Discovering Bones in Colorado’s Dinosaur Narional Park

The author's son points to a dinosaur femur. Photos by Will Seigler
Huge femur with young fossil hunter for size – photos by Will Seigler

By Will Siegler

My 12-year-son yelps with delight about ten feet up the trail. I almost lose my footing which would send me careening down a steep hill. When I catch up to him he has both hands on a huge four-foot-long femur previously owned by a dinosaur 150 million years ago.

Dinosaur Feast

The main attraction at Dinosaur National Park in Dinosaur, Colorado is the quarry, but it’s closed to visitors. The structure over it has been deemed unsafe and the National Park Service folks say it will be three to five years before it is open again. Pity, they say the bones are just in piles and still in place.

For the hardcore dinosaur bone fan, the only thing left is a long hike to a steep narrow trail past various bones which are still in place. Never found a dinosaur bone in your life?

Not to worry, the ranger will draw you a sketch on where to find the most obvious ones. Once you get the hang of it, the rest will jump out at you.

There are the six tailbone vertebra just under a tiny ledge about eight feet above our heads, another long bone sticking out of the rock, and any number if bits and pieces. Each of the vertebrae is about four inches long and six inches high.

Note of Caution

We were there during the first week of June 2007, and it was already hot. Water, sunscreen and a hat are minimum requirements. Personally, I wear loose long sleeve shirts with the tail out for ventilation and long pants. A t-shirt over the top of a kid’s head with a cap over that will keep the sun off their tender skin. I always assume children are more susceptible to heat injuries than adults.

The Earth has lifted layers of ancient rock up to a steep angle along the road to the dinosaur bones.
The Earth has lifted layers of ancient rock up to a steep angle along the road to the dinosaur bones.

Always be wary of afternoon thunderstorms, lightning and possible flash floods in canyon country.

The trail is steep and narrow. The fine particles of sand will roll right out from under your feet. The rangers tell me they have had no one fall, but you don’t want to be the first. EMS would have a long drive out to pick you up. Wear good shoes. My tennis shoes worked well, but no flip-flops.

Temporary Visitor Center

Since the main visitor center is closed, the Park Service has put up a temporary one at the base of the trail. There is also a gift shop offering anything dinosaur.

Dinosaur National Monument is located in the Northwest corner of Colorado and the Northeast corner of Utah. There is an airport in Vernal, Utah, the nearest town of any size, for those who wish to fly in.

To get to the west entrance, where the temporary visitor center is located, take Highway 40 east out of Vernal. Don’t blink as you pass through Jensen and turn left (north) onto Highway 149. Then about seven winding miles later you will come to the entrance.

The ranger there is stuck in a tiny “guard house” all day alone, so be nice to her. Entrance fee is $10 per vehicle and it is good for a week. (It might be better to spend $50 for a year’s pass while in Colorado. There is so much to see.

Life size model of a sauropod
Life size model of a sauropod

Take a left just past the entrance and there you are. Keep going straight instead of turning and you will go to the Split Mountain and Green River campgrounds. Overnight camping cost $12 per person at Green River Campground. This is in addition to the entrance fee or the year long pass.

Shortly before reaching the west entrance to the park on Highway 149 is Dinosaur Quarry Gift Shop on your right. Here you can stock up on ice, bottled water, and dinosaur fan paraphernalia. You can also take your child’s photo in a cowboy saddle on the neck of a green life sized sauropod.

Okay, so it’s tacky, but that’s the great thing about visiting lesser-known parks and monuments. The neatest things grow up around them.

The visitor center has several dinosaur displays and information on the local geology. There is a short video presentation on the history of the monument.

Going Up

Petroglyphs along the trail, about 1000 years old
Petroglyphs along the trail, about 1000 years old

You will receive a free map of the park and a Fossil Discovery Trail Guide. Get the ranger to draw on the guide’s trail map where to find the biggest fossils in the shale called the Morrison Formation. Just go out the back, past the red rocks, cross the paved road, pass just north of the buildings, and you’re on your way.

Take time to look for petroglyphs just to the left of the trail. Note the different streaking and pebbles in what was a stream bed in a big rock on the left

If you get off at the Mowry Shale you can find tiny fish scales. The ranger can show you an example. At the turn off that goes to the right up the face of a steep embankment, is the Morrison Formation.

Continue on past the Morrison Formation without turning right, takes the intrepid mountain goat to the Stump Formation where you can find brachiopods. A brachiopod is an invertebrate with two shells, but the shells are of different sizes and shapes.

Scientists work on the wall of the quarry, which will be open to the public in three to five years.
Scientists work on the wall of the quarry, which will be open to the public in three to five years. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Other Stuff To Do

While we went to the monument for the dinosaur bones, there are other things to do. For young naturalists, there are seven communities of living things to explore.

There are six campgrounds, two unguided auto tours, guided tours, and river rafting. The place to start is the National Park Service website. You can also call the Canyon Area Visitor Center (970)374-3000 or the Temporary Visitor Center at (435)781-7700. Ask for the brochure with the map. It’s a big help.

Kids and Dinosaurs

It has been my experience leading field trips that children naturally gravitate to fossils of any type. I guess they relate to nature including anything once living. However, there are few things to light up your young explorer like actually putting his hands on a huge bone of a long-extinct animal. You can’t get that kind of education from a book.

Will Seigler
Will Seigler
is a freelance writer/photographer living in El Paso, Texas who teaches geology part-time at El Paso Community College and has recently published his first novel, Free’s World, on

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