the petroglyphs just about 200 feet from the road. No need to scramble any rocks here, access is easy.
— Cub Creek Petroglyphs
A larger petroglyph site can be found further east along Cub Creek Road, about 9 miles from the visitor center. There are several areas with petroglyphs here in this spot.
Keep to the left when the paved road forks and turns into gravel road. Once there, the main petroglyph panel is an easy stroll from the parking lot as long as there is no snow or ice. If you walk around, you’ll find even more petroglyphs.
It is by far the most impressive rock art we’ve ever had a chance to see up close.
There is also an optional short (0.2 mi) but moderately strenuous climb here that leads to images of large lizard figures which aren’t common at other local sites.
We tried our best looking for these the first time we stopped by but for some reason couldn’t find them. When we headed back armed with determination the following day, a fire had just started near Cub Creek Road and was quickly spreading.
We had two options – drive through the blazing fire and pursue the unique lizard rock art, or head down the hill to the campground where we were staying to try and save our belongings towards which the fire was spreading with much speed.
That fire was no joke. We ended up being evacuated but did manage to save all of our stuff though it was close. I’m not sure about the other campers, we had to leave in a matter of minutes. See ya next time, giant lizards!
#4 TRY ONE OF THE HIKES
There are several trails here in this part of Dinosaur National Monument that are perfectly suitable for non-hard-core hikers, even for families with kids. But, this is desert hiking, so you’ll want to come prepared.
The trails here aren’t busy at all which makes them a lot more enjoyable if solitude and natural beauty is your cup of tea.
— 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 Road. It’s rated moderate to difficult, but it was actually a mostly easy hike – if it weren’t for the scorching sun!
We found the trail pretty easy to follow, but make sure you stay on the trail about 2 miles in if you’re going clockwise – instead of taking the spur east to another trail (Desert Voices).
The Sound of Silence Trail begins in a wash bed. As the surrounding shrubs recede 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 a maze of changing rock formations, before reaching the top of a ridge.
When you’ve finished savoring the stunning panoramic views from the very top, you’ll 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 (with a little help).
— Fossil Discovery Trail
The Fossil Discovery Trail is an easy 1-mile hike though somewhat slippery in a few places. Beware, shade is non-existent on this trail for the most part.
This trail is accessible either from the Quarry Exhibit Hall (you’ll be returning down to the visitor center via this trail), or from the visitor center (you’ll make your way up to the Quarry). It was mid-September when we were here and still insanely hot, so it seemed reasonable to take the shuttle up, explore the Quarry, and hike back down rather than the other way around.
You’ll have another opportunity here to see and touch real dinosaur bones – if you can find them, that is!
— Box Canyon / Hog Canyon
These are out-and-back hikes at the very end of the scenic drive near the historic cabin of Josie Morris (see below).
Box Canyon trail is a short, partly shaded walk (0.5 mi) in beautiful surroundings.
Hog Canyon trail is a bit longer (1.5 mi). It’s probably equally beautiful but we haven’t had enough time to check it out in person. Maybe next time?!
#5 JOSIE MORRIS CABIN
Josie’s cabin is a picturesque structure in an incredibly charming spot that’s full of cheerful witty energy. There, I said what I needed to say in a single sentence. Whew!
Actually, there is a LOT more to Josie Bassett Morris and her cabin.
For some reason, Josie’s story resonated with me so much I had to dedicate an entire post to the legacy of her interesting character and this place she once called home.
It’s no secret that many well-traveled corners of Utah 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 the 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. We’ve NEVER seen the Milky Way clearer than right here in Dinosaur National Monument. Ever.
#7 CAMPING IN DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT
Apart from the Split Mountain Campground which is reserved for group camping, your only chance at camping in the main section of Dinosaur National Monument is the Green River Campground. Both campgrounds are located roughly 4 miles from the visitor center.
The Green River Campground is a pretty basic campground, so don’t expect any showers or hookups here. Picnic tables, fire rings, water, and flush toilets are available though.
What’s super interesting about this campground and why I advocate for staying here is: (1) You’ll probably never spend a night closer to real dinosaur bones; (2) This place is easily THE QUIETEST campground we’ve ever been to that has running water; (3) Once more – the star show here is surreal!!!; (3) Some sites come with a private beach and a free drink cooler. Plus, you help fund this beautiful park further.
Many of the sites here are quite spacious, very private, and some have direct access to the river. The shade coverage varies from one spot to another, but there is a lot to choose from here – this isn’t a crazy busy campground unless you’re coming during some of the busiest times of the year like the holidays. There were only a handful of people here in mid-September.
Beware: the always hungry resident chipmunks are cute and funny. Until they chew through your cooler. Watch your belongings!
The highlight of our time spent at the Green River Campground wasn’t the chipmunks that run this place though. It wasn’t even our last drinks floating away on the river due to my husband’s poorly designed mini-dam. It was a snake catching and eating a mouse right in front of our eyes. Yikes! For a good while, the kids were utterly speechless (something that doesn’t happen very often, haha…).
Like I said, we had to leave a day early due to a park evacuation (hey, at least we know we can clear a campsite with record speed!), but Dinosaur, we’ll be back!
Here’s our short video from Dinosaur National Monument (please excuse the quality and editing – it’s so bad it’ll have you laughing):