Story in Stone: The Monument was named for its fossils. Photo: Kent Vertrees
Dinosaur National Monument simply gets no respect. And that’s fine with the people who frequent the area—they like keeping their 330-square-mile secret to themselves. So did outlaws like Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall Gang, who hid out in its serpentine canyons. But ever since a paleontologist from Carnegie Museum named Earl Douglass discovered eight vertebras from an apatosaurus in the area in 1909, leading President Woodrow Wilson to establish Dinosaur National Monument in 1915, the area has drawn tourists instead of gunslingers to gawk at geology’s handiwork. And unbeknownst to most, the area is as big a draw for funhogs as it is for fossil-hunters.
Perhaps the best way to see the monument’s canyons is by raft or kayak. Three main canyons—Yampa, Gates of Lodore and Split Mountain—offer a unique perspective of the park. As unbridled as the wild horses in nearby Brown’s Park, the Yampa is the longest, and last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado. Float its 78-miles from Deer Lodge Park to the Split Mountain Canyon take-out and you’ll pass Mantle Cave, outlaw cabins, Fremont rock art, and massive white-sand beaches. Six miles before its confluence with the Green, you’ll also navigate Class III-IV Warm Springs Rapid, the largest on the stretch.
A four-day, 44-mile trip down the Green River’s Gates of Lodore lets you follow the wake of John Wesley Powell’s first descent in 1869. Though the cleft in the Uintah Mountains looks intimidating (Powell named the canyon after the poem “The Cataract of Lodore” by Robert Southey), its towering red sandstone walls, sprinkled with green juniper and pine, harbor relatively easy Class III rapids—despite having such heart-stopping names as Hell’s Half Mile and Disaster Falls.
While you can take out for both trips at Echo Park, continue on and you’ll hit convoluted Whirlpool Canyon; Island Park—site of David Brower’s 1956 victory stopping the Echo Park Dam from flooding the canyons 67 miles upstream; and Class III, wave-train-filled Split Mountain Canyon, where the Green slices through a 7,600-foot bulge in the Earth’s crust, through layers of limestone and sandstone folded together like a giant cake. To run each section, you either need a permit or to go with an outfitter. Hint: while permits for Yampa and Lodore are hard to come by, it’s easy to pick up a day-use permit for floating Split Mountain. 866-825-2995; nps.gov/dino
For kayakers seeking adrenaline to go with their dinosaurs, just upstream of the monument boundary at Deer Lodge Park lies Cross Mountain Canyon, a seven-mile-long incision funneling the entire runoff from the Yampa’s 7,660-square-mile watershed into a tight-walled chasm so fierce that ABC Sports once featured it on American Sportsmen. While solid Class V-VI at higher flows, at more moderate levels (3,000 cfs and below) the run is a Class III-IV whitewater gem.
While outside of the monument proper, fuel your fishing jones on the A, B or C sections of the Green River below Flaming Gorge in Brown’s Park. These blue-ribbon waters harbor some of the best fly-fishing in the country, with the season usually lasting from early April until the end of October. Camping is available at Bridge Hollow or Indian Crossing campgrounds nestled along the Green River. Get there for a Mormon cricket or blue wing olive hatch and you’ll never want to leave. Bonus: a side trip through the 1880 ghost town of John Jarvie Ranch (and relic-filled museum), where Butch Cassidy and his cronies hid out from the long arm of the law.
Unleashing Your Inner Indiana Jones
Whether you’re car camping, biking, hiking or running the monument’s rivers, Fremont petroglyphs, pictographs and granaries abound in its labyrinth of canyons. While the best way to see them is via the river, some of the most accessible can be found at McKee Springs near Rainbow Park. The Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center is temporarily closed, but a free shuttle from the visitor center leads to a trailhead where a half-mile hike leads to fossils naturally eroding from rock.
The monument has six developed campgrounds—three on the Utah side and three in Colorado. Our favorite: Echo Park, 38 miles north of the Visitor Center near the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers beneath towering Steamboat Rock. Access requires high-clearance vehicles (RVs and trailers are discouraged) and it’s open year-round, but access is dependent on weather (the last 13 miles are impassable when wet). Nearby activities include hiking, paddling (get day-use permit beforehand), biking, climbing, petroglyph viewing and exploring the narrow confines of Whispering Cave. For info call 970-374-2468