10 Best Things to Do at Dinosaur National Monument
Seeing dinosaur bones, going rafting and more of our favorite things to do.
At Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado, viewing the wall of dinosaur bones is most certainly the headlining event. But beyond the Quarry Exhibit Hall with more than 1,000 dinosaur bones, there are spectacular sights and activities that attract adrenaline junkies and slow-paced leisure seekers alike. Here are our ten favorites.
1. See Dinosaur Bones
See and even touch 1,500 dinosaur fossils on the Wall of Bones in the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Eleven different species of dinosaurs were found at this quarry such as allosaurus, diplodocus, and stegosaurus. Attend a ranger talk, ask a ranger a question or study the 80-foot interpretive mural to learn more about the local giants.
Tip: Wait at the Quarry Visitor Center for your car to be escorted a quarter-mile to the exhibit hall or to board the shuttle bus, depending on the season. There are no trips to the exhibit hall after 5 p.m.
2. Do a Scenic Drive
Enjoy views of striped cliffs, a riverside trail and petroglyph panels lining the 10-mile Tilted Rocks Drive (Cub Creek Road) starting near the Quarry Visitor Center. Or cruise the 31-mile Harpers Corner Road starting near the Canyon Visitor Center for overlook views of rivers and canyons from above. Both drives give you plenty of reasons to stop and get out of the car. Inexpensive guide books are available at visitor centers.
Tip: At sunrise or sunset, take the 1-mile (one-way) trail at the end of Harpers Corner Road to see the sun light up the tops of Whirlpool, Lodore, and Yampa canyons.
Have a 4-wheel-drive high-axel vehicle? In dry summer weather, exit Harpers Corner Road to the unpaved Echo Park Road. After 14 miles of narrow road, sharp turns and steep decline, you’ll be rewarded with Dinosaur’s most iconic view of Steamboat Rock at the convergence of the Yampa and Green rivers. Park rangers suggest a clearance of nine inches or more under your vehicle, and when this road becomes wet, the red clay becomes like “black ice” making it impassible even with four-wheel-drive.
Tip: Think you can make it to Echo Park with your 2-wheel-drive compact car? Be prepared for towing fees of $1,000 or more.
3. Go Rafting
Two rivers converge inside Dinosaur National Monument at Echo Park’s Steamboat Rock. These are the Yampa River which is the last free-flowing, undammed river in Colorado and the tamer Green River, flowing from Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in the north. Take a guided multi-day trip on either river, or if you’re short on time, take the 9-mile one-day trip through Split Mountain Canyon on the Green River.
But don’t think that you’ll be missing out with a one-day rafting trip. From the minute you launch at Rainbow Park to the final takeout, you’ll paddle past incredibly sheer cliffs on both sides of the river featuring curved stripes resembling rainbows, vertical black streaks seemingly poured out of pockets in the canyon walls and otherworldly rock formations resembling white beehives.
Tip: Don’t bring your personal raft or kayak to the park and expect to get in the water without a permit. Experienced rafters of wild rivers should plan well in advance to enter the permit lottery at www.recreation.gov for a rare chance to self-guide. For a reliable trip date, visitors should take a commercial rafting trip where the logistics and equipment are handled by professional, authorized concessionaires.
4. Take a Hike
Two of the most scenic loop trails are joined together by a short connecting trail to give you flexible hiking distances for all skill levels. Start at the Desert Voices Trailhead near the Split Mountain Campground and Picnic Area. The 1.5-mile loop is perfect for families with only 300 feet of elevation change. Stop at the interpretive signs scattered along the trail, including those made by children for children. Have more energy? Midway on Desert Voices, take the quarter-mile connecting trail to hop to the moderate-to-difficult Sound of Silence loop, adding another 3.2 miles to your trek.
