In 1909 Earl Douglass, a paleontologist working for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, was searching for dinosaur bones in the rugged sandstone hills about ten miles east of Vernal, Utah. Having heard that fossils could be found nearby, Douglass spent a week combing the hills before he came across what would later become the most complete Apatosaurus ever found. But that was just the start: between 1909 and 1922, over 700,000 tons of fossil material was shipped from the quarry site to Pittsburgh, and the Carnegie Museum to this day has the most impressive collection of Morrison Formation Jurassic dinosaurs in the world. In 1915, President Wilson proclaimed the site as Dinosaur National Monument.
Dinosaur National Monument (DNM) is a very large federally protected area located in both Colorado and Utah. Although it started with just the relatively small area surrounding the Carnegie quarry, it was later expanded to include over 200,000 acres, extending well into Colorado. Today, this beautiful land offers many opportunities for outdoor exploration, boating, hiking, etc. For visitors wishing to see the “Dinosaur” part of the National Monument, you will want to visit the Utah side, where what is left of the original Carnegie quarry is beautifully displayed in a large hall that was built to protect and exhibit this important piece of dinosaur discovery history.
When you arrive at the Monument, plan to spend some time at the Quarry Visitors Center. During the summer months, trams leave from this relatively new building to take visitors to the older but recently refurbished Quarry Exhibit Hall. The Visitors Center has informational displays about the Quarry Exhibit and the rest of the 210,000 acre national monument. In addition, guests can watch a short film that describes the history of Dinosaur National Monument. There is also a nice gift shop located here full of dinosaur souvenirs.
The Quarry Exhibit Hall is a large and wonderful building with an upper and lower level for visitors to see the giant 67′ tall wall of dinosaur bones. While the original quarry was much larger, what is left is still an impressive sight. Hundreds of bones are visible “in situ,” which is Latin meaning essentially “in place,” or in their original position.
Paleontologists have worked to uncover many of the bones on the wall so that they are very easily seen, and Dinosaur National Monument is one of the rare places where not only can everyone touch the bones, they are even encouraged to. Just about everyone on our tour went to the wall to touch them, and it seemed the adults enjoyed this as much or more than the children.
It is quite easy to spot certain bones sticking out of the wall: the Camarasaurus skull is a favorite…the complete skull remains attached to several of the cervical vertebrae. While this Camarasaurus skull remains in the rock, the first nearly whole sauropod dinosaur ever found was excavated from the quarry here almost one hundred years ago: also a Camarasaurus, a juvenile that is displayed at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. This fossil was an extremely important discovery. Despite a fossil record dotted with numerous sauropod bones and several distinct genera, paleontologists still were unclear about many aspects of sauropod anatomy and physiology until the almost complete young specimen emerged. Fortunately, visitors to Dinosaur National Monument can see a cast replica of that fossil in the Quarry Exhibit Hall.
While Camarasaurus is probably the most common sauropod found here, there have also been discovered remains of Apatosaurus (including the holotype fossil), Diplodocus, Barosaurus, and Haplocanthosaurus. Dozens of distinctly sauropod bones stick out of the wall, and their huge size tends to draw a lot of attention. Femurs, tibia, ribs, and various vertebrae can be found all along the wall. One huge femur stands at about the height of a typical five-year-old, and I think every child on the tour made sure they got an up-close look and feel of that bone.
The hundreds of bones include fossils from more than just sauropod dinosaurs, however. Jurassic favorites including Stegosaurus and Allosaurus have been found here, as well as more rare fossils of carnivores Ceratosaurus and Torvosaurus. Relatively rare herbivores found here include Dryosaurus and Uteodon, which was formerly considered a species of the more well-known Camptosaurus.
Park rangers are on duty at the Quarry Exhibit Center, and we found them to be very helpful and engaging. They were happy to answer questions and share interesting information about the quarry with anyone who wanted to hear about it. If you are interested in dinosaurs and the history of dinosaur discovery in the United States, then a trip to Dinosaur National Monument is something you will want to add to your to-do list.
No matter which way you get there, the drive through the surrounding area is gorgeous and interesting: we came south to Vernal from Wyoming, and driving through the Uinta Mountains was spectacular. The beautiful colors of the rock layers and the river below made for a memorable drive. I was particularly impressed with how both Wyoming and Utah label the age of rock formations as you drive through mountain areas. It is fun to drive your way through hundreds of millions of years of geologic time, and with the distinct layers quite visible, it was an easy stratification lesson for my children as we traveled.
ARE THERE OTHER ACTIVITIES AVAILABLE AT THE QUARRY SITE?
In addition to the fantastic view of hundreds of dinosaur bones in the quarry, some still articulated, there are also some fossils near the pathway for visitors to admire. The previously mentioned Camarasaurus can be seen here, and an Allosaurus skeleton is large and menacing. Several Allosaurus skulls and other bones can be found in glass display cases nearby.
VISIBILITY OF THE BONES:
The bones at Dinosaur National Monument are very easy to see–and seeing several vertebrae connected to a skull is something that is pretty memorable. While the bones near the top of the quarry wall are a little harder to see than the ones down low, the observation space is cleverly designed so that guests can still get a good view of the top of the wall from the second floor viewing deck.
EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS/DISPLAY INFORMATION/SIGNAGE:
There is quite a bit of information in the Visitor’s Center and a lot of information along the wall of the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Helpful park rangers were on site to answer questions and help visitors understand what they were seeing on the wall of bones.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY GOING?
My children really enjoyed going to Dinosaur National Monument, it was a nice payoff for them after a long but very scenic drive. We spent a couple of hours total at the park, then spent the rest of the day going to other dinosaur attractions in nearby Vernal, Utah, including the terrific Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
I would plan to spend at least two hours, depending on when you go. On a summer weekend you might wait longer for the tram ride to the quarry–which I encourage everyone to do. Once there, you will want to spend at least a half-hour if not longer. When you return to the Visitors Center you can watch a short film, or spend time in the gift shop. We found our trip took right around two hours, without much waiting time.
Dinosaur National Monument is indeed a national treasure, a historic reminder of the first golden age of paleontology in the United States. The site is really well done and the Quarry Exhibit Hall is the perfect facility to display the bones while also protecting them for future generations.
Rating Aspects of the Dinosaur Bonebed:
Visibility of the Dinosaur Bones on Display: (10 out of 10)
Ease of Getting to/Seeing the Bones: (9.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7.5 out of 10)