If there is one national park site that deserves to be redesignated a “National Park,” it’s Dinosaur National Monument. Spanning across the border of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado, this park is best known for its dinosaur fossils. But there is much more to enjoy here. When visiting Dinosaur National Monument, we urge you to allow yourself plenty of time to explore this vast and varied park.
In addition to dinosaur fossils, the park is home to dramatic canyons carved by the Green and Yampa Rivers. You’ll also find evidence of native peoples and modern homesteaders. Additionally, one of the best ways to see the park is on a whitewater rafting trip. Yep, this national monument pretty much has it all!
We first visited Dinosaur National Monument together in 2014. That was a very quick trip, tent camping just one night in the park. We’ve been wanting to come back ever since and quickly added it to our 2022 summer itinerary when historic flooding in Yellowstone forced us to alter our entire summer trip.
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Planning a Visit to Dinosaur National Monument
When planning your visit to Dinosaur National Monument, the first thing you need to know is that there are two main sections of the park. The dinosaur fossils are found on the Utah side, which is accessed from the not-really-a-town of Jensen. Note: the town of Vernal, UT is just about 15 minutes west of Jensen and is a reasonably-sized city.
Here, you’ll find the main visitor center and the fossil quarry. There are also a few hikes, prehistoric rock art and a homesteader’s cabin from the early 1900s. This section of the park is easy to visit and truly is the heart of the park. But it’s not the entire park and we hope you’ll explore more!
The Colorado side of the park, accessed from the almost-town of Dinosaur, is where you will find the most dramatic landscapes. The 31-mile paved Harpers Corner Road takes you past several overlooks of the wind- and water-carved canyon landscape. From here, you’ll also find access to a couple of unpaved roads that visitors with a high clearance vehicle can explore.
I know that most people probably visit Dinosaur National Monument just for the dinosaur fossils. But, the surrounding landscape is something that pictures just don’t do justice and we hope you’ll plan the time to enjoy all the park has to offer!
Dinosaur National Monument also extends north along the Green River. That area of the park can be accessed via unpaved roads and hiking trails for those who are truly looking for a remote adventure and are self-sufficient. That is an area that we’d like to explore when we’re retired and have more time.
When to Visit Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument is open year-round, with temperatures ranging from highs in the 30s in the winter to 80s and 90s in the summer. Summer is the busy season and while daytime temperatures can be high, lows are generally fairly mild. In the winter, snowstorms can close the park temporarily.
Honestly, though, there really isn’t a bad time to visit Dinosaur National Monument. With warmer summer temperatures, you’ll also have the option to go whitewater rafting (more on that below). Additionally, the “busy” summer season does not necessarily mean large crowds, especially when compared to more popular parks or those that are easier to access.
Visiting Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah Side
So, what exactly should you do when visiting Dinosaur National Monument? Start at the Quarry Visitor Center, on the Utah side. Here you should view the park film and see exhibits on the geology and history of the park. From there, take the shuttle to the Quarry Exhibit Hall (you can drive yourself during the off-season). This is where you can see and touch the dinosaur fossils!
The Quarry Exhibit Hall is a two-story building that was built around the side of a mound where more than 1,500 fossils were found. Inside, you’ll find exhibits on the initial fossil discovery, the types of fossils found here, where the fossils are today and, of course, replicas of some of the most impressive discoveries.
You can view the cliffside that still holds dinosaur fossils from both the first and second floors. It is always equally impressive to us to see complete skeletons in exhibits and individual bones in their original resting place. That is exactly what you’ll find here at the quarry.
The biggest treat? You can actually touch some of the fossils!
I would expect to spend about 30 minutes at the quarry, though those with a particular interest in dinosaurs could certainly spend much longer.
Fossil Discovery Trail
From the Quarry Exhibit Hall, we recommend that you take the one-mile Fossil Discovery Trail back to the Visitor Center. In this direction, the trail is an easy downhill walk that takes you through the exposed rock layers where many fossils have been found. Several short side-trails take you to closer viewpoints of various fossils.
While this trail is short and easy to follow, we still recommend that you carry water, especially in the summer. There is no shade at all along the trail and it is easy to become dehydrated even on a quick hike through the desert.
In all honesty, we broke our own rules and hiked this trail in 90-degree temperatures with no water. Because of that, we did not stop at all and know that we missed some good sights. It took us about 20 minutes to make it to the visitor center and we were definitely feeling the lack of water at that point.
Seriously, be better prepared than we were… Take water with you up to the Quarry Exhibit Hall if you think there is even a chance you might want to hike this trail back to your car.
