Bring out everyone’s inner child at Dinosaur National Monument
The first time Anthony saw Dinosaur National Monument on our atlas, he said we were going there. And when it comes to family travel, exploringDinosaur National Monument with kids can bring out anyone’s inner child.
It’s no wonder. Anthony was the little boy who read book after book about dinosaurs. He would make believe about riding a triceratops like a horse, with his two pet stegosauruses trotting along behind.
When a family summer vacation had us traveling through northeastern Utah, we knew that it was going to be our time to see a fascinating place. And when it comes to family travel, Dinosaur National Monument (or, in National Park-speak, DINO) is a great place to visit with kids. Here are 6 ideas to get you started.
Before you go to Dinosaur National Monument with kids
DINO isn’t a national park, but as a national monument, it is part of the USA’s National Parks Service. There are visitor centers, campgrounds, paved and unpaved roads, trails, and a few facilities. Drinking water and toilets are available at visitor centers and campgrounds. Cell service will vary, but overall, don’t expect to be online or have service at DINO.
About 20 minutes drive from DINO, the Northeastern Utah Visitor Center is an excellent resource. Helpful staff give useful recommendations on anything from attractions to where to get groceries. Squashy black couches, good wifi, and free coffee and water also make the center a great (and relaxing) stop.
The town of Vernal is your epicenter for services, restaurants, other activities (such as an excellent natural history museum), and groceries. Depending on where you are in the park, Vernal is at least a 20-minute drive.
Another important consideration when traveling Dinosaur National Monument with kids? DINO is a desert. It’s a high desert, with forested areas and various water bodies such as the Green River. But it’s still a desert. Summer days are hot, dry, and typically have clear skies. Pack lots of hydrating beverages and snacks, along with sunscreen and hats.
1. Become Junior Rangers
There’s nothing like dinosaurs to fascinate kids. DINO’s Junior Ranger program was one of the most engaging we’ve ever seen (Aster and Connor especially enjoyed designing their own dinosaurs).
Whether word scrambles or stargazing ideas, writing a thank-you note to rivers or describing rocks, the DINO Junior Ranger activity book kept our kids fascinated with dinosaurs, the land and water, and their own curiosity.
Once the kids have completed their Junior Ranger tasks, they can present their activity book to a ranger at the Quarry Visitor Center. The ranger will chat with them about what they worked on and what they learned. Then, as a finale, kids and ranger will recite the DINO Junior Ranger pledge. The best part? The kids don’t just raise their right hands. They curve their fingers into “allosaurus claws.”
2. Touch fossils at Quarry Exhibit Hall
After finding extensive fossil beds in 1909, scientists examined the area’s fossils for the next 13 years. In 1922, the future of one area of the find changed. Instead of being excavated, a 200 feet long, 30 feet high “Wall of Bones” was to be left intact. The exposed expanse of fossils would be an example of what it’s like to find fossils in nature, and serve as a tool of education and inspiration for the public.
That’s also why, at DINO’s Quarry Exhibit Hall, your kids can touch fossils, and it’s totally okay.
Part of the impact of seeing the fossil wall? You understand that finding fossils and assembling a dinosaur is a huge undertaking. After all, the categorized fossils or full skeletons we see in museums aren’t how things start out. Fossils from one dinosaur might be spread throughout a huge area. Every piece, from the biggest femur to the smallest tooth, has to be painstakingly dug out, cleaned, and examined.
Seeing the Wall of Bones left us with so much respect for the work paleontologists and other scientists do. And to actually get to touch real fossils? Even long after our time at DINO was complete, it’s like we can still feel the fossils under our fingertips.
3. Splash at one of Green River’s rocked-in wading areas
During our stay at DINO, we camped at the Green River Campground, just a few miles away from the Quarry Visitor Center. Running along one side of the campground, the wide waters of the Green River (and the dry air of this bit of Utah high desert) had the kids asking if they could play in the water.
During our first visit to the center, we asked the rangers if there were any wading spots or swimming holes. They said there wasn’t; the Green River in this area is full of fast currents and other hazards.
However, that’s not to say there aren’t any opportunities to play in the water. In various parts of the monument, including the campgrounds, trails run along the river. In some spots, people over the years have built out little rock walls near the shore. Near the Green River Campground’s ampitheatre area, Connor and Aster spent many happy hours playing with mud and splashing, all while staying in the wading area. We brought down camp chairs and sat nearby, chatting, sipping coffee, and enjoying the view.
4. Marvel at pictographs and petroglyphs
Thousands of years ago, people living in the DINO area painted on and carved into rocks. Today, many of these carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings (pictographs) survive. They depict images and scenes that we have yet to interpret or fully understand. That’s also part of what makes them so fun to explore with kids.
