We touched fossils at Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument

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Driving into the past is a lonely road, but touching the past is an exhilarating journey. Heading to Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument leads you to an out-of-the-way place that will quickly make a forever home in your heart and the hearts of your kids.

It’s also devil hard to buy a bag of ice in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on a Monday morning after a hot summer weekend.

The day began, though, with a laugh. While Connor hasn’t seen any John Wayne movies (yet), he does know some of the best lines.

Slap some bacon on a biscuit,” said Connor at 7:30 a.m. “We’re burning daylight.”

Colorado’s lonely County Road 64 leads to wonder in Utah

More cows than people roam County Road 64, a rural highway threading its lonely way through Colorado’s rugged northwestern corner. The drive was stark, rough, and beautiful, full of the sun-scoured, eroded rocks that the West is so known for. The scent of sagebrush meandered into the car and out again, like a leaf blowing over the windshield. We laughed at podcasts, chatted about how fun it was to play in the Glenwood Hot Springs, and wondered what it would be like to see dinosaurs.

Our hunt for ice took four stops. Finally we got a 20-pound bag for the cooler. Good thing too. From western Colorado, we’d now make our way across the Centennial State to the broad deserts and high plateaus of northeastern Utah. From hills and ranch land, past a too-small-to-be-named-on-the-atlas reservoir, we crossed sparse oil and gas lands. A ragged coyote crossed the lonely road, its tongue pumping up and down as it tried to cool off. As the Outback and camper blew a breeze over the coyote, we could almost hear it pant. Soon, beyond a shadowy rise of western hills, we could leave Colorado behind.

Our destination? Dinosaur National Monument. Where we would touch fossils. Where we would battle chipmunks for toast—and face their revenge.

Dinosaur National Monument with kids

Learned

…It’s hard to buy ice in western Colorado on a Monday in summer…
…Always gas up before driving a lonely rural highway…
…Jodie’s National Parks Access Pass saves us money and helps us travel more…
…We may never understand pictographs, but we can still appreciate them…
…This segment of the Green River is faster than it looks…

Made

…Designs for our very own dinosaurs…
…Pledges to be Junior Rangers who would look out for the fossils…
…A chipmunk mad…
…The most of rocked-in river wading spots…
…Certain that the echoes in a box canyon were working properly…

Camping on the cusp of the past

New family travel video!

From the striated purples, deep yellows, and intense dark reds of western Colorado, we came to Dinosaur National Monument (or “DINO” in National Park-speak) through a winding road bordered on one side by white and golden hills. Coming up to the entry, we arranged to camp for four nights at Green River Campground. Jodie’s National Parks Access Pass provides us free entry to public parks and monuments like DINO, and the built-in discounts on camping cost us less for four nights than it cost for one of us to have entry at Glenwood Hot Springs.

From the entry booth and after a stop at the nearby Visitor Center to pick up Junior Ranger booklets, by four o’clock we had set up the camper and were settling in to our home for the next few days. While Jodie and the kids played Outfoxed and Go Fish, Anthony knocked together coffee and snacks—and pounded lots of water. The 100-degree late afternoon was hot, but then again, as the old saying goes, at least it was a dry heat.

The kids quickly began piling through their Junior Ranger booklets. One activity? Design your own dinosaur. Connor worked up some of the most detailed drawings we’ve ever seen him do. We sizzled up hot dogs (for the kids), corn, and, watermelon, while Jodie and Anthony dined on steak, avocado, and cheese burritos, complete with the green chile preserves Jodie’s parents had given us.

Dinosaur National Monument’s Quarry Visitor Center: Junior Rangers design dinosaurs

“It’s a little like a large scorpion, but with a prehensile tail,” Connor explains to the Ranger standing behind a sheet of plexiglass at Dinosaur National Monument’s Quarry Visitors Center.

Connor pointed to the tail of the dinosaur he’s bee sketching and labeling in his Dinosaur National Monument Junior Ranger activity book. “It eats plants, but it can use the tail for defense,” he adds. “It wraps the tail around the neck of a predator.”

The ranger nodded, and examined more of Connor’s dinosaur concept. “That is the most detailed dinosaur design I’ve ever seen,” said the ranger with a smile.

Aster brought up her booklet next. At six, she can be a little more shy talking to adults she doesn’t know. We always encourage her to go up though, and look people in the eye. Sometimes we still need to do some of the talking. Today, she opened up her activity book to her dinosaur design, then pointed at her design.

“My dinosaur’s name,” said Aster, “is Rose.”

The ranger gave a small ooooh, then said, “That is a lovely name for a dinosaur.”

A few minutes later, the kids stood before the ranger, right hands raised into bent claws like an allosaurus, as they recited the Junior Ranger pledge.

