Home TripsAcross the Country Dinosaur National Monument and the Road Home

Dinosaur National Monument and the Road Home

by Grant
Dinosaur National Monument

After leaving Evanston, we headed for Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado border.

The drive took us through Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, a US Forest Service site which was gorgeous. From badlands to the rugged gorge and up into forested mountains, the drive was one we can’t wait to repeat. 

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

Soon the trees began to thin and we entered into high desert approaching our destination. The transition between the various ecosystems over a short distance was really amazing.

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur NM is truly a gem of the American West and probably one of our favorite stops on this trip. It’s beauty and ruggedness far surpassed our expectations and we didn’t even get to raft the rivers.

There are three major parts to this extensive national monument: There are extensive paleontological finds, including stegosaurus, apatosaurus and allosaurus. Human history colors the land with petroglyphs from the Fremont culture all the way to homesteads. Lastly, the land forms the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, making for some exquisite views, especially if you get out into the backcountry.

A fossil touching a fossil at the Quarry Visitor Center.
A fossil touching a fossil at the Quarry Visitor Center.

The Quarry Visitor Center was our first stop and for any kid who grew up loving dinosaurs, this place is heaven! There are extensive exhibits on the fossils found at this site, including the “wall of bones,” which you can walk up to and touch some of the 100s of fossils.

After checking in with the rangers to discuss driving into the backcountry the next day, we drove out to the Green River Campground to stake out our spot.

Along the way, we stopped at a couple viewpoints, especially for petroglyphs.

Overlooking the Green River Campground
Overlooking the Green River Campground

Exploring Human History of Dinosaur NM

After setting up camp, we headed out to the Josie Morris Cabin. 

Josie Morris married five times and divorced four of her husbands back when divorce was not a thing. She finally decided to homestead on one of the creeks in what is now the park. 

Josie Morris Cabin
Josie Morris Cabin

She settled on the land in 1913, built her own cabin and lived there by herself until she fell and broke her hip in December 1963, dying a few months later. 

There is not much to the cabin but it certainly inspires the imagination and her story is pretty amazing.

I have to admit I have a fascination with homesteading and the driven people who made it work. Morris’ story is one of my favorites and I teach it to my students when I cover literature about the West.

We also hiked out to the nearby Box Canyon. While the hike was short, it was good to get out and stretch our legs and the scenery was great.

Box Canyon
Box Canyon

That night at the campground, we learned about the history of the Park Service from a ranger and her husband who have been to 323 NPS units. Considering this one was #89 for us, we have a long way to go.

Camping and the Backcountry of Dinosaur NM

It is hot here. Mid90s, no shade and dry wind all the time. We learned an important lesson about camping in the desert: make sure the rain fly is pulled low.

We came back from the ranger talk to a tent filled with sand. The wind blew the very fine sand all over our sleeping bag. Fortunately, we were able to brush most of it off without it getting into our sleeping bag. 

Just one more reason we are thinking of getting a travel trailer sooner rather than later!

The Echo Park Road winds through this canyon on the way to the campground.
The Echo Park Road winds through this canyon on the way to the campground.

The following morning (after the sand removal), we drove the unpaved roads of the backcountry.

These are roads that require a high clearance vehicle and can be impassable when wet. Since there was some rain last night, it was a small gamble, but it wasn’t too bad. 

The Yampa Branch Road was mostly smooth like this.
The Yampa Branch Road was mostly smooth like this.

We headed out to Echo Park, thinking we might camp there for the night. Once we got there, we realized we were not prepared to camp in this campground. Not surprisingly, every campsite with shade was already taken. It was hot and it was only 10:30 a.m. 

So, we headed east, driving the unimproved roads, which I loved! Getting the truck on these rugged roads was a lot of fun. There are several pullouts for views along the Yampa River. I particularly enjoyed Harding Hole.

Harding Hole
Harding Hole

We had no problems getting through the little mud we found but I was glad it was not muddier. The truck has four-wheel drive but I am firm believer that is to get you out of problems.

I wish we had spent more time in this park and I really wish we had the opportunity to go rafting in the backcountry. We are determined to return to Dinosaur NM and spend some time here when it isn’t quite so hot.

