The Good: Very cool fossils and petroglyphs, Inexpensive, Uncommercial
The Bad: Half the park is currently closed, Hard to find
The Basics: Worth making a stop in the desert, Dinosaur National Monument is home to a small collection of fossils worth stopping to see.
Last year, on my way to Las Vegas, I fulfilled one of my mother's lifelong ambitions by taking her to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico (reviewed here!). She had (apparently) been dating a tennis pro in the early 1980s and he took her to Carlsbad, California where they discovered there were no caves and my mother was so miserable the rest of the trip that she made the guy's life hell and they nearly got kicked out of Disneyland as a result of their fighting. Charming, eh? I mention this because for a decent chunk of time, it looked like I would get thrown into the same emotional sewer as the tennis pro while taking my mother to Carlsbad Caverns because the directions provided by the ever-helpful Department of the Interior were actually to a Carlsbad Caverns information booth, approximately twenty-five miles away from the actual park. This becomes relevant as I begin my review of Dinosaur National Monument because the government website for this national monument directs the visitor specifically to 4545 Highway 40, Dinosaur, Colorado claiming that most on-line mapping programs get the location wrong.
The thing is, at 4545 Highway 40 in Dinosaur, Colorado, there is an abandoned visitor's center, a long road into nowhere and a giant sign that reads something to the effect of: "The fossils you actually WANT to see are over in Utah, sucker!" And it's true: Dinosaur National Monument stretches from Dinosaur, Colorado to Jensen, Utah and the only part of it worth stopping at is the Utah side (and yes, I never thought I'd be recommending anything in Utah over . . . well anything anywhere else!).
Out in the middle of nowhere in Jensen, Utah is Dinosaur National Monument - with fossils! Because I was directed there from an information kiosk in Dinosaur, Colorado, I am unsure how well the on-line sites like MapQuest are at directing people there. However, I will reiterate that the U.S. government site is absolutely worthless for it. It puts the address on the Colorado side, which is half an hour away from the Utah entrance.
Finding Dinosaur National Monument near Jensen, Utah is fairly easy. Actually, it's hit or miss; there are decent signs directing visitors there, but there is one very long, winding dirt road into the park. If you miss it, you miss the park and it's quite a ways to anything that would tell you otherwise. Near the crucial turnoff, there is a Sinclair Gas Station with its big green dinosaur out front, taunting visitors or directing them, depending on how late you are getting into the park.
This puts Dinosaur National Monument in the northeastern corner of Utah and the northwestern corner of Colorado.
Ease Of Local Transport/Parking
Transport into and around the park is very easy as: 1. There is one paved road leading to the main parking lot, 2. There is a shuttle bus from the parking lot up the hill, and 3. You get to walk back down the hillside to the parking lot. The parking lot had at least fifty parking spots and, frankly, it is hard to imagine it full.
Essentially, Dinosaur National Monument is a big hunk of rocks out in the middle of the desert. I arrived there at 4:30 local time and it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's not like this is a wonderful place to linger and have a good, fun time outdoors at. But, to its credit, it is easy to get into and easy to navigate around, mostly because there is nowhere else to go once one is at the park. This is, after all, in Utah - and not one of the well-populated areas!
Fossils, my boy! The whole point of Dinosaur National Monument is to come see fossils. And wow, this is where the park turns mediocre. First, upon entering the park, one parks their car. We arrived a half hour before closing on a Sunday and as a result, there was no charge for parking. Usually, entrance into the park is $10, so if you can live with less boiling in the desert sun, perhaps Sundays shortly before closing is the time to go!
There is a decent pavilion with fossils displayed in it at the "base camp" near the parking lot. This gives a history of the area and there are several guides who happily tell visitors what to expect when they are driven up the hill. Unfortunately, the visitor's center with the wall of fossils is currently undergoing repairs because the ground has settled some or eroded and the building is falling apart. Visitors are not even allowed to peek in the windows.
What visitors are allowed to do is be driven up to the top of a hill, where they walk down a fairly steep, rocky path to various markers. At the markers, one sees tiny shell fossils in a big rock (I kid you not, it looks like a rock with rain droplet erosion!), three pieces of a massive dinosaur still embedded in a wall of shale, and more fossils of tiny shells. The three locations one passes on the walk down and around the hill are marked with simple wooden posts (one was missing its placard when I visited this summer). After the last bit of fossils is a rock with petroglyphs and then one finds themselves back at the parking lot. The entire walk is about a mile and a half and there are parts that are narrow and the whole thing is rocky, so good shoes are important.
Whatwith it being the desert, having water with you is important as well.
There is nowhere to eat in Dinosaur National Monument.
There is a little impromptu visitor's center on the Utah side, but I didn't have a chance to go in. In addition to whatever souvenirs are sold there, there is a fossil shop just outside the National Park at the end of that one road in. It was closed when we arrived there, but they do have a neat dinosaur with a saddle that makes for a fun photograph for tourists.
Once one finds the right side of Dinosaur National Monument, it is an educational and surprisingly fun, even if it does not take a long time to get through. Ultimately, despite the heat and sunlight, it was pretty cool to see the dinosaur bones and I'm recommending this oft-neglected National Park because it does what it claims to. I'm recommending it with this caveat, though: make a trip to Dinosaur National Monument part of a larger trip somewhere, like as part of a trip to, say, Salt Lake City. There is not enough here to sustain a whole day's travel to and from or entertainment at. Instead, it's a nice place to stop for an hour on your way somewhere else.
And hey, stopping for education is always worthwhile!
For other national parks or similar places to visit, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
For other destination reviews, please be sure to visit my Travel Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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