Drive Cub Creek Road
From the Quarry Visitor Center, Cub Creek Road continues east for another 10 miles. This drive is more than worth your time. Not only will you see some spectacular scenery, but you’ll also find prehistoric rock art and get to visit one of our favorite places in the entire national park system: the Josie Morris cabin.
Along the road, you’ll find several pullouts that offer an opportunity to spot both petroglyphs and pictographs. Take your time and stop at as many of these as you can. You’ll find signs along the road marking the stops. You can also purchase a guide at the visitor center if you want to explore more in-depth.
You can also take the turn off to go north towards Split Mountain, which offers great views of the mountain itself and allows you to get right on the water at the boat launch for views of the Green River.
Josie Morris Cabin
At the end of the road, you’ll arrive at the Josie Morris Cabin. The story of Josie Morris captured us on our first visit to Dinosaur National Monument, back in 2014. It’s remained a favorite of ours ever since. Josie Bassett Morris established a homestead in what is now Dinosaur National Monument in 1913.
Morris was a wild character, divorcing four times during an era when divorce was extremely rare. Not surprisingly, she was also exceptionally independent. She built her cabin and lived alone for much of the second part of her life. Her son and his wife lived with her briefly and grandchildren visited in the summers but, otherwise, she lived by herself in this remote area for nearly 50 years.
Today, you can visit her cabin and take a couple of short hikes through her land. While here, take time to ponder if you have what it takes to cultivate life on this land until the age of 90!
Hiking at Dinosaur National Monument
If you’re visiting Dinosaur National Monument in the summer, finding a good hike is not easy. Of course, that is really only because hiking in the summer heat in the desert can be tricky. Near the Josie Morris Cabin, you’ll find two good options that can both be enjoyed on a hot and sunny day.
Both the Box Canyon and Hog Canyon trails leave from the small parking area at the cabin and take you into a box canyon. A box canyon is a canyon that is surrounded on three sides by canyon walls with only one entrance and exit. Josie Morris used both of these box canyons to keep livestock.
The Box Canyon trail is the shorter of the two, at only 0.5-miles round trip. The vast majority of the trail is shaded and it is perfect for those with limited time. There also is very little elevation gain, though the trail is uneven and rocky in places.
The Hog Canyon trail is about 1.3-miles roundtrip and offers a wider variety of scenery as it passes through some open grassland before heading into a different box canyon. Much of the trail is shaded, but you will find some open and sunny areas. It also has slightly more elevation gain than the Box Canyon Trail, though it is still a relatively easy hike.
We enjoyed both hikes but I don’t know that doing both of them is completely necessary. Choose whichever one is best for you and your preferences.
Visiting Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado Side
On the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument, you can start with a quick visit to the Canyon Visitor Center. Honestly, this visitor center is not nearly as big or modern as the one in Utah. Still, it’s a good place to talk to a ranger if you are considering driving any of the unpaved roads.
From there, continue down Harpers Corner Road. Along the road, there are several overlooks with exhibit signs on the history and geology of the landscape. A few of them have short trails (5-10 minutes) that take you to additional viewpoints. Take your time and stop at as many of these overlooks as you can.
The only hike that we did was just a short loop around the Plug Hat Butte picnic area. Instead, we saved our time to drive the unpaved Echo Park and Yampa Bench roads. With additional time for hiking, the Harpers Corner Trail would be our suggestion. That trail takes you 1.5 miles (one way) to even better views of the Green River.
Off of Harpers Corner Road, the unpaved Echo Park Road takes you 13 miles down into the heart of Dinosaur’s canyon area. These roads are impassable when wet and are recommended for high clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive only. Honestly, though, the drive to Echo Park really wasn’t too bad and is well worth your time, if your vehicle can handle it.
Pro Tip: make sure you have emergency supplies and can handle common emergencies (such as a flat tire) on your own before heading onto any unpaved road such as this one. There is no cellular service and help may be hours away.
Along the road, be sure to stop at the following three attractions as you near Echo Park at the end of the road.
The first of these is Chew Ranch, another old homestead that was established in 1910. Second is the Pool Creek Petroglyphs, which are quite different from others found around the park. These petroglyphs feature a dot pattern, whereas others are more traditional figures.
Finally, be sure to stop at Whispering Cave, a natural sandstone cave right off the road. I’m not sure how the cave got its name but as you step inside you’ll immediately notice a huge drop in temperature in the summer.
At Echo Park, you’ll find the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers, flowing around a massive wall known as Steamboat Rock. This is one of the most photographed and recognizable spots in the entire park.
From here, retrace your path back to Harpers Corner Road or, with more time, continue east on Yampa Bench Road for even more of an adventure.
