Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

A primordial oasis of rivers, bighorn sheep, and canyons.
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A primordial oasis of rivers, bighorn sheep, and canyons.

Little Known Fact:
Humans occupied the Dinosaur National Monument area as far back as 7500 B.C.

The sky is filled with stars, yet an inky blackness stretches across the river. The blackness comes from the 500-foot-tall Steamboat Rock, which marks the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers in Dinosaur National Monument. Throughout the night the mingling rivers gurgle and groan in a soothing but indecipherable language. The murmur of the mingling rivers becomes less mysterious with daybreak; the chatter of birds makes the world familiar again.

The incessant movement of the Green and Yampa rivers has carved deep meanders in the surrounding sandstone here in the far northwestern corner of Colorado. Aside from creating a primordial land of rock and river, erosion has in places exposed some of the world's finest assemblages of dinosaur fossils.

The monument itself was established in 1915 and expanded in 1938. Today the park encompasses 211,000 acres. The pristine nature of the area reflects the care of both the Park Service and the visitors.

I decide to explore both upstream and downstream of Echo Park, located at the confluence of the rivers in the heart of the monument. I hoist my pack and walk downstream, pausing after several miles where the sandy shore disappears and vertical rock rises from the riverside. Undaunted, I wrap shorts, shirt, water and food in a waterproof bag and swim across the Green to the opposite shore, where I can continue my hike downstream on another sandy beach.

As midday heats up (temperatures reach the 90s in October), I find shade under a juniper tree and catch my breath. Soon a score of bighorn ewes and lambs wander up the opposite shore grazing, oblivious to my presence. Moments later, rustling on the game trail to my right causes me to look up and see a ewe and lamb peering from around a bush not 10 yards away. As I move to let the two bighorn through (after all, I'm on their trail), the ewe bounds off with lamb in tow. The herd on the opposite shore catches sight of the ewe's startled movements and bounds off downstream.

The next day I make my way upstream, along the south bank of the Yampa. As I leave the broad grassy fields of Echo Park the canyon narrows, and suddenly a bald eagle slides off its perch high on the canyon wall and disappears up-canyon.

Several miles upstream from Echo Park a cleft in the towering cliff to my right marks the entrance to Sand Canyon. The luxurious vegetation at the canyon's mouth almost disguises its presence, but after pushing through the willows and cottonwood and slogging through a little mud, I reach the mouth. Barefoot now, I inch my way up the treacherously smooth chutes, wade their pools and climb a short rock outcrop.

As the ribbon of sky above me starts to show signs of sunset, I head back to Echo Park, the rivers talking all the while.

Contact Information:

Dinosaur National Monument Headquarters

National Park Service

Box 210

Dinosaur, CO 81610

970/374-3000

Location:

Dinosaur National Monument is in Moffat County in Northwestern Colorado, 90 miles west of Craig, Colorado. Jensen, Utah, and Dinosaur, Colorado, have gas stations, small groceries, and cafes. Dinosaur also has limited lodging. Vernal, Utah, and Rangely and Craig, Colorado, have motels, restaurants, stores, and medical services.

Getting There:

Take Highway 40 east from Salt Lake City directly to monument headquarters, two miles east of Dinosaur, CO. Or take I-70 west from Denver to the turnoff for Highway 40 at Empire, then on to headquarters. Turn north at monument headquarters. At mile 25, a dirt road snakes off to the right; travel 13 miles to Echo Park. At mile 8 on this dirt road, the "Bench Road" splits off to the right. It accesses many of the Yampa's side canyons, where camping is allowed with a permit.

Seasonal Information:

Dinosaur is a place of extremes:

~ High temperatures and high visitation occur at the same time, during peak summer months. Summer temperatures can fluctuate between 40 and 100 degrees F.

~ Winter's quiet, snowy landscape is a different scene entirely. Temperatures fall to an average range of single digits to 30s. In winter, Echo Park road is closed, but roads to Dinosaur Quarry and Split Mountain Campground are kept open.

~ Spring brings gentle rains and wildflowers. Fall reveals the gold within green cottonwood leaves. These colorful seasons are the most comfortable and uncrowded time to visit Dinosaur.

~ Rain can bring flash floods.

