Dinosaur National Monument is best known for its Bone Wall, but the bone wall is only a small part of this amazing park. The magic of this place flows through the entire park. Like so many of the legendary canyons of the west, the canyons found in Dinosaur National Monument are carved by tributaries of the great Colorado River—the Yampa and Green Rivers. Even if there were no dinosaur bones here this landscape would be enough to draw intrepid travelers. Exploring Dinosaur National Monument should be on every traveler’s bucket list and we’ve got the top 9 activities not to be missed.
Being somewhat of a nerd when it comes to dinosaurs, I think the bone wall in the Quarry Exhibit Hall is easily the number one reason to visit the monument. This 150′ long slab of rock has more than 1,500 exposed dinosaur bones. They are perfectly preserved like a giant mural exactly how they were found. There is nowhere else in the world where the general population can gaze upon such a dense dinosaur graveyard. Nerd Alert! I think the wall is not only the best reason to visit Dinosaur National Monument, it is one of the best reasons to visit the state. And Utah has a lot of amazing places.
While I love the bone wall it feels more like a museum than natural paleontology. However, you can explore the 1.2-mile long Fossil Discovery Trail and find more dinosaur bones revealed in the natural landscape by erosive forces. While this trail is open for self-exploration it is best to join a ranger guided hike. Not only will you have the bones pointed out, but you get a history of the area and the many layers of exposed rock formations. It is a fascinating tour that should not be missed when visiting Dinosaur National Monument.
3) Experience the Sound of Silence
Along with its dinosaur bones, Dinosaur National Monument is known for its diversity of exposed rock layers. Earth’s history is laid out like chapters in a book. The 3.25-mile Sound of Silence Loop is a great way to explore the story. Signs illuminate the many chapters of rock layers that the trail cuts through. The pinnacle of the trail has sweeping views of Split Mountain and the Green River. It is a very enjoyable trail and one that at times feels very remote where hikers can truly enjoy the Sound of Silence.
4) Explore the Josie Morris Cabin
Josie Morris was a lady of the frontier. She was born, raised, lived, and died in this area of Utah and Colorado. She raised a family and maintained a farm in an era when the hardiest of men struggled to do the same. Josie hosted all kinds of people at her homestead including the notorious Butch Cassidy. He is known to have used the Green River’s canyons as hideouts. Today, you can visit her homestead located inside the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument. Explore her modest home and property to see how this amazing woman lived until her death at 90 years old. It is an astonishing place that should not be missed when visiting the monument.
5) Find the McKee Spring Petroglyphs
The Green and Yampa rivers have long supported life and were once inhabited by the Fremont and Ute tribes. The canyon walls found throughout Dinosaur National Monument have many examples of fine native American art left behind by both tribes. However, the Fremont people are widely considered the more artistic and left behind amazing works of art when they seemingly disappeared around 1300AD. Some of the best examples of Fremont art are located on the drive to Island Park. There is a long wall of petroglyphs situated so that the art gallery overlooks the valley below. The McKee Spring Petroglyphs are stunning and a must-see when visiting Dinosaur National Monument.
6) Raft Dinosaur National Monument
There are few roads that pierce the interior of Dinosaur National Monument. The only way to traverse the entirety of the park is by following in the footsteps of its early explorers and raft the Green or Yampa Rivers. The Green River starts in the north. It passes through the Gates of Lodore and cuts through the deep Lodore Canyon for 18-miles. Then it joins the Yampa River flowing from the east. The Yampa River is one of the longest rivers that is not dammed in the United States. It makes a rafting trip down its uncertain waters a true adventure. This river remains as it was when the earliest explores plied its waters. Once past the confluence, the Green continues west through the monument passing through Whirlpool Canyon and on to Split Mountain Canyon, emerging just east of the Bone Wall area.
Rafting Dinosaur National Monument is a unique and beautiful journey through iconic and rugged terrain. If you have rafting experience you can take on either river by yourself with permits issued by the park service. However, we suggest letting the experts drive and joining a guided float trip. We took our trip through the Gates of Lodore with Dinosaur River Expeditions. They did an amazing job! I’m looking forward to returning one day to take on the untamed Yampa River.
Not ready for a river expedition but still want to enjoy the solitude of the backcountry in Dinosaur National Monument? Jones Hole is the only trail within Dinosaur National Monument that has backcountry campsites available to backpackers. The trail uniquely starts on the outside of the monument’s boundary and meanders its way through the Jones Hole Creek Canyon for more than 4-miles before reaching the Green River inside Whirlpool Canyon. The trail is fairly flat and easy making this a good trail for day hikers and backpackers of all skill levels.
While hiking the trail, there are Fremont petroglyphs and pictographs to be discovered. There is even a small waterfall located on Ely Creek, lovingly referred to as “Butt Plug Falls” by the locals. By sitting in the right place, you can plug the flow of the entire waterfall with your derriere before releasing a torrent of water down on a fellow hiker below. The entire trail is fun, easy, and a great way to experience the utter quiet that is available when exploring the backcountry of Dinosaur National Monument.
