You can talk about dinosaurs, digs, and paleontology until the Camarasaurus come home, but mere conversations will never compare with the experience of visiting Dinosaur National Monument with your children.
The first thing you should know if want to visit Dinosaur National Monument on your family road trip is this: your GPS will not lead you to the fossils (nor will Google maps for that matter). With Dinosaur National Monument’s 210,000 acres spanning dramatic scenery and notable historic sites across both Colorado and Utah, the only place you’ll be able to see—and get your hands on—actual dinosaur fossils is at the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall located on the Utah side, near the small city of Jensen (click here to see the correct location of the Dinosaur Quarry Visitors Center and Exhibit Hall on my custom Google map).
The second thing you should know is that your visit to the Quarry Exhibit Hall will actually begin at the Quarry Visitor Center, whether you arrive in the summer (late May through early September) when you will take the shuttle bus departing every 15 minutes to visit the exhibit, or during other the other months of the year when you will drive your own vehicle in a ranger-led caravan to the second building. (See details of visitor hours at http://www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/hours.htm.)
Don’t be discouraged. There is plenty to see, learn, and absorb at the Visitor Center before embarking on the journey to the Quarry Exhibit Hall, and if your children hope to earn their “Junior Paleontologist” badges on this visit (part of the National Parks Junior Rangers program), they’ll have important work to do here.
The Quarry Visitor Center will not only help prepare you for what you’ll see at the Quarry Exhibit Hall, it will also give you a good overview of the history of this area—from the geologic forces at work (no those are not the bony plates of Stegosaurus protruding from the hillsides as they appear to be to the untrained eye) and earliest human inhabitants whose petroglyphs can still be seen within the park, to the Spanish settlers arriving here in the 1700s and later homesteaders and outlaws who called the present-day parkland home.
As you arrive at the Quarry Exhibit Hall, take note of the timeline markers you will pass on your way to the entrance, beginning with the brown marker on the left, labeled “1909”–the year that the first fossils were uncovered at this site by paleontologist Earl Douglass. Each is spaced appropriately to give you the sense of just how far back in time you are traveling to reach the era when these warm-blooded reptiles ruled.
Notice that the first four markers, which fit on the same sign, only date back 50,000 years, to when there is the first evidence of bighorn sheep in the area. With every 3 feet of sidewalk you travel equal to 15 million years, you are about to travel back farther than some imaginations can reach. Once inside the two-story Quarry Exhibit Hall, you imagination will be stretched further, as you try to make literally heads or tails of some 1500 dinosaur bones exposed in the wall before you.
Fortunately, there are interactive displays to help you locate and identify many of the significant fossils before you, which include fossilized bones from Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodicus, and Stegosaurus.
The quarry is thought to be so ridiculously dense with fossils for two reasons. First, a severe and prolonged drought caused many dinosaurs in the region to drop like flies. Second, when the rains finally came, they made El Niño look like child’s play, sweeping over the land and carrying the many late Jurassic dinosaur bones and bodies to where they collected en masse in a riverbed here and remained as the flood waters receded.
When you finally make way to the lower level of the Quarry Exhibit Hall, you’ll find more displays to help bring the late Jurassic era to life for you and your young visitors. Not only are the questions of “Why do we presume the dinosaurs looked as they did?” and “How do we know when they lived?” addressed here, but the other non-dinosaur inhabitants of the era, the early small mammals, are represented as well.
While finding, identifying, and marveling over the many fossils of the Carnegie Quarry Exhibit Hall is an experience not soon to be forgotten, there is one opportunity here that clearly outshines all the rest for most visitors: the chance to touch real 149 million-year-old dinosaur fossils.
Plan your visit:
The fee for visiting Dinosaur National Monument is $10 per private vehicle for a 1-day visit. A $20 annual pass to Dinosaur National Monument is available at the park, or visitors may also use the “America the Beautiful” pass valid for one year’s entrance to the National Parks and Federal Recreation Areas ($80/year, click here for more information).
To confirm visiting dates and hours of operation at the Carnegie Quarry Exhibit Hall, click here or call 1-970-374-3000.
To see the correct location of the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center and Quarry Exhibit Hall on Google maps, click here.
To find available campgrounds within Dinosaur National Monument, click here.
To find a family-friendly hotel near Dinosaur National Monument, I recommend staying in nearby Vernal, where there are many hotels (and restaurants) to choose from, including a Holiday Inn Express with complimentary hot breakfasts and an indoor swimming pool. Tip: You can search and book all available Vernal hotels without risking any cancellation or change fees using Hotels.com.
To find out more about other attractions and activities within Dinosaur National Monument, including rafting, hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, visit the National Park Service pages here.
Thanks for supporting this site when you shop its sponsors through these affiliate links: Shop eBags and get 10% off your first purchase when you sign up for eBags Insider emails (some brand restrictions apply). Save up to 70% on outdoor clothing and gear at Sierra Trading Post. Shop Amazon.com.