Rocky Mountain National Park… Or Not.

From there, we continued east towards Rocky Mountain National Park. We made it to the town just outside the west side of the park (Grand Lake, CO) and experienced something new for us: We could not find a campground that had availability. On top of that, we barely had cell service, and didn’t have data coverage at all so we had no way of finding other options. “Play it by ear” travel is a lot harder without internet! 

We managed to call a couple hotels and none had vacancy. Since it was a “resorty” area and we really didn’t want to spend tons of time finding a place that would be expensive, we decided to abort our plan to visit Rocky Mountain NP.

Got the truck a bit muddy!
Got the truck a bit muddy!

We started driving south but still needed a place to stay. We’re aren’t really sure what was going on in Colorado this particular weekend but there seemed to be a lot of folks in campgrounds and hotels.

 Once we finally got data coverage, it took us a while to find a hotel not completely out of our way that was available. We finally ended up in a Hilton Garden Inn on the south side of Denver.

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This particular day ended up being a long day of driving… about 12 hours! At least we ended up in a good hotel with a comfy bed and a bar!

Sand Creek Massacre NHS and Bent’s Old Fort NHS

After sleeping in a bit, we drove through the plains of eastern Colorado to two more National Parks sites. Most folks think of mountains when they think of Colorado, but that’s only about 2/3 correct. The eastern third of the state is just as boring and flat as Kansas and Nebraska.

First stop: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. This is the site where US troops and local militia massacred a bunch of friendly, peace-seeking Native Americans (mostly Arapahoe and Cheyenne) due to paranoia and politics.

The site of the Sand Creek Massacre
The site of the Sand Creek Massacre

This is yet another site in the middle of nowhere that you won’t stumble upon by accident and there is not much there… Just a small visitor center and road out to the monument. 

After a detour to get our last Taco John’s for the trip, we headed to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site.

Bent’s Fort was a trading post on the western frontier. It catered to trappers, traders, and travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. It is different from the other forts we’ve visited on this trip in that it was a trading post, not a military post, and it was made of adobe. We didn’t have a lot of time, but it was neat to walk through and get a feel of how things worked and how the workers lived.

The interior of Bent's Old Fort
The interior of Bent’s Old Fort

From there, a Category 2 Hampton Inn in La Junta, CO. Nothing exciting about this town other than an inexpensive, point-wise, hotel to stay at!

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From here, we will plan our return trip looking for Category 1 & 2 hotels. It really is just too hot once you get into this part of the world in the summer for tent camping to be comfortable. Also, we will have some long driving days and a real bed is just so much better than an air mattress!

Arkansas Post National Memorial

Our last stop on this trip was the Arkansas Post National Memorial. This site is off the beaten path in eastern Arkansas; another one of those places that you have to want to go to – you’re not going to stumble upon it by accident!

This was the location of a important trading post for the French, Spanish, and early Americans. It is on a bayou off the Arkansas River and owed much of its significance to its location and the friendly Native Americans (the Quapaw). Today, not much (ok, really nothing) is left. The site lost its significance when Little Rock was founded and the river changed its course.

Looking out at Post Bend
Looking out at Post Bend

While we understand and appreciate the history of this site, it’s a little frustrating to not have any reconstructed buildings or foundation remnants to see. But it was a nice, quick stop bringing our total National Park Sites visited together to 92!

Headed Home

As exciting as it is to start a vacation, it is usually just as exciting to come home. That is especially true when you’ve been gone for a month!

Upon entering Atlanta, we were reminded just how much we despise I-285…probably more so than usual since we’ve been in relatively low population and traffic areas for a month. Seriously, wildlife (usually bison) was the cause for the worst traffic we’ve experienced in the past month.

Alee's happy we are home!
Alee’s happy we are home!

Now, we have emptied the truck, taken care of the cat (Alee was very happy to see us), done the first round of going through the mail, and at least started dealing with getting stuff unpacked.

Tonight, we will be reminded of just how awesome our TempurPedic mattress is and how much we’ve missed it this past month. 

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Dinosaur NM is one of the places we have visited we really want to go back to. We don't feel the two days we spent there did this wonderful place justice.
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