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Colorado Road Trip

Jul 14, 2017 07:52AM ● By Leland Rucker

In Colorado, our favorite off-the-interstate location is easily Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the border of Utah in the northwest corner of the state. It is one of the most remote and spectacular destinations in the monument system. (Monuments are a step below national parks and generally include fewer amenities, less information, and little signage.)

Dinosaur National Monument was created in 1915, not long after a paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum discovered prehistoric fossils in a rock formation north of Jensen, Utah, in 1909. That rock formation soon became a quarry, and the surrounding 80 acres were given the monument designation to preserve the outstanding fossil resources. Today, Dinosaur National Monument encompasses over 200,000 acres, most of which are in Colorado. It has few roads, easy access to petroglyphs and pictographs, and mind-boggling scenery as well as being a major repository of dinosaur fossils.

You can’t just drive in, spend a couple of hours, and drive out and say you’ve been there. To get there, it’s a good six-hour drive from Denver, and about two hours north of I-70, two hours south of I-80 in Nebraska, and four hours east of Salt Lake City. You need at least two days, which means you really have to want to go, but it’s so worth it. The more time you spend, the more remote you can get.

We start our visit at the quarry Visitor’s Center just a few miles north of Jensen. The road hugs the Green River, which meanders through the monument before heading south for its rendezvous with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab. A giant, black-and-white wooden Stegosaurus greets visitors, and there are lots of exhibits and fossils with historical information about the area.

Near the visitor’s center is the quarry wall itself. The huge ledge, one of hundreds found so far in the area, contains fossilized remains of dozens of different creatures pretty much as archeologists found them. The building was literally constructed around it (and recently remodeled), so visitors can see the kinds of historical artifacts and individual fossils the scientists unearthed. The ledge is fifty feet high and three times that length, with close-up viewing on two levels. You won’t find something like it anywhere else.

After a couple of hours at the wall, we head north for Split Mountain. Long story short, it’s the place where, over millions of years, the Green River changed its original course and took some of the topography with it. Even if you don’t understand the geology, it’s easy to see what looks like an oversized, sandstone ship that just slid into the river, exposing millions of years of geologic history in the process. Best time for photography is at sunset, with the dimming light glowing on these primeval rocks.

Further on, we stop and walk on short trails to petroglyph and pictographs made by the Fremont, Ute, and Shoshone tribes who once lived here, leaving their art for the rest of us to ponder. Nearby, wooden farm fences still stand in almost perpetual quiet at the Josie Morris cabin, where a pioneer woman lived for more than 50 years without any modern conveniences.

The second day, we drive the Harpers Corner Road out of the visitor’s center at Dinosaur, Colorado. (Stop by the Bedrock Café on Highway 40, aka Brontosaurus Boulevard, for the best homemade, locally sourced malts and shakes in the area.)

And though there are some remarkable overlooks on the way out, nothing can really prepare you for the epic drive into the depths of Echo Canyon. Standing at the overlook at the top, we think twice before heading down the dizzying series of switchbacks that begin the 12-mile journey to the enormous Steamboat Rock at the bottom. About two-thirds of the way down, we pass Rial Chew Ranch Historic District, the well-preserved remains of a working ranch from the early 20th century.

At the base of the canyon, where the Green and Yampa Rivers converge, we find ourselves in magnificent isolation a couple thousand feet below ground level. We’re surrounded by towering cliffs reaching toward the sky. Across the river, Steamboat Rock rises like a massive sentry.

There are 22 camping spots down here—easily some of the best night-viewing spots in the US. There’s absolutely no light pollution to disturb your view of the hundreds of satellites skimming past the eerie brightness of the Milky Way. Make your reservations far in advance, and check with the rangers before heading down into Echo Park, especially when roads are wet.

The drive back up is just as spectacular as the one down. On the way out, we stop by the overlook again. From this vantage point, it looks like Echo Park is in miniature: Steamboat Rock is little more than a pebble, the river just a sliver of brown against the hardscrabble landscape. Looking down, I am reminded of the time when, in the 1950s, as part of a Colorado River Storage Project, a dam proposed here unleashed a torrent of opposition led by the Sierra Club and Wild­erness Society that ultimately helped kickstart the environmental movement that led to the Wild­erness Act and the National Scenic Rivers Act.

There are some lodging options just outside the Colorado and Utah centers of the monument, but most who visit stay in Vernal, Utah, 15 miles west of the park. It’s an oil town of 10,000 people with all amenities, and it revels in its dinosaur proximity. At the eastern entrance, a 30-foot pink dino right out of The Flintstones coyly flicks her eyelids at visitors.

The major attraction is the Field House of Natural History downtown. A fossil-lover’s dreamscape, it includes a complete diplodocus skeleton stalking the mezzanine, as well as rooms of exhibits and dioramas that trace the area’s history and creatures. The dinosaur garden outside is stocked with colorful, life-sized reproductions of various plant- and meat-eating dinos.

One exception is a wooly mammoth, the large, extinct elephant ancestor. This particular replica’s guard coat is, inexplicably, made from hemp. The local avian population admires the hair as much as visitors do, plucking chunks of it for their own nests—yet another unlikely use for hemp. The hair has to be replaced every decade or so, a procedure that maintenance specialist Craig Gerber estimates at several hundred man-hours each time. Or, as he puts it, “A nightmare from hell.”

Day Trip

If you don’t have the time or inclination to get far off-grid, you could try a day trip up to “the oldest building in the world.” Get on Highway 287 out of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and head up into Wyoming, a drive that is pretty spectacular in its own right, cresting at the Wyoming border. About an hour north of Laramie is the Fossil Cabin. It was constructed in 1933 by Thomas Boylan, who made it of bone fragments from the nearby site, hence the designation “oldest building in the world.”

It’s not a tourist attraction anymore, and you can’t get inside (in fact, the property is for sale). But there’s still a lot of dinosaur history in this area. The Como Bluffs ridge visible to the north is the site of major dino discoveries and international intrigue that dates back to the 19th century. The ridge is also home to thousands of diamondback rattlesnakes that like to nestle amid the bones and keep the foot traffic to a minimum.

Some of the finest dinosaur specimens came from this graveyard. They were transported around the world on the first transcontinental railroad, which rumbled by here on the way from Laramie to Rawlins, and on the first transcontinental highway, which passed Como Bluffs.

Make it an overnight getaway with a stay at the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow just a few miles north, where the trans continental trains still rumble by all day and night. Or you could find a spot in Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming. If you opt to head back instead, make a stop at Mishawaka up Poudre Canyon Road off 287 north of Ft. Collins. The incredible views, riverfront amphitheater, and relaxed dining are worth the detour.