Dinosaur National Monument is America’s national park with a funny name. Sure, it has dinosaurs. But their fossils take up only a little corner of this overlooked part of the national park system.
The real park consists of big tracts of wilderness around the Green and Yampa rivers. The best ways to see the wilderness are by raft on the river or by backpacking into the heart of the park. But even if you want to stay fairly close to your car, you can get a good taste of wild Dinosaur.
Congress established the national monument to protect a dinosaur quarry, a remarkable collection of fossils sticking out of a nearly-vertical wall. Most of the fossils have been taken off to museums such as the Carnegie. A few are still there, protected by a visitor center built around them.
If you don’t have much time, orient yourself around Quarry Road, a short trip off US-40. After you check out the dinosaurs, take the “Tilted Rocks” auto tour down Cub Creek Road. It’s about ten miles each way, but you’ll want to stop at several places to explore. There are several accessible rock art sites along the road, reminders of the peoples from three different cultures that once lived in these lands. One collection of rock art is just a sidewalk away, while the other groups are accessible by moderately steep trails of perhaps a hundred yards.
There are also some short hikes off the road. The three-mile “Sound of Silence” loop focuses on the geology, explained in the trail guide you can pick up at the start. As the name suggests it also gets you far enough away from road noise to enjoy the silence of the desert. You can access another loop, the “Desert Voices” trail, from the road or from a connector trail linked to the Sound of Silence. Though short, both trails will get you far enough into the desert so that you can start to appreciate how wild this country can be.
If you’re visiting in summer, be prepared for the intense heat the desert can dish out.
The road ends at Josie Bassett’s old ranch, after a stretch of dirt road. Well before then, when you cross the Green River, you’ll see the modern Chew Ranch on your left. The extended Chew family has left its mark at many places here, both inside and outside the boundaries of the national monument. Those ranches make up an important part of the Dinosaur story. Large chunks of the monument’s land used to be part of ranches that couldn’t make it through the Great Depression. Under Harold Ickes, the Department of the Interior bought up failing ranches as an agriculture relief program. By transferring those ranches and some other lands to the dinosaur quarry, we get the current national monument—and an explanation of the funny name.
As a result, today Dinosaur is big enough to be a "national park," even in the West. It’s about the size of Badlands or Mount Rainier, bigger than Crater Lake or Theodore Roosevelt, and a little smaller than Rocky Mountain.
Though the quarry region can give you a taste of wild Dinosaur, don’t stop there. Go back to US-40 and head east to the visitor center a few miles past the Colorado border. After checking out the visitor center, head 31 miles up Harpers Corner Drive. The road is a thin sliver of park among the private ranches and Bureau of Land Management holdings. Some of the BLM lands are Wilderness Study Areas—well worth exploring, though none of them have official trails.
You’ll gain elevation quickly, and see samples of several different ecosystems in the monument. In the last third of the road, be sure to stop at all the overlooks, which are as high as 2500 feet above the Yampa and Green rivers.
At the end of the road it’s time for a one-mile hike to Harpers Corner. Don’t forget the camera! From here you have great views in three directions into Whirlpool, Lodore, and Yampa canyons.
You’re looking down on canyons that, by all rights, should be covered by two reservoirs right now. Upstream, you should be looking down on a reservoir behind Echo Park Dam. Out of sight beyond Whirlpool Canyon lies Split Mountain Canyon, which was supposed to be filled with waters backed up behind Split Mountain Dam.
The Bureau of Reclamation planned those dams in the early 1950s. The conservationists of the day fought back to protect Dinosaur’s integrity. Remembering the dam built on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy valley, they argued that national parks, even one called a “national monument” like Dinosaur, should never again be defiled with a dam. Though many were involved, David Brower of the Sierra Club tends to get the credit for the successful campaign. With the help of California and some others who stood to lose their own water from these upper basin projects, Dinosaur’s two dams were deleted from the Colorado River Storage Project in 1955. That campaign saved Dinosaur as rugged, wild country.
Knowing that story, your next stop should be Echo Park—if you have a high-clearance vehicle. It’s a 13-mile drive from the paved road to Harpers Corner, and those 13 miles will take you about an hour. The road switchbacks down through red sandstone that is very much slippery when wet. If it’s rained lately, or if it might rain soon, you’ll want to take a pass on this road. At the bottom of the switchbacks it becomes a wide, one-lane road with rocks and a couple of improved stream crossings.
There are three worthy stops along the way: the abandoned Chew Ranch, the Pool Stream rock art site, and the Whispering Cave. The NPS is letting the Chew Ranch fall apart naturally, a monument to the ranching history here. Whispering Cave provides a surprisingly cool place even on the hottest days, with natural air conditioning generated by a steady breeze. The rock art at Pool Stream is sometimes hard to make out, but its figures made from chiseled dots are distinctive.
You’ll see some more traditional rock art high above the campground at Echo Park. The most charming shows a hunter with arrow pointed directly at the chest of a giant bighorn sheep.
When you get to Echo Park, reflect a bit on the ironies of this place. You have just driven a road to the symbolic birthplace of the modern wilderness movement, a movement that grew up in reaction against automobiles. For another irony, remember that Americans have defined “wilderness” as an uninhabited place, “untrammeled by man.” You have just visited a ranch and two rock art sites. They provide pretty good evidence that humans have been trammeling this place in various ways for a very long time. Despite the ironies, it will feel pretty wild here—especially if you find a trail for more hiking.
The maps don’t show any trails there, but the Echo Park information station describes a few. The signage is weak so you’ll have to do a little route finding, but the trails aren’t difficult once you find them.
The trail downstream takes you to Mitten Park. It follows a rocky slope, gaining a series of ledges before reaching the base of a cliff wall. This is heaven for lizards. The microbiotic soil also provides good homes for a mix of wildflowers. As you descend into Mitten Park you go through pinyon pine and juniper country for a while before reaching the grassy plains and cottonwood stands at the banks of the Green River. You’re now more than 2000 feet below Harper’s Corner, where you took photographs earlier in the day.
This is the sort of hike that occupied John Wesley Powell and his men as they descended the Green River in 1869, on their way to the Grand Canyon. After each set of rapids, they would climb the walls where they could, and hike downstream to scout the next rapids. Our morning hike here would have been much like theirs in the same spot. They would have used game trails to find a route. Decades of hikers have widened these game trails a bit, most of the time. The dirt is harder packed than Powell would have found it. Were we dressed differently, we might be them.
The country here is as they saw it, wild.
In the spring, you may see some of Powell’s spiritual descendants descending the Green River by raft. They may have a beer cooler in tow, a luxury unavailable to Powell. Indeed, his men lost their hidden whiskey stash at Disaster Falls, upstream from here.
Despite the history of exploration here, much remains to be found. Until 2006, when some climbers happened upon it, Dinosaur hid one of the 13 largest natural arches in the world, 206-foot Outlaw Arch. There are certainly undiscovered archaeological sites and rock art among the buttes and canyons.
Wherever you go here, you will have only scratched the surface of this great national park with the funny name.
Bob Pahre is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research and teaching focuses focuses on environmental politics, U.S. national parks, and the European Union. You can check out more of his photos from Dinosaur National Monument on this page.