Wildlife:

The sage grouse (the largest grouse in North America) and the tree lizard live here, along with Canada geese. Bighorn sheep graze along the shore of the Green River. Domestic cattle also graze within the park. And if you look up you might see a bald eagle.

Dinosaur is home to at least 15 species of small bats. The spotted bat, with its large pinkish ears and white spots on its black back, may be the park's most beautiful. There are few other places in Colorado or Utah where so many kinds of bats have been found in one place. Protected fish include Colorado squawfish, boneytail chub, humpback chub, and razorback sucker.

But perhaps the most interesting wildlife is history ~ dinosaur fossils that give the park its name. This was home to dinosaurs such as the brontosaurus, diplodocus, and stegosaurus.

Insects:

Contact park office for information.

Plant Life:

Most of the dry basin-and-plateau land is covered with sagebrush, greasewood, and saltbush, graduating into pygmy forests of pinyon pine and juniper at the higher elevations. Drab as these plants may seem, they are beautifully adapted for their special tasks: conserving water, resisting extreme temperatures, and eking out a living from poor soils.

Arrowleaf balsamroot is a common wildflower that blooms in May and June. Willows and cottonwood thrive at the mouth of Sand Canyon.

Lichens grow on rocks and soil, as well as the bark of various trees and shrubs.

Facilities:

  • Within Dinosaur, Split Mountain and Green River campgrounds are developed. These fee sites can accommodate most recreational vehicles, but there are no hookups or sanitary dump stations. Drinking water, flush toilets, tables, and fireplaces are offered, and firewood can be bought at both.
  • Primitive campgrounds are located at Echo Park, Gates of Lodore, Deerlodge, and Rainbow Park. Drinking water is available at Echo Park and Lodore. Sites offer pit toilets, tables, and fireplaces. Vehicle-based camping is limited to these designated campgrounds.
  • Backcountry campsites at Ely Creek in Jones Hole may be reserved at the Quarry or by phone (801/789-2115). Backpackers may camp in areas that are at least a quarter-mile off any established road or trail.
  • The visitor center, 2 miles east of Dinosaur, offers exhibits and a short slide orientation to the park. It's open daily in the summer and weekdays only in winter.
  • Dinosaur Quarry, 7 miles north of Jensen, UT, is the only place in the park to see dinosaur bones. It is open every day of the year except January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25. Because of limited parking space at the Quarry, a shuttlebus operates daily in summer from the main parking area. During the rest of the year you may drive in directly.

Parking:

Contact park office for information.

Permits:

A free permit is required of backcountry campers and boaters.

Echo Park, Green River, Split Mountain, and Gates of Lodore are fee campsites. Fees range from $5 to $10 per site per night, except fall through spring when water is turned off due to freezing temperatures and there is no charge. Split Mountain ~ a group site ~ is $20 per night and requires reservations (801/789-8277).

Policies:

  • Camp only at designated sites. There is a maximum of eight people per campsite. ~ Campfires may be built only in fire pits or grate boxes. Wood, dead or alive, may not be gathered.
  • Keep pets on a leash; they are not allowed in public buildings, with hikers, and on the rivers.
  • No off-road driving.
  • Hunting is prohibited.

Hazards:

  • Swimming in the rivers is not recommended because of the hazards of cold water and strong currents.
  • Flash floods may occur in side canyons during rainstorms. Echo Park road is impassable after rain.
  • This is a desert, so carry plenty of water.

Leave No Trace:

Camp stoves are recommended. ~ Nearly 2,000 acres of non-federal public land is nestled within the Monument. Respect private property. ~ Don't tread on microbiotic crust (cryptogamic soil).

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Use USGS County series, 1:50,000; sheets 1 and 5 (of 7) for Moffat County, CO. Also helpful in getting to know the area is Echo Park: Struggle for Preservation.

The Dinosaur Nature Association (800/845-DINO) offers many publications.

Other Trip Options:

  • There are many scenic drives in Dinosaur, including Cub Creek Road, Harpers Corner Scenic Drive, Yampa Bench Road, and Island Park Road. They range from one hour to half a day, but be sure to find out what roads require special types of vehicles.
  • If you want to stay on the trails, try the High Uintas Wilderness (801/722-5018).
  • Or visit Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area (801/784-3445), with over 100 miles of trails.