Yampa Bench Road
The Yampa Bench Road is another unpaved road that continues east from Echo Park Road for 18 miles to the park’s southeastern border. From there, additional unpaved county roads take you back to the main highway (US 40). The National Park Service strongly recommends that only high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles attempt to drive this road.
Yampa Bench Road follows a large flat area (a bench) above the Yampa River. Along the way, a few turnouts offer fantastic viewpoints of the river and canyon walls. Seriously, just when you think the scenery can’t get any better, it does!
This road is definitely rougher than Echo Park Road, with many rocky sections and a few areas of soft sand. In fact, we actually got a flat tire driving Yampa Bench Road. Thankfully, we were at a spot where we were quickly able to get to mostly flat ground. The only downside is that there really wasn’t any room for another vehicle to get around our truck.
But, we hadn’t seen many vehicles at all throughout the day and there really weren’t any other options for us. So, we got to work.
Flat Tire on Yampa Bench Road
We quickly retrieved the instruments necessary to access our spare tire, which is stored under the bed of the truck. What we did not anticipate is that our key would not work to disengage the lock. We tried both mine and Grant’s, with no luck. In the process, Grant actually broke off my key in the lock.
I’ll admit, that’s when the panic almost set in for me. As I said, we had seen very few other cars all day. We had no cell phone service and were miles from any kind of help. I quickly realized that while we had some extra water, we probably didn’t have enough for a true emergency such as this one.
Grant continued to fight with the lock, trying to pry it off. I tried not to panic. After what felt like forever but was really only about 15 minutes, another vehicle approached. Of course, he had no option but to stop and, graciously, offered his help. He and Grant used multi-tools and the tire iron to pry the spare tire lock off the truck.
We had a bit of difficulty with the jack but eventually got everything stabilized and were able to get the tire changed. All told, it took us about an hour. With 90-something-degree temperatures, the sun beating down on us and almost no humidity, it felt like an eternity. At that point, as pretty as the drive was, we just wanted it to be over. Unfortunately, we still had nearly two hours to go before we got back to the paved road!
Preparing for Travel Emergencies
I don’t tell this story to scare you but to help you make sure you’re prepared. Honestly, we should have been more prepared. We have never had to access our spare tire and never thought to check to make sure we could. Lesson learned.
We travel with basic supplies for an emergency, including an extra lug wrench, shovel, ax, emergency blankets and emergency food bars. Actually, we even have a cell phone booster that we could have tried to use if we needed to. What we didn’t have, though, was extra water.
Everything turned out fine in this instance. But, if we had had to wait an extended period of time for help, we would have needed more water. Yes, we put two extra gallons in the truck the next day. And it stayed there for the rest of our summer road trip through the desert.
I hope our story will inspire you to make sure you’re prepared before driving this road, or any other backcountry road. The scenery along this drive was absolutely amazing and definitely worth the effort. Just make sure you’re prepared.
Rafting in Dinosaur National Monument
Thankfully, we had plenty of other positive experiences while visiting Dinosaur National Monument to more than make up for this one mishap. Our favorite was whitewater rafting through the park.
Seriously, as great as the scenic drives are, rafting in Dinosaur National Monument is one of the best ways to see the park. Not only it is even more remote than the Colorado section, but it’s also just plain exhilarating! If you’ve never been whitewater rafting, this really is a good place to start.
Additionally, there are many sections of the park that you cannot access any other way. There are very few roads and, actually, not many trails through the park. Getting onto the water opens up many more opportunities for enjoying the scenery, wildlife and adventure!
I went whitewater rafting with my family growing up. Grant had been several times both as a child and as an adult. But, we’d never been rafting together. We’ve both wanted to go, we just never had the right opportunity at the right time.
Rafting with Adrift Dinosaur
Once we confirmed our visit to Dinosaur National Monument, we made reservations with Adrift Dinosaur. We just did the one-day trip that takes you on the Green River through Split Mountain Canyon.
We met the guides at the office that morning. After getting fitted with life vests and helmets, we hopped in the van and started the 45-minute journey to the river put-in spot (at Rainbow Park). Along the way, we made a quick stop to view some of the best petroglyphs in the park, the McKee Spring Petroglyphs. Seriously, we saw petroglyphs in many different areas of the park and these really are some of the most concentrated and best preserved. Getting a bit of a guided tour really was an unexpected treat.
Pro Tip: You can visit these petroglyphs on your own by driving Island Park Road from the Utah side of the park. The road is unpaved but in good condition and suitable for any vehicle. A road sign marks the location of the petroglyphs.
