After leaving my campsite among the quaking aspens and pine forest, the road continued east and dropped in elevation. I followed the Left Fork of Indian Canyon which had water the entire way–quite a treat for a desert rat like me. By the time I reached Duchesne, I was down to 5,500 feet in elevation. No longer was there mountain scenes of the Wasatch Range anywhere in view, and it was all Plateau country to the east. I continued along scenic highway U.S. 191 to Vernal.
I arrived at Dinosaur National Monument by mid-morning and it was already a gorgeous day. Luck was with me. I found out that the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center had closed in 2006 due to structural damage and had just recently reopened! Like Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, it is built upon bentonite clay—great for fossils but awful for structures! The reason is because bentonite clay is volcanic ash which is vulnerable to expansion and contraction from moisture. Some of you may be familiar with pumice which is used as garden mulch and is also volcanic soil. It is used for specifically for this ability to absorb and retain moisture. When it absorbs moisture, it expands. As it dries out, it contracts again. Great for gardens but horrible on building foundations. The Dinosaur Quarry had been built in 1957 enclosing a wall of dinosaur bones. The rock had been excavated enough to expose the fossils for public viewing. It is one of the most incredible exhibits I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the wall is located on a steeply tilted rock layer. This makes the quarry and building even more vulnerable when the clay expands and contracts.
The Park Service closed the visitor center in July of 2006 and completely rebuilt the Quarry Exhibit Hall by extending 70-foot steel columns into the bedrock below the clay! Talk about an amazing challenge to literally rebuild the structure by dismantling the old one, carefully working around the Dinosaur Wall, and building a new structure that is identical to the historical one. Kudos to the Park for doing such a remarkable job! There is a wonderful page on their site (page no longer available) going into much more detail on the entire process. The hall allows visitors to see approximately 1,500 dinosaur bones. There are some great exhibits, and I can tell you that the kids love it too! There are several places that you can even touch real 149 million year old dinosaur fossils! Some of the different species of dinosaurs include Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodicus, and Stegosaurus along with several others that lived in the Morrison environment during the late Jurassic.
Dinosaur National Monument saddles two states, Utah and Colorado. On this trip, I only made it to a small section in Utah. Besides the dinosaur fossils, the park is enjoyed for river running on the Green River. The park was a great surprise. When you are driving in the area, so much of the countryside is rather plain and flat. But when you get to the park, all of a sudden, it is so much more rugged and scenic with great colorful land formations. It’s definitely worth seeing for more than just the fossils.
The park has six campgrounds: 3 in Utah, 3 in Colorado. No charge for camping when water is turned off and some close completely in the winter. There is one that doesn’t have water and is free throughout the year (as of November 2012). You can find all the campground information on their Campground page.
During my entire trip I had been determined: a) to stay off of freeways as much possible and b) to follow scenic roads whenever possible. I had been wildly successful thus far in this endeavor! My stop at the Cannonville Visitor Center had sure been helpful in accomplishing this as I discovered some great new places to explore. Dinosaur National Monument had been a great stop and one not even on my radar at the start of the trip. I enjoyed it immensely and definitely plan on making it back to spend more time.
Next stop, Grand Teton National Park.