Tip: There is no shade on the trails so bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
5. Explore an Historic Building
In 1913, frontier woman Josie Bassett Morris established a self-sustaining homestead in the Cub Creek area of the park. She built her own cabin and lived there for the last 50 of her 90-year life. Visit her cabin at the end of Cub Creek Road to picnic at tables in the shade, or take one of the footpaths to explore Josie’s pond, chicken coop, outhouse and tack shed. Read more about Josie’s life including her five marriages, association with Butch Cassidy, cattle rustling and finding a loophole to retain the water rights from her spring in the Tilted Rocks tour pamphlet available for $1 at visitor centers.
Tip: There are no restaurants or grocery stores in the park, so pick up picnic supplies in Vernal, Utah, or Dinosaur, Colo. before you venture out for the day.
6. See Ancient Petroglyphs
Swelter Shelter is the most accessible of five Fremont people’s petroglyph viewing areas. Down Cub Creek Road from the Quarry Visitor Center, it’s just a 200-foot walk from the roadside parking lot to see a large rock panel of ancient carvings and paintings. There is also a petroglyph panel farther down the road after it turns to gravel. There you can see a panel from the road or a short steep path. The “Classic Vernal Style” of petroglyphs is prominent in the park, consisting of human-like figures with trapezoid bodies and elaborate jewelry and clothing. Abstract animals and designs are also common.
Tip: The most spectacularly large and vibrant petroglyphs are at McKee Springs on unpaved Island Park Road. The road is unpassable when wet. Check conditions before heading out.
7. Go Fossil Hunting
Pretend you’re Indiana Jones (or more accurately, paleontologist Earl Douglass) as you hike the Fossil Discovery Trail between the Quarry Exhibit Hall and the Quarry Visitor Center. Pay close attention to spot dinosaur bones and other fossils as the trail cuts through layers of rock. At the Morrison formation stop, you’ll see several identifiable dinosaur fossils just as Douglass found them 100 years ago. In the summer, it’s common for visitors to take the shuttle from the visitor center to the exhibit hall and then hike back down.
Tip: This 1.2 mile (one way) moderate trail becomes extremely slippery when wet. Also note that the road to the exhibit hall from the visitor center is gated at 5 p.m. so don’t leave your car at the exhibit hall while you go for a hike in the late afternoon.
8. Go Road Cycling or Mountain Biking
Take a bike ride along the road from Island Park to Rainbow Park. In dry weather, extend your ride to McKee Spring Petroglyphs, almost doubling your mileage.
Tip: Mountain biking is not allowed inside the park, but nearby Red Fleet State Park and McCoy Flats Mountain Bike Trail System each have beautiful trails that will challenge beginning mountain bikers to singletrack pros.
9. Stargaze at Split Mountain
It’s hard to get farther from the lights of civilization than in the middle of Dinosaur National Monument where the dark skies light up with stars and the Milky Way. Split Mountain Campground is the hub of the park’s night sky events with programs led by rangers and astronomy volunteers such as 1-2 mile hikes under a full moon and new-moon stargazing with telescopes and the naked eye. In summer of 2022, follow the “Stars” signs through the Split Mountain campground on Wednesday and Saturday evenings after dark.
Tip: Special nighttime events are also held at the Quarry Exhibit Building, at points along Harpers Corner Road and at Echo Park. Ask for program locations and times at a visitor center or call (435) 781-7700.
10. Go Snowmobling or Cross-Country Skiing
In wintertime, Harpers Corner Road is closed to cars past the Plug Hat picnic area because of snow, but you can bring your own snowmobile or skis and glide on the closed road. You’ll get a different view at the overlooks of icy rivers and canyons dusted with white.
Tip: Snowmobiles can travel on the road from Plug Hat to the Echo Park turnoff, but skiers can go the full distance to Harpers Corner Trail.
Looking for a place to stay near Dinosaur National Monument. Check out our suggestions.
Want to expand your vacation? Explore Vernal, Utah’s recreation areas and museums. Then head north to the gorgeous Flaming Gorge or go east to see hundreds of elk and the Sand Wash Basin wild horses in Moffat County.