The kids beamed. They pointed to the new Dinosaur National Monument badges that could keep their Rocky Mountain National Park badges company on their vests. And they started talking about how they couldn’t wait to go back to Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds to earn a badge there too.

Yes, you can touch the fossils at Dinosaur National Monument‘s Quarry Exhibit Hall

Camping in the desert is one of the joys of the American West.
Camping in the desert is one of the joys of the American West.

After a quick shuttle ride to nearby Quarry Exhibit Hall, we stood before the “Wall of Bones,” a 200 feet long, 30 feet high, jumbled-up jigsaw puzzle first made over 150 million years ago.

When we see fossils assembled into magnificent sculptures of the past in a museum, yes, that is grand and amazing. But finding that order is a far cry from the chaos where fossils are first found.

When we first find fossils, they are an absolute mess. More fragile skulls are rare finds. Individual vertebrae may be scattered over an area the size of a backyard. The Quarry Exhibit Hall showcases an exposed wall of fossils, left as-is after the site was left for preservation in 1922. Around 1,500 exposed bones lay scattered. In the case of this find, the fossilized remains of dozens of dinosaurs are mixed up: Allosaurus. Apatosaurus. Camarasaurus. Diplodocus. And, Anthony’s favorite, Stegosaurus.

Like LEGO sets scattered in hardened mud

It’s hard to imagine the scale of this—and the difficulty of what it takes to remove, clean, and piece together all the fossils.

Imagine five completely different massive LEGO sets, such as the 7,541-piece Ultimate Collectors Series Millennium Falcon or the 9,036-piece LEGO Architect Colosseum. Build each set.

Now, demolish them. Mix up the pieces from each set, add in disparate, random pieces from other sets, and mix them up some more. Pour in a few vats of mud, let it harden. Finally, burn the box lids and instruction booklets so you no longer know what the finished sets should look like.

Now, extract every brick needed to build each set, and assemble it.

That’s the power of the Quarry Exhibit Hall.

But it’s just the beginning.

See, we touched fossils.

Not replicas. The real stuff.

At select areas of the Wall of Bones, cutouts allow you to reach in and touch the fossils. Each of us got to reach 150 million years in the past. We pressed our fingers to the remains of something that, at a time in a world that’s hard to imagine, used to walk, eat, and breathe. The fossils were a little warm to the touch, with a slight texture from mud and time.

And when we left, that feeling of the past stayed with us.

Pictographs and petroglyphs: The enduring art we can admire yet never understand

What do you think this ancient art means?
What do you think this ancient art means?

Lizards. People. Spirals. They were drawn thousands of years ago. We don’t know what they mean, why they were drawn, or what significance they had to the people who drew them.

In many parts of Dinosaur National Monument, you can view (but not touch) the rock drawings and carvings known as pictographs and petroglyphs.

When visiting the western part of the monument area, it’s easy to check out two areas with petroglyphs and pictographs. Near the Quarry Visitor Center, Swelter Shelter is a quick walk to a small display. This, however, is just a small taste of the area’s ancient art.

East of the Green River Campground, Cub Creek is home to a larger pictograph display that includes celestial bodies, lizards, geometric designs, and people. Getting to it takes a walk up some slope, but it’s very much worth it.

Will we ever know what these messages, this art, was for? Probably not. As we looked at the pictographs with the kids, we all talked about what the pictographs could mean, why they were there and what motivated the makers so much that they had to create these images.

It was a great way to show, too, that this world is full of questions that may never have answers. But every question, answered or not, can lead us to other insights, questions, and adventures.

Hiking a box canyon can really send wildlife packing

Three critters spotted in the box canyon near Dinosaur National Monument's Green River Campground.
Three critters spotted in the box canyon near Dinosaur National Monument’s Green River Campground.

The morning sun beat down from a clear sky. We made our way deeper into the narrow space between the high, yellow and white rock walls of the aptly named Box Canyon Trail. Another family with kids passed by on their way out.

“What do you think about the animals around here?” said a man in the group.

Anthony replied, “They’re probably miles away by now.”

We had a good laugh. Box canyons are a catalyst: When combined with wandering children, a reaction of wonder, elation, and big walls of hard stone creates echoes that could probably be heard all the way back at the parking lot.

The power of sound and big voices is only one fascination that comes with a box canyon hike. As we made our way past small stands of short, leafy trees and clusters of sagebrush, the kids gathered at a section of wall. The yellow and white layers stacked like a flaky pastry. Each child touched their fingertips over sections of the rock. What seemed so solid, had a surface so brittle, you could shave it with a fingernail.

“Daddy,” said Aster, “where do the holes come from?”

From a distance, the rocks look so smooth. But close up, we could see the surface was covered in little pinprick holes, as if the stone had pores.

