Stradling the border between Colorado and Utah, Dinosaur National Monument sits on the far western – or eastern, depending on your perspective – side of the state. It is for this reason that I had not traveled there – the drive from Denver was just too long. But this past week I finally made the park I coveted for so long, getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the new visitor center and museum before Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar attends the grand opening on Tuesday, October 4th.
Like so many boys in their youth, I loved dinosaurs. That infatuation ultimately gave way to the likes of Star Wars and G.I. Joe, but only after a strong couple of years memorizing all of the different dino names. I don’t think I was as well versed as my nephew – the kid could say the names of some of the dinos that I could swear he just made it up – but I knew the basics; T-rex, triceratops, stegasaurus, I loved them all. And that love has stayed with me into adulthood, when I am now interested in learning about more than just their names.
I had put plans in motion several times to visit the national monument to satisfy my adult curiosity. Each time they fell through for one reason or another. But, my lucky day finally arrived while I was visiting on a Utah Office of Tourism-sponsored trip to see the northern part of the state. They took a small group of writers, myself included, to the Dinosaur National Monument to see the new visitor center and building that houses the famous wall of bones – a partially excavated hillside with over 1,500 bones uncovered and displayed.
I stood in complete awe from the balcony overlooking the wall of bones. I had never seen anything like it, because, simply, there is nothing else like it – anywhere. Dinosaur bones of all kinds – estimated at half of the species from the Jurassic Period 149 million years ago – are partially uncovered for examination and education from a safe distance.
It wasn’t always possible, though, since the old building needed to be reconstructed because it was collapsing in upon itself due to structural issues. So, the last couple of years the wall has been closed to visitors. Enter the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; money was provided to rebuild the structure surrounding the wall of bones and construct a new visitor center for the Utah side of the 210,000-acre park.
Before seeing the new building protecting the wall of bones, we toured the new visitor center. The building has been completed, but the moving in has only just begun; park rangers were busy at work putting together cabinets and desks and moving supplies into new offices. The public displays – including information not just about the dinosaurs found in the park, but also the homesteading families who settled the area – has yet to be put into place. But, the superintendent assured us that, without a doubt, everything will be ready for the grand opening on the 96th anniversary of the park; it started long ago as a tiny 80-acre plot of land only in Utah.
Today Dinosaur National Monument encompasses much more than just a history of the prehistoric and a collection of fossilized remains. While the dinosaurs are most certainly the main attraction, the park is also known for some spectacular vistas. We were able to spend a short period of time witnessing such beauty at a stop along the green river, a favorite spot for adventure-seekers looking to take a float and ride the rapids of the Green River.
The high walls surrounding the Green River as it spills back into Utah from Colorado can be seen for miles away. They set a dramatic background to the dinosaur excavations which still go on today. The park superintendent could not offer a guess at how much is left to discover, but many researchers are hard at work; the likes of students and learned professors from Harvard, Brigham Young University, and the University of Nebraska, among others, continue research at the Dinosaur National Monument.
We stopped briefly to admire some petroglyphs at the end of a short trail before leaving the park for Vernal. The American Indian drawings, which are scattered throughout the monument, are estimated to be approximately 1,000-years-old. Beautifuly done, admiring the rock art was a perfect way to end our short stay in the park.
However short the stay may have been, I left all dreamy-eyed over the future of what is certainly beautiful park that I took too long to visit. Had I known about it in my youth, I most certainly would have begged my parents to take me on a road trip. My only hope is that, once the visitor center and wall of bones building is reopened in early October, it does not take me as long to return and explore the rest of the park. What I saw was only a small slice of the Dinosaur National Monument, and not nearly enough to do it justice – but that will come in time with patience and return trips.