8) Overlook the Green River at Harpers Corner (Canyon Entrance)
Perched 2,500′ above the Green River is Harper’s Corner on the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument. This monument has few overlooks into the depths of its canyons, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Harper’s Corner overlooks the Green River as it emerges from the red Lodore Canyon and merges with the Yampa River as it rounds the massive yellow-colored Steamboat Rock. It also provides a bird’s eye view of the Mitten Park Fault where the stripped layers of red earth are upturned in a massive arc and exposed by the river’s erosion. This is also where the river begins its flow through Whirlpool Canyon. The overlook is stunning and one of the highlights of visiting Dinosaur National Monument.
The Overlook is found at the end of the 1.5-mile (one way) Harpers Corner Trail. The trailhead for which is found 31-miles from the Canyon Entrance on the Colorado side of the monument. The hike itself is a fairly easy one. However, located at 7,600′ in elevation the air is thin. If you aren’t acclimated, take it slow.
9) Drive Echo Park Road
The final adventure on our list of must-dos when visiting Dinosaur National Monument is one of my favorites. The 14-mile drive to Echo Park descends into the depths of the dry canyon country to the base of Steamboat Rock on the shore of the Green River. Echo Park is a great place to take a dip in the cool waters of the Green River on a hot day. There is a beautiful campground at the river’s edge where you can experience a dark quiet night. There is even an amazing trail that follows a bench above the river into Whirlpool Canyon from the campground.
The drive itself is stunning as it descends from the Harpers Corner Road into Sand Canyon, a dry tributary of the Green River. Along the way, you can find an old homestead (Rail Chew Ranch) as well as a small slot cave known as Whispering Cave. The cave makes another great option for cooling off on a hot day. The journey has an amazing destination but the drive alone is worth the price of admission.
Echo Park Road is a gravel road that is well-maintained during the summer season (May – September). You should still check with a ranger at the Canyon Visitor Center on the road’s condition. We have easily traversed the road in a low clearance 2-wheel drive vehicle but we’ve also come during the springtime when the road was swamped in mud and decided that it was too risky in our 4×4 F250.
Logistics for Visiting the Best of Dinosaur National Monument
Fully exploring Dinosaur National Monument can be difficult as the park’s boundaries follow the canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers through Colorado and Utah. The park has no less than five road entrances and none of them connect to one another through the park. It can take more than 3 hours to drive from one entrance to another. Make sure you keep drive times in mind when planning your visit to the best of Dinosaur National Monument.
How much time you wish to spend in the monument will vary greatly on which of the top 9 activities you wish to undertake. A rafting trip alone is a 4 – 5 day commitment. However, a day to explore the Utah side and a day to explore the Colorado side is enough for most visitors to Dinosaur National Monument.
Weather & Seasons
Dinosaur National Monument is open year-round with the exception of a few national holidays. That being said the winters here can be very cold. Echo Park Road is not maintained and only the heartiest of souls raft the rivers during this time. Generally speaking May – September is the tourist season (300,000 visitors annually) although the park sees a fraction of the attention of Utah’s National Parks.
Even during May, the weather can be wet and cold with surprise snowstorms. Late May through June and late August through September are great months to visit when the park receives its most moderate weather. July and August are typically very warm where the temperature has been known to exceed 100ºF on the hottest days.
Accomodation & Supplies
Given the sprawling nature of the park, the best accommodation is going to be based on location. Vernal, Utah is the largest town found near the park and the best place to find food, supplies, showers, and a hotel room. Outside of Vernal gas is sparse. The park’s campgrounds are the best and usually the only form of accommodation.
Echo Park Campground – Echo Park is a must-see place when visiting the best of Dinosaur National Monument. Staying in the remote campground is a great way to experience the dark western sky and the quiet that comes along with it.
Green River Campground – This is a beautiful campground located on the shore of the Green River and makes a great base camp for exploring the west side of the park including the Quarry Area.
Fossil Valley RV Park – This RV park is found on Vernal’s main street and is perfect for those who need full hookups or who are looking to explore the dinosaur-themed western town.
Dinosaur Inn – Prefer a bed to a campsite? Vernal has lots of options but the Dinosaur Inn is a great locally-owned hotel located on the main drag allowing for easy access to a wide variety of food.
None of the National Monument’s campgrounds have showers available. However, the Fossil Valley RV Park in Vernal and the Steinaker State Park north of the town both have affordable day use fees for their showers.
Whether you are searching for fossils from our ancient past, petroglyphs of lost civilizations, or the beauty and adventure found on the Green and Yampa Rivers, put exploring Dinosaur National Monument on your bucket list. It is a National Monument preserved for its historical significance but with a national park quality landscape—without the national park crowds.
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