This Dinosaur Boneyard is Worth the Detour!


by Debbie Stone

Most people have probably never heard of Vernal, Utah. This remote and isolated city in northeastern Utah doesn’t quite make it on the top travel destination lists. But, for those who have even the slightest interest in paleontology, it’s a rewarding side trip if you’re in the region.

Vernal, which is also known as “Dinosaurland,” is the gateway to Dinosaur National Monument. The monument, which straddles the border of Utah and Colorado, spans more than 200,000 acres. It is home to 150 million year old dinosaur fossil beds, as well as Native American petroglyphs and pictographs that provide evidence of an extensive cultural history. Though each state offers a chance to see distinctive areas of the monument, the west side in Utah features the renowned dinosaur quarry.

Earl Douglass, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, is credited with the discovery of dinosaur bones in this Utah high desert. In August, 1909, he spotted eight tail bones of an Apatosaurus on top of a ledge. As he began to excavate the bones, he found fossils of other dinosaurs mixed with the Apatosaurus skeleton. This marked the beginning of the Carnegie Quarry.

The bones Douglass found that summer day turned out to be part of the most complete Apatosaurus skeleton ever discovered. In the next several years, the fossilized skeleton was extracted and sent to Pittsburgh, where it was mounted in the Dinosaur Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It is still displayed there today. Carnegie eventually relinquished its claim to operate the quarry after obtaining sufficient fossil material and in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson established Dinosaur National Monument to preserve its rich paleontology finds.

Start your exploration of the monument with a stop at the Quarry Visitor Center, where a giant Stegosaurus statue from the 1964 World’s Fair greets visitors. Inside is a variety of informative exhibits and a film about the history of the park and its ancient life. You’ll learn that the fossil beds are the result of several factors. During a drought, many dinosaurs died near a river’s edge. When the rains returned, floodwaters transported the bones of over 500 dinosaurs to this area. River sediments then entombed the bones of these creatures and cast them in stone. Eventually, erosion exposed the fossils.

From the visitor center, head to the famed Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall, via a shuttle (in the busy months) or ranger-led caravan using your own personal vehicle (in the off-season). Upon entering the two-tiered hall, you’ll be faced with a jaw-dropping, massive wall of dinosaur bones. It’s the closest you’ll come to encountering the real Jurassic Park!

Over 1,500 fossils are embedded and exposed in this wall, which is actually a cliff face, now covered by a building. There have been 5,000 dinosaur fossils discovered in the quarry to date, most of which are on display in several different museum collections around the country. Those in the exhibit hall include remains from species of dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus, and more.

There are also exhibits and a wonderful 80-foot long mural, which tells the story of these creatures and others that existed during the late Jurassic Period. You can even reach out and touch real 150 million year old dinosaur fossils in some places.

During my visit, both young and old were fascinated by this wall of bones, though there was a handful of kids momentarily distracted by a mouse that was playing hide-and-seek in the corners of the building. After one of the kid’s parents tried to redirect his attention, the child replied, “But Dad, the mouse is alive! The dinosaurs are dead!” It was a humorous, yet totally factual response, which garnered much laughter among those of us nearby.

Research is ongoing at the quarry and some years ago, a team of paleontologists announced the discovery of a new, large, plant-eating dinosaur, Abydosaurus McIntoshi. Four heads, two still fully intact, of this species were unearthed from the quarry. Scientists determined that the species shares close ancestry with Brachiosaurus.

After you’ve marveled at this incredible trove of fossils, take the half mile walk to Swelter Shelter, aptly named by the researchers who excavated the place in the blistering, sweltering heat of summer. At the base of a cliff, which marks one of the monument’s oldest known sites of human occupation, you’ll see a variety of petroglyphs and pictographs designs. Created by the Fremont people, who lived in this area a thousand years ago, these designs include patterns chipped or carved into the rock, or painted upon its surface. Although most consist of outlines of forms, there are some that are of solid figures, both human and animal-like, along with circles, spirals and patterns of lines.

No one really knows the true meaning of the petroglyphs and pictographs and whether they served a ceremonial or religious purpose, or were simply an expression of imagination and creativity. Contemplating such mystery is part of this unique experience for visitors.

After your hike, get a guidebook from the visitor center and hop in the car to do the Tour of the Tilted Rocks. There are plenty of opportunities to pull off, get out and explore more petroglyph and pictograph panels, marvel at the fascinating rock formations and geologic layers, stroll along the scenic Green River and stop at Josie Bassett’s cabin. The latter was the homestead of a colorful female character of the Wild West, who lived there from 1913 until her death in 1964.

If you go:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents.

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