Dinosaur National Monument

June 10, 2019

On August 17, 1909 Earl Douglass discovered eight tailbones of an Apatosaurus, previously known as a Brontosaurus. Years of digging uncovered bone after bone, skeleton after skeleton. Thousands and thousands of fossil bones were carefully cleaned, logged, wrapped, packed and hauled away. The wall of bones was chiseled down bit by bit. Then they stopped. Time went by. The land was declared a National Monument. Buildings were erected and the public was invited in. So…

What’s left? About 1,500 fossil bones from about 100 individual dinosaurs lay out in a mosaic stretching far above your head along the length of the building. They are sheltered, they are protected, and they are there waiting for you.

Visitor Center

We made a run down to Dinosaur National Monument to check out the “Wall of Bones”. This is a major WOW even if you aren’t dino crazy. The Quarry Visitor Center opens at 8 am (their website said 9am so we lost an hour of cooler weather). They only had one Ranger program going on for adults and it was at 10am so we boogied onto the free shuttle and rode up to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. If you are taking little ones, call to check the schedule so they can take part in the Junior Ranger program. When we were there, they offered each program once per day. Kids can still do the book and earn the badge but they miss the Ranger led program.

Discover Dinosaur National Monument

The area we visited is one TINY piece of Dinosaur National Monument (far left in the above image). We didn’t have time to drive into any of the other three main entrances. Two of them are the starting places for river trips down the Green or Yampa River. The third starts at the Canyon Visitor Center and the road then takes you deep into the middle of the monument where you can look out across these two beautiful rivers and the canyons that surround them. There are hiking trails, historic sites, archaic sites and a whole lot of nature out there. We hope to go back and experience other parts of this park someday.

What if they built the Echo Park Dam?

SIDE STORY – This relates to Glen Canyon Dam. Back on that blog post we noted that the dam was supposed to be built in Colorado but people banded together to fight to keep the river wild. It is said this was the start of the American Environmental Movement. Well, that original dam would have been at Echo Park which is in what is now Dinosaur National Monument. You can reach Echo Park via boat or dirt road. The original monument was only 80 or so acres around that wall of bones. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt added over 200,000 acres of canyon country to the monument (including Echo Park) and it now protects both the Green and Yampa Rivers and some truly beautiful country.

Quarry Exhibit Hall

This is where the WOW really hits you! Enclosed in this second building is a wall of rock containing over 1,500 fossils… and you can touch some of them. Who wouldn’t want to lay their hands on the bone of a dinosaur that lived 149-MILLION years ago?

You’re wondering if these are fake, right? Because how did all those dinosaurs end up in one place in a nearly vertically angled wall? Well, that gets into the geology of the area and our Ranger guide explained it better than any of those who tried to explain the geology of the region have done at all our previous stops.

First, we have happy Jurassic Period dinosaurs roaming around and playing by a nice river. Some die next to the river because when you’re sick, you want water. Many died along the riverbed because there was a drought and they couldn’t get water. Then flash floods came and washed the big dino bodies down and piled them up in the river (the littler critters got carried far away). Silt covered the dead dinos and slowly compressed, minerals leached into the bones, and everything eventually turned to stone. But that flat river bottom doesn’t explain this massive wall of dino bones standing at attention in front of us. What made them stick up in the air like that?

The second event was ground movement.  There are two tectonic plates. One is moving in from the Pacific Ocean 600 miles away. It is traveling under the plate that we were standing on. It is grinding along at a shallow angle which causes the buildup of heat, pressure, and lava. This buildup of forces pushed upward and caused a bulge in the earth (like a giant lava pimple). The sides of the bulge are sitting at about a 60 degree angle. Remember that riverbed full of dino bones that became cemented in rock? It is one of the layers pushed up that angle but at this point in the story many layers of rock still lie on top of it.

Next we have wind, rain and ice carving and sculpting the land. The tops of some mountains and bulges wear away and we can see all those layers jutting up at an angle like stripes across the landscape. This is what it was like in 1909 when Earl Douglass, of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, walked across this ridge and spotted the tail bones of a dinosaur curving up along the top of the ground. Then the digging began.

One little section of the Wall of Bones

The display in the Quarry Exhibit Hall contains about 1/3 of the dinosaur bones excavated on this site. The other 2/3 were dug out and carted away and are on display in museums around the world (the primo ones obviously going to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg since they paid for this dig). Earl Douglass wrote to Congress and asked them to preserve the remaining portion of the wall so people from all over could come and see the bones as they were found. That is exactly what they did. The Exhibit Hall is built right over and onto the quarry. Workers carefully removed rock to expose portions of the bones in the wall. Visitors are welcome to touch the bones that they can reach (without climbing). There is a second floor balcony for a full view of the wall and a ramp leading down so you can get right up and touch it. There are printed and computer graphic maps of the bones in the wall to help you identify them. They are in the process of creating a Digital Quarry with the current and historic bones in place. This work in progress can be found at CarnegieQuarry.com.

Allosaurus skeleton

There are several displays of other fossils found in the Monument, a beautiful mural showing what the area looked like when dinosaurs roamed here and a few full reproductions of skeletons assembled and on display. It was an awesome experience for us and we aren’t dino buffs. If you have a dinosaur lover in the family, they’ll be overjoyed and likely refuse to leave.

Small crocodile

Barosaurus skin impression

Camarasaurus thighbone compared to Holly’s thighbone. She’s 5’5″ so the Camarasaurus was… BIG!

Campgrounds

After our visit to the dino bones, we checked out several nearby sites with petroglyphs and pictographs, two campgrounds (see, your dino lover CAN stay) and the historic Josie Morris Cabin. We saw lots of rafts being carted off the river and I must say it called to me. I’d love to run that river and hope that someday we may be back to do it. Actually, I’d love to raft BOTH rivers that run through the monument, the Yampa and the Green.

Split Mountain Campground

Green River Campground

Petroglyphs

The Fremont people inhabited this area about 1,000 years ago. They didn’t have a written language so there’s no record of what their life was like. They didn’t leave many other traces of their existence. But they did leave petroglyphs. These strange mysterious drawings haven’t been translated and may never be understood.

Petroglyphs

Some of the drawings look like aliens. Who knows, maybe they met some. Amazingly, some of the pigments they used to color their drawings have survived to this day.

Turtle Rock

While not a petroglyph or pictograph, the above image looks a lot like the aptly named Turtle Rock. To the right is a rock that looks a lot like a turtle shell.

More petroglyphs

The above petroglyph contains strange geometric designs and images that probably drive archaeologists crazy trying to decipher them. Maybe we should show these to some preschoolers and let their imaginations go.

Josie Morris Ranch

Josie Morris homestead

Josie Morris made her home here for over 50 years – no indoor plumbing, no running water, and no electricity. She wanted a home of her own and moved here when she was almost 40, after she had raised her family and was divorced from her husband. She used nearby box canyons to pen in her livestock. She also raised chickens, tended a garden, and planted an orchard. She reminded us of “The Root Beer Lady” we learned about up in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. They both were strong, independent, and hard-working. They were visited by family and friends, did whatever needed to be done to survive and maintain their homes, and they both lived a very long time!

If you are ever crossing through this corner of the country, make time for this Monument. While there is much to see, the Wall of Bones itself is worth a detour to include this in your life experiences.

H & J

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