What to Expect When Rafting
At the river, we got a full safety talk and instructions for paddling and set off down the river. We encountered several Class II and III rapids fairly quickly and, while we all got soaked, at least we did not have any “out of boat” experiences!
Overall, the rapids weren’t too crazy. We had some big waves to contend with, at times, but no big drops. And nothing super scary in terms of rocks. Rafting in this section of Dinosaur National Monument really is a good introduction to whitewater rafting.
After about an hour, we stopped for lunch. The guides set up everything while we had time to hang out on the beach. Some of the kids enjoyed splashing around in the water.
Lunch consisted of bean burritos with tortilla chips and cookies. I’ll admit, I was kind of expecting pre-made turkey sandwiches, or something similar. Getting to make my own burrito with a variety of toppings really was a pleasant surprise.
After lunch, we continued paddling for about another hour, over several more Class II and III rapids. Along the way, we saw a few bighorn sheep (ewes and lambs) along the river bank. Some of the babies were really small and extremely cute!
We exited the river at the Split Mountain Campground and Boat Dock, which is in the Utah section of the park.
Overall, we had a great time and the only thing that I would change is for it to have lasted longer! Our boat guide was fantastic: very knowledgeable and personable. She made sure we were all prepared for a safe adventure before we started out. On the river, she guided us on when to paddle, when to rest and helped us all stay in the boat through all the rapids!
Where to Stay Near Dinosaur NM
If you want to stay inside or near Dinosaur National Monument, you’ll need to be prepared to camp. We tent camped at the Green River Campground inside the park on our first visit. This time around, we wanted hookups for the camper, so we stayed at Outlaw Trail RV Park in Jensen.
The Outlaw Trail RV Park does not have any shade around the RV spots, but it is nice and clean. The grounds are kept free of junk and the bathrooms are absolutely spotless. As we entered the park, we were immediately greeted by the camp host, who was continually present throughout our entire 5-night stay.
There are several long pull-through campsites that are fairly close together. These were used by folks that were staying just one or two nights. Since we were staying longer, we were in a back-in spot a little farther back and had one spot between us and our closest neighbors on both sides.
The only negative about this campground is the lack of trees. But, it is the desert, so you can’t really complain about that too much.
If you want to stay in a hotel, you’ll need to look in Vernal, UT, which is about 15 miles west of Jensen. There, you’ll find a few local inns and a couple of chains. We haven’t personally stayed at any of the hotels in Vernal. But, Grant’s sister stayed at the Dinosaur Inn & Suites later this summer and highly recommends it. She described it as having a charming motel vibe while also being updated and clean.
Where to Eat Near Dinosaur NM
For breakfast, we took the advice of our camp host and headed two miles down the road to Donnie’s. The menu consisted of several hearty breakfast options. Most meals are served with your choice of meat (eggs, chicken fried steak, pork steak), breakfast potatoes, and a choice of toast, pancake or biscuits and gravy.
I tried to keep it light and still ended up eating barely more than half the plate. Grant opted for chicken fried steak, which came with eggs, potatoes, and biscuits and gravy. It was a serious mound of food at a very reasonable price!
If you’re looking for a good home-style breakfast, you can’t go wrong with Donnie’s.
For dinner, we headed to Antica Forma Pizzeria in Vernal, which is located at the Dinosaur Inn. Their specialty is wood-fired pizza using fresh ingredients and house-made, hand-stretched mozzarella. All I can say is, wow, that was some of the best pizza we’ve ever had. Yes, it rivals the pizza we got in Italy!
The only downside is that they are so popular the kitchen got backed up. We had to wait quite a while to get seated while they got caught up with all the to-go orders along with a full dining room. But, once we got seated, we could tell they were working hard and doing everything they could to ensure folks had a great experience.
And, yes, the food was definitely worth the wait!
Final Thoughts on Visiting Dinosaur National Monument
With dinosaur fossils, incredible scenery, prehistoric rock art and opportunities for rafting, there are plenty of different things to do when visiting Dinosaur National Monument. Really, there is something for everyone. In fact, after two visits, we can honestly say that Dinosaur National Monument is one of our favorite parks.
Yes, it is a remote park. For us, that is part of the appeal. Even when it’s busy, you won’t find anywhere near the crowds that you see at many other parks. And most of those people will be at the Quarry. Even just driving a few miles down the road to the Josie Morris cabin was an escape from the “crowd” at the visitor center. Head over to the Colorado side or get out on the river and you’ll see even fewer people.
Whatever the appeal is for you, we hope that you’ll add a visit to Dinosaur National Monument to your next Colorado or Utah road trip!
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