“Look, daddy!” and “Dinosaurs!!” are among the squeals of youthful voices seconds from entering the spacious quarry. An allosaurus skull, complete with most of its knife-edge teeth, is on display, along with other examples of amphibian and marine fossils found in the cliff face.
Nothing on a road trip is more alluring to children than dinosaurs.
There’s a vacation for that.
In eastern Utah and western Colorado, there are more dinosaurs – well, fossils – than nearly anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to imagine that the breath-taking, red rock, canyon country was once a tropical paradise. The evidence is in the oil and natural gas extraction, the Navajo coal mine and well-preserved dinosaur bones.
The best part is that these fossils are accessible, touchable and teachable. Even adult visitors are taken aback at the size of the leg bones in the behemoths that once wandered the tropical lands of today’s Colorado Plateau. That’s one reason this area is known as the Dinosaur Diamond—an area in eastern Utah and western Colorado stretching from Vernal to Moab, and Helper to Grand Junction.
Starting the trip north on U.S. 40 at the Colorado-Utah state line is Dinosaur National Monument. Celebrating its centennial this year, Dinosaur is a combination of breathtaking landscapes and a living dinosaur quarry.
The Quarry Visitor Center runs a free shuttle up the hill to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The nearly 30-foot high face of the excavation shows dozens of dinosaur bones in the ground, just as they were discovered by paleontologists. Ten different species and more than 400 specimens were painstakingly withdrawn from the sediment of an ancient river.
A number of the bones, including a monstrous femur, are accessible to be touched and made central to a family photo. The expression on the faces of kids of all ages is pretty remarkable when the bones are first seen.
Outside the quarry building, instead of taking the shuttle back to the visitor center, get there with the family on a 1.2 mile hike on the Fossil Discovery Trail. It’s downhill, well-marked and an easy-plus hike. Two side-trips provide short walks to petroglyphs. One climbs stone stairs to exposed dinosaur bones, some of which can be touched.
Heading south and east from Dinosaur, the next leg is in Grand Junction, Colorado. The Dinosaur Journey Museum, ten miles west on I-70 in Fruita, is a hands-on, interactive exploration into the world of dinosaurs. In addition to reconstructed dinosaur skeletons of mostly fossilized bones – some have to be recreated – visitors to this affiliate of Museum of Western Colorado can also make bones from fossil casts, put hands on simulated environments and cause an earthquake.
Several exhibits include animatronic dinosaurs that are a little startling when walking around a corner and coming face to face with the jaws of a full-size, juvenile allosaurus. The child-stegosaurus is a little more reassuring.
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Dinosaur Journey is a good starting point for the area known as the Dinosaur Diamond. The museum tells the story of dinosaurs in the west in ways understandable by all ages. It is a great answer for “are we there yet?” and stimulates curiosity. On a summer Wednesday morning, the museum was packed with families. It also stands at the western gateway to Colorado National Monument.
One world-class experience available – by advance reservation – at the museum is the paleontologist-led family dinosaur dig. The one to three day adventures in the beautiful outdoors of western Colorado take families to working dinosaur quarries and other fossil sites. Other trips head to fossil digs with trips into Utah and Arizona to explore the lands where dinosaurs once lived.
Other cities on the loop partner in the Dinosaur Diamond experience, but the most accessible and visible opportunities to see the bones are at Dinosaur National Monument and in the Grand Junction-Fruita areas.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management opens the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry to visitors from March through October. This is the real Jurassic Park, with the largest collection of that era’s dinosaur bones and fossils. It’s located southeast of Price, Utah.
Western safety note: This is high desert, so carry at least one liter of water per person on even this short, easy hike. If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Drink all of the water by the time you reach the visitor center.
Grand Junction is on Interstate 70 about 25 miles east of the Utah-Colorado state line. It’s served by Allegient, American, and Delta and United on SkyWest. Amtrak has a stop in the city. The city is a day’s drive from Denver and a day-and-a-half from Phoenix.
Dinosaur Journey Museum is just south of I-70 at Exit 19, Fruita. It can be seen from the top of the exit ramps.
The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is 32 miles south of Price off Utah Highway 10 at the Cleveland-Elmo turn-off. BLM said the gravel road access is well-marked and safe for passenger cars.
Places to stay:
Grand Junction, Moab, Vernal and Price all have a wide variety of hotels with national nameplates. Don’t skip over the better locally-owned motels – check with the local chambers of commerce or visitor bureaus and other rating services – for surprise bargains. We stayed as guests of the Holiday Inn right on I-70 near the airport.
Dinosaur National Monument has several campgrounds. Green River, the most easily accessible, offers first-come-first-claimed and reservation campsites. It’s spacious with water and flush toilets, but no power or showers. Many other private and public campgrounds are at the area national parks and monuments. The campground was out home for the nights and we were set up just steps from the river with a mountain view that couldn’t be beat.