If the timing is right, a trip to Dinosaur National Monument provides the opportunity to confront, and perchance comprehend, the staggering insignificance of human existence. The definition of perspective is staring down a 150-million-year-old predator that is 30 feet long with serrated, three-inch teeth that were once used to tear the flesh from other dinosaurs. Perspective is tracing your hands along the rainbow ribboned surface of a rock wall where a river’s erosive power split a mountain in two. Perspective is lying on your back and straining to take in the whole of the Milky Way as objects in space flash across the sky, burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere as our orbit passes through a comet’s tail.
These perspectives can all be found while exploring the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument. Seeing as nature doesn’t recognize borders, Dinosaur National Monument’s 211,000 acres straddle the boundary between Eastern Utah and Colorado.
WHERE TO PLAY
There’s a reason they call this place “Dinosaurland.” Utah State Highway 149 takes visitors from US Highway 40 in Jensen, Utah to the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall and Quarry Visitor Center. The Quarry Exhibit Hall houses an exposed rock wall that contains approximately 1,500 dinosaur bones, including remains from the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus. The reconstruction of an Allosaurus skeleton is impressive. Its imposing figure looms over visitors as they enter. It roamed the Earth during the Late Jurassic period, an era lasting about 50 million years, compared to homo sapiens’ paltry 200,000 years. Allosauruses hunted by overpowering their prey, possibly in small groups, making quick work of them with their knife-like teeth and hooked claws. Unlike most ancient exhibits, there are even places in the quarry that allow you to touch real 150-million-year-old dinosaur fossils.
Approximately 30 miles from the Quarry Visitor Center, visitors can discover some of Dinosaur’s most stunning geology in the Rainbow Park and Island Park area, including the multi-colored striations and twisted rock layers—which are Rainbow Park’s namesake—near the entrance to Split Mountain Canyon. To see them up close, try a one-day rafting trip, departing from the Rainbow Park area. The trip takes rafters on a 9-mile stretch of the Green River, surrounded on each side by those colorful canyon walls that rise 1,500 feet above the water, through Class I-III rapids.
Catch a nap after your day on the river because you’ll want to stay awake after the sun sets. In 2019, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Dinosaur as an International Dark Sky Park because the skies above Dinosaur have an “exceptional quality of natural darkness.” That is to say, it’s a perfect place for stargazing and viewing celestial events with telescopes, binoculars or the naked eye. The monument holds its night sky programs at a spot near the Split Mountain Campground, but just about any spot in the park can suffice.
If you’re willing to brave Eastern Utah’s bristling summer heat, the time to go to Dinosaurland is in August. By then, the frigid waters of the Green River have warmed a little, and you can catch one of the most singular astronomical events of the year: the Perseid meteor shower.
From a vantage point at Split Mountain Campground, lying on the ground and staring up at a sky crowded with stars, streaks of green, white, gold and blue flash across the sky during the Perseids. Campers let out audible gasps and cries of “that was a good one!” and “look over there!” like kids at a fireworks show. Even during the lull between meteorites, the entirety of the Milky Way is on display, and the surrounding darkness is complete. Unable to see your hand in front of your face or the person next to you, it’s possible to imagine oneself hundreds of lightyears away, among the stars that formed billions of years before us and will continue to shine long after we’re gone. Perspective.
WHERE TO STAY
Many of Dinosaur’s stellar campgrounds allow campers to stay right on the banks of the Green River. On the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument, nestled close to a droplet-shaped bend in the river, are Split Mountain Campground to the north and Green River Campground to the south. Split Mountain Campground sits at the foot of, you guessed it, Split Mountain, where the Green River carved a canyon, making it appear as if it cleaved the mountain in half. The two campgrounds are about 5 miles from the dinosaur quarry. Beside Split Mountain Campground, there is a boat ramp where rafters and boaters often take out—meaning you can shuttle your rafts and boats further upriver, put in, float all day and take out mere feet from your tent or RV. Alternatively, Rainbow Park Campground has a boat ramp at the head of Split Mountain Canyon, where you can put in your raft for a day trip on the river. Further upriver, on the Colorado side of Dinosaur, Gates of Lodore Campground has a boat ramp that’s another popular place to put in. Echo Park Campground is on the Colorado side as well, located near Steamboat Rock and Fremont petroglyphs. Make campground reservations at recreation.gov.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
There are plenty of picnic areas that visitors can take advantage of within Dinosaur National Monument, but for a break from roughing it outdoors or a place to refuel after a long day on the river, it’s best to head into town. Across the street from the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum—a little less than 20 miles from the Quarry Visitor Center—Vernal Brewing Co. is a genuine dining treasure hidden among fast food joints and restaurant chains. You can’t go wrong with a burger (including the novel Donut Burger or classic VBC Burger with candied bacon) paired with one of Vernal Brewing’s craft beers like the Ms. Bee Hiven Honey Blonde Ale.
THE PERSEID METEOR SHOWER
While stargazing is a rewarding endeavor in and of itself, the Perseids are something special. The meteor shower gained its name because it appears to radiate from the constellation Perseus, returning every year and lighting up the sky from mid- to late-August. The Perseids occur with such regularity because every year Earth passes through the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, on its 133-year orbit around the Sun, from mid-July to late-August. The Perseid meteor shower peaks when Earth passes through the densest area of the comet tail, usually around Aug. 11–13, but the meteor shower remains visible until Aug. 24 or so. The best views are going to be in the early morning hours around 2–3 a.m.
At its peak, and if conditions are right, NASA estimates stargazers will be able to see about 40 Perseids each hour. That’s not accounting for the dozens and dozens we can’t see. But the number of meteoroids you see is greatly dependent on the brightness of your sky. According to the NASA blog, the brighter skies of the suburbs greatly cut down the rates of visible meteoroids, going from a Perseid every couple of minutes to one every 6-7 minutes. And if you’re trying to see the Perseids in a city? City dwellers might see a single Perseid or two during the whole hour.