An easy access pictograph and petroglyph area is just a little ways down from the Quarry Visitors Center. Another set is at Cub Creek, up a sloped, quarter-mile rocky trail on the way to the Box Canyon hiking trail, down from the Green River Campground.
We all enjoyed talking about the different pieces of art, and speculating on why they’d been made. Were they discussing something about the stars? Depicting a hunt? Making for making’s sake?
We may never know definitive answers to these questions. And that’s a great thing to talk about with kids: Sometimes, the best questions never get answered.
5. Hike the Box Canyon
A couple of miles past DINO’s Green River Campground, beyond the Turtle Rock overlook and the trails leading to pictographs, the road ends in a parking lot lined with cottonwood trees. On the side of the parking lot nearest the road where you come in, the remains of a homesteader cabin are open to visitors (and we’ll get to that in a bit). On opposite corners of the parking lot, there are two hikes on offer, but sometimes the hike you think you’re going on, isn’t the trail you wind up walking.
We aimed for the Box Canyon Trail, and also discovered that it can be a little confusing to find your way to the right trailhead. It can seem like the Box Canyon Trail begins next to the homesteader cabin. It doesn’t; that’s actually where the Hog Canyon Trail begins.
Instead, cross the parking lot. The trail for the easy half-mile Box Canyon Hike begins near the toilets.
Short hike full of big wonder
Stands of cottonwood trees flow along the trail with you, along with patches of sagebrush. The walls of high sandstone cliffs alternate in striations of gold, white, and light brown. Soon the kids can discover the power of the echo. If they aim their voices at different parts of the canyon, they can also try to observe how long it takes their echo to return.
Examine the walls of the canyon too. From a distance, the stone looks smooth, almost polished. Up close, little holes, like pinpricks, dot the surface. Speculating on the cause of the holes is a pretty fun way to get the kids pondering nature’s forces and asking questions. Is the culprit expanding and thawing ice? The action of an insect? Our understanding from the rangers is the holes are the result of sand blowing hard in the wind, and striking little pockmarks in the rock.
At the end of the trail, the walls narrow and come together, in a narrow passage with lots of little spots for the kids to do some minor bouldering. It’s a short hike, not too arduous, full of the scent of sage and opportunities for questions and discussions.
If the kids—or the adults, for that matter—aren’t too in love with their echoes, you might even spy some critters.
When planning to hike a box canyon, keep the weather in mind: If rain seems likely, delay your hike until the downpour has passed. With straight walls and only one direction for the water to go, rain can quickly turn into flash floods.
6. Walk through a settler’s homestead
Either before or after your box canyon hike, also take some time to wander through the grounds and still-standing cabin of homesteader Josie Morris. At a time when this area was more remote than it feels even today, Josie, on her own, raised cattle and sheep (in fact, Josie used the box canyon as a cattle pen).
From 1913 to her death in 1964 at the age of 90, Josie lived off the land and maintained her 3-room cabin. She lived both alone and was married 5 times. Her wilderness and rancher prowess impressed even the Old West men of the time. Walking through her cabin today is a great chance to talk about generations who came before us, and the skills it takes to raise animals, build a home, and keep up what you need for your life. Being at Josie’s homestead is a fascinating glimpse into the past, and all the questions, answers, and insights we can find there.
BONUS 7. Visit the Natural History Museum in nearby Vernal
Visiting Dinosaur National Monument with kids is an amazing way to share family travel. However, a lot of the activities are outside, and it can be sunny and hot.
If your family is ready for some indoor adventure, head into nearby Vernal. Located in downtown, the natural history museum offers a wonderful way to spend an afternoon not only learning about dinosaurs, but all in some air-conditioned comfort. Thought-out exhibits allow you to move through time as you make your way through the museums, and hands-on activities keep the kids fascinated as they try to make their own dinosaur finds.
When you’re ready for a sit-down, seek out the film area. Regular showings include how a group of scientists and researchers transported massive fossils from the dig to where they could be studied. It’s a moving adventure, full of some heavy lifting—and a lot of ibuprofen.
Kid friendly adventures await at Dinosaur National Monument
This corner of northeastern Utah is a special place, and it is worth every mile of travel to get there. The expanse of Dinosaur National Monument showcases the exposed past, from the ancient rocks of the hills and plateaus, to the dinosaur fossils that you can reach out and touch. Hikes, water, ancient art and more can show you and your kids so many ways to enjoy this part of the country and learn more about dinosaurs and more.
Directions to Dinosaur National Monument
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