Last summer we took a 10 day road trip through Arizona and Utah with our family friends from Texas. While researching that trip I came across Dinosaur National Monument in northern Utah and western Colorado. We weren’t planning to be anywhere near that area so I stored it away for any future trips in the area.
Fast forward to this year’s 3rd annual national park adventure. The plan is Yellowstone. Since flying to Yellowstone is pretty expensive, we decided to fly to Salt Lake City and drive from there. Driving to Yellowstone means that we can make a short detour to finally visit Dinosaurland!
If you read this blog regularly you will know that it’s not just me that loves national parks. My 5.5 year old is obsessed with nature, hiking and of course collecting park ranger badges from as many parks as he can. Dinosaurland looks to be a perfect destination for him. And, really, what kid wouldn’t be jazzed about visiting a park where you can touch real live fossils? I know this grown up kid is!
The problem is that there is so much to do in the area, that I don’t know if we will be able to fit it all in on a short visit!
What is Dinosaurland?
Dinosaurland is the nickname of the area around Dinosaur National Monument, including the areas of Vernal and Jensen in Uintah County Utah. Dinosaur National Monument is located partly in Uintah County Utah, just a few hours drive from Salt Lake City and Arches National Park. It’s a perfect weekend trip from Salt Lake City or a short detour on your way to/from Yellowstone, Arches National Park and even the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
One of the main draws for visitors is the fossil bone wall in Dinosaur National Monument where visitors can touch real dinosaur fossils still embedded in rock where they were found. However, as I have found out, visiting Dinosaurland isn’t just about seeing the fossil bone wall, rather there are a variety of activities available beyond just the bones!
What to do in Dinosaurland?
In researching our visit, I have come across a great list of things to do in Dinosaur National Monument as well as in the surrounding area. I am sure we will find even more while there, but for now, here is our very long to do (wish) list.
Explore Dinosaur Bones
Our first stop will be to the Quarry Visitor Center, just outside of Jensen Utah. This is the gateway for the Quarry Exhibit Hall and the wall of dinosaur bones. While here, we will chat with rangers about what they recommend we do, grab our junior park ranger booklet and watch the 12 minute film on the park (These films are always wonderful ways to orient yourself to a new park.) before heading over to see the dinosaur bones!
The Quarry Exhibit Hall is where visitors are able to view approximately 1,500 dinosaur bones. There are even places where you can touch real 149 million year old dinosaur fossils! Access to the exhibit hall during the summer is via shuttle buses from the Quarry Visitor Center. In off season, rangers lead visitors in their own cars on a caravan to the site.
See Ancient Art (Petroglyphs & Pictographs)
The area surrounding Vernal has some of the countries best opportunities to see petroglyphs (patterns chipped or carved into the rock) and pictographs (patterns painted on the rock) in the US. The Cub Creek area located on the Utah side of the monument and extends about 10 miles from the visitor center and provides easy access to wonderful examples of prehistoric art. Nothing is too far from the road, so can be done even if you have some less adventurous family members or children too young to hike.
Hike the Canyons
Our favorite family activity is hiking and exploring nature while traveling. Even though I thought most of our visit would be focused on dinosaur bones, it looks like there are a ton of great family friendly hikes within Dinosaur National Monument as well as in the surrounding area. Some of the ones I have on our possible to do list are:
- Fossil Discovery Trail
- This 1.2 mile, one-way hike provides glimpses of exposed fossils in the decaying rock.
- Desert Voices Trail
- The Desert Voices Trail, a 1.5 mile hike sounds fun with the geology and ecology signs written and drawn by children for children.
- Hog Canyon Trail
- This 1.5 mile round trip hike is a relatively level walk into a box canyon (all three sides are steep canyon walls, with only one way in/out).
- Box Canyon Trail
- A 1/2 mile level walk into a shady box canyon is great for smaller kids and is good even on a hot summer day. Nice exposures of the craggy Weber sandstone of Split Mountain
- Harpers Canyon Trail
- Harpers Canyon Road is on the Colorado side of the park, but holds great appeal for a look into the canyons of the park. There is a 32 mile drive that looks beautiful itself, but, we really would like to check out the hike starting at the Canyon Area Visitor Center. It’s 3 miles return, providing beautiful vistas with an overlook with sweeping views of the river canyons and the Green River below.
Explore the Wild West
Outside of the park, there are even more activities for adventurous families. This is the perfect place to introduce your kids to the wild west, with several museums exploring the history of the region. In addition there is a great selection of self guided tour brochures available throughout the Vernal area with one specifically focusing on exploring outlaw country!
Growing up in Texas I saw my share of westerns on TV, but my young son has only seen snippets of Gunsmoke while staying at his grandma’s house. He loves learning more about the ‘olden times’ and this looks like the perfect place to discover more about the wild west. Being able to check out Browns Park and Jarvie Ranch where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid from the law as well as exploring old homesteads will be an adventure for everyone in the family.
Take a Scenic Drive
Ok, I know scenic drives aren’t always on the top of the list for those of us with small kids, but it looks like there are some great drives here that also allow for getting out to explore along the way. In addition to the Harper Canyon Drive mentioned above, there are tons of one day self guided tour brochures available from all over the Vernal area. Some of the self-guided tours include seeing the petroglyphs, exploring a fish hatchery, cruising outlaw country as well as a walking tour of Vernal.
Further afield is the Echo Park Drive with canyons, petroglyphs, a whisper cave and an old homestead to poke around in.
Raft the Rivers
We have been dying to try out white water rafting since our visit to the Grand Canyon last year. It looks like there are opportunities here for entire families to raft which is great news to us since many places don’t allow young children.
Utah is a beautiful state filled with so many known and unknown national parks waiting to be explored. Dinosaurland is the perfect place for a weekend retreat from Salt Lake City or as a stop over on your way to/from other national parks in the area. We can’t wait for our summer visit.
Have you been to Dinosaurland? Let us know if you have any tips to share!
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