We gathered, speculated, discussed, debated. Insects chipping into the rock? Water freezing and thawing?

Later, we asked the rangers. As things in nature often turn out, the answer was simple: Blowing sand. The little specks wear at the rock, creating little holes and cracks.

The kids loved figuring out the truth. They observed, questioned, and discussed. And when it was time to try to find a definitive answer, they knew they could ask someone.

The chipmunk’s revenge

The stretch of the Green River that runs through Dinosaur National Monument isn't great for swimming, the rangers told us, but these rocked-in wading areas gave the kids safe ways to cool down and splash around.
The stretch of the Green River that runs through Dinosaur National Monument isn’t great for swimming, the rangers told us, but these rocked-in wading areas gave the kids safe ways to cool down and splash around.

During our camping trip, Jodie and Anthony usually breakfast on some combination of sautéed vegetables and scrambled eggs, cooked up in a favorite trusty cast iron skillet. The kids usually have toast with cream cheese or peanut butter, some jam or honey, and a bit of fruit.

And every breakfast at Dinosaur, we could sense the little chipmunks watching us. Eyeing our eggs. Tempted by our toast.

Before leaving camp for our morning box canyon hike, the chipmunks moved in. Aster had left a piece of toast on her plate. The furry sneak—the chipmunk, not Aster—crept onto the table before we had cleared it. A moment later, Anthony jumped up, pulling the stolen slice away from the chipmunk’s clutches.

While we stopped the rodent raid, we did not realize that chipmunks like their revenge warm—and in cast iron.

We tidy up after meals, especially to keep wildlife away. Unfortunately, this morning Anthony had forgotten to clean up the egg-crusted skillet.

Never forget to clean up after meals when camping

After a morning exploring pictographs, petroglyphs, box canyons, and a settler’s cabin, we returned to camp hungry. As Jodie got out tortillas and cheese to whip up quesadillas for everyone, Anthony went to start the camp stove. Then he stopped.

“What is it?” said Jodie.

“The chipmunk got us back,” said Anthony. He held up the skillet.

While we were gone, a chipmunk had made its way into the forgotten skillet. It ate up every bit of cooked-on egg.

Then it pooped. It turned our skillet into its personal turd territory. It left six little rodent poo pellets: the chipmunk equivalent of an extended middle finger.

We stared with shock. Then everyone broke out laughing. And, eventually, once he could stand up straight again, Anthony gave the skillet the most thorough scrubbing of its life.

And he never again forgot to clean it up right after cooking.

From Dinosaur National Monument to the Uintas to…uh-oh

Our final day and hours at Dinosaur National Monument passed with little joys and moments.

The kids waded, splashed, and plunked rocks in a bouldered-in wading area of the Green River. Jodie perfected the art of pan-frying sweet rolls. Connor and Aster worked on starter cross-stitch projects. Anthony and the kids scrambled up a slope at the edge of the campground, then hunted for cacti along the top of what Aster dubbed “Mount Connor Aster Anthony.”

The night, clouds covered the stars as Anthony and Jodie chatted over a glass of wine at the picnic table. A small section of clouds cleared, and for a few minutes, the only stars shining over the dark desert were from a perfect outline of the Big Dipper.

After so many clear, hot days, on our final morning we woke to a cloudy sky and cool, crisp air. We broke camp and started west. At the Visitor Center, the kids brought in some rocks they’d found in the river, in case they might be fossils. The rangers looked them over, and said the rocks were not fossils, but it was good they checked.

“And no, Daddy,” said Connor. “Before you ask, the rock isn’t a giant’s toe either.”

Well, it can’t hurt to wonder.

The rangers also told the kids that the lizards we’d seen all over the campground were western whiptails, which we also thought would make a fine name for a Harry Potter dragon.

Waving good-bye to Dinosaur and hello to Salt Lake City

The Box Canyon Trail reminded Jodie of hikes from her childhood.
The Box Canyon Trail reminded Jodie of hikes from her childhood.

We said our good-byes to Dinosaur National Monument. But we took with us our sense of wonder, a fascination with the world’s mysteries. After all, anywhere we wander in this world, underneath us lies forgotten worlds. We carried the memories of touching fossils, and exploring a box canyon—something Jodie loved as a child growing up in New Mexico—and Anthony’s inner, Stegosaurus-loving little boy got to come out and play.

Camper hitched to the Outback, we headed toward the outskirts of Salt Lake City. After passing through the rises, red rocks, and forests of the Uintas, we met up with one of Jodie’s cousins. The plan? Camp for a couple of days in the Wasatch.

Then, as we continued over the mountain passes of the Salt Lake City area, the Outback